by Madeleine Ahlborn |

IT’S exacting work – matching wood and nails, repairing old leather, recreating brass fittings, taking hundred-year-old train cars apart then putting them back together good as new.

Zell Olson, 20-plus year carpenter, and Dan Frazier, 40-plus year carpenter, along with a crew of mechanics, work painstakingly to keep history alive through the restoration of passenger cars for Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in southern Colorado. 

In seven years, Frazier and Olson have completed four passenger car restoration projects, bringing them back to their original state. My friend Desi and I met with these restoration carpenters and viewed the work on their current project.

There are two buildings in the yard where they work. A wood shop with all the machines and tools needed to build or restore siding, trim, and window fixtures and a large “tent” structure where the old train cars are pieced back together. They took us around the 1879 car that is under restoration and pointed out parts and pieces of their work. 

It is not as simple as it may seem. Frazier describes some of the detail and preparation work they do with this car that is partially dismantled. He points out leather strips that are used as siding cushions are replaced as new wood is added where damaged or unsalvageable pieces have been taken off.

The interior of a car at the beginning of restoration. The interior of a car at the beginning of restoration.
restoration of wood pieces

The repaired side sill, left.
Leather strips, center, cushion act as cushion beneath the cedar siding, right.

square nails and flathead screws

“We have to use slotted screws because that’s what they used to use, we have to use square nails because that’s what they used to use,” says Frazier.

FRAZIER and Olson have been working on this car for a little over a year and a half. It will be another year before it is finished. They are restoring this car to its Victorian-era glory, and everything is taken into consideration – the type of wood, those hidden leather straps (that only the carpenters know are there), the light fixtures, the wood stoves, window shades, the doors … like I said, it is not easy. 

“This is a side sill,” said Frazier, pointing to a wooden plank near the bottom of the car. “Zell determined that this section here was not structurally acceptable so he replaced this on this on this end, and on that end that’s covered. It rotted, so that’s part of the main structure of the car so it has to be correct.” 

“That’s Douglas fir,” said Olson. “It all depends on the individual piece of the car, what the wood is. Where it was (originally) built also determines what the wood is.”

head shot with construction the background

Dan Frazier, above, and Zell Olson, at top, have been working
on restoring the car for a little over a year and a half.

THE assessment of what needs restoration versus replacement is not cut-and-dried, because this is a car that will be in motion. These carpenters need to think about how old and new will come together to maintain the historical integrity of the car structure overall. 

In order to make all these assessments, the car needs to be stripped down and taken apart. Frazier points out an old cast iron stove top that would have been used in the crew galley, and space next to it where coal and wood would be stored to make the fire. It all had to be disassembled temporarily in order to remove it from the car. 

“Zell’s been doing restoration longer than me so he has all the bibles and books and he can look up just about anything from way back when,” Frazier said.

closeup of hands on a book of train diagrams

OLSON flips through one of his “go-to” manuals. “When I went to college they were still teaching line drawing. I had to take a quarter of architecture drawing, and I could do the flat but I could never master the 3D.” 

Because he previously worked in a foundry for about 10 years, Olson is familiar with pattern making and knows how to use a drawing to recreate to scale what needs to be done. Though he is working with wood, this is part of his collective skill set that is necessary for this kind of work. 

Olson heard about the Cumbres & Toltec restoration projects about 12 years ago when a freight door needed to be restored or replaced. He was working in a door factory at the time after doing restoration work at the B&O Museum in Maryland, so he was the man for the job. 

He has now been with the railroad for about six years. “I didn’t start playing with trains until I was 40,” Olson said. “A friend of mine joined the Minnesota Transportation Museum, and he knew I knew doors inside and out and upside down, and he asked me to come down to look at a baggage car door. ‘So you want me to fix your door?’ ‘Would ya?’ So, for a ride in the locomotive I fixed the door. And thus began my railroad restoration career, because word got out that I understood wood and railroad.”

newly upholstered seats, left, original signage, and a brass luggage rack

Some of the restored details.

WITH shared talent Olson and Frazier are able to bring these cars back to life. There are rules these two must follow, however, to keep the construction specific to the time period. 

“We have to use slotted screws because that’s what they used to use, we have to use square nails because that’s what they used to use,” Frazier said. All their work must abide by the secretary of the interior’s standards in order to maintain historical authenticity within the restoration process. 

“We try to keep everything as is, if we can,” said Olson. “If we couldn’t find it, we can’t just put what we assume would be there. The fact that I’ve got so many years and done so much research in these cars, it’s still an assumption, and I can’t do assumptions.”

Read more about the restoration process and how your donation can help fund future projects. 

“That’s the key – it has to be the way it used to be.”