Mysterious treasures fill the basement at Union Station museum

May 7 2012 - 6:24am

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(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Richard Couturier looks at old date stamps Tuesday at Union Station.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) A donated old Native American war bonnet is stored in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Richard Couturier holds an old kerosene lamp in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Old oil cans sit on a shelf in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Old pocket watches that have been donated in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Richard Couturier looks at old date stamps Tuesday at Union Station.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) A donated old Native American war bonnet is stored in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Richard Couturier holds an old kerosene lamp in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Old oil cans sit on a shelf in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.
(KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner) Old pocket watches that have been donated in one of the basement safes at Union Station in Ogden on Tuesday.

OGDEN -- Union Station's railroad museum has railroad watches, lanterns, signs, bells and whistles in profusion.

But an Indian war bonnet from Little Big Horn? Tombstones? A shoe repair outfit?

Richard Couturier spent 13 years cataloging Union Station's very full basement, so little surprises him -- but even he shook his head at the war bonnet.

Who donated it? Hard to say.

Is it real? It looks old.

Little Big Horn? Really? Um ...

That doubt, plus the fact that the Little Big Horn massacre didn't involve trains, keeps the beaded and feathered relic in its box downstairs.

That's normal. Every museum has stuff it doesn't show. Some is waiting for the right display theme. Some is just a mystery.

Over the years, heaps of all sorts of items have been donated to Union Station's museum, which shows the items it can. The rest stays in a series of safes under the station's main floor.

To get to them, a visitor goes down a steep stairway to a dark, concrete corridor lined with heavy steel doors with combination locks. The safes -- really large rooms -- stored railroad valuables back when Union Station saw dozens of trains a day. Now most gape unlocked, storing old shelves, pictures, tables and so on.

Couturier's room is kept locked. It's dim, close, slightly cool, pretty dry. A glowing computer monitor on a small desk is the only modern item there.

That includes Couturier, 74, who retired after 43 years as a brakeman and conductor for the Union Pacific. He volunteered at Union Station 13 years ago, willing to do anything.

Chief archivist Lee Witten and then-director Bob Geier asked if he'd like to tackle the museum's storeroom, which was a mess. Couturier said sure, and "that's what I've been doing the whole time," putting in his eight-hour shift once a week.

He loves the work. His father and grandfather were railroaders before him, and he spent more than 50 years on the rails.

"I've just done railroad all my life, it's all I'm interested in," he said. "And I love old things, too, so when they asked me to do this, I was just thrilled."

Sifting and sorting the hundreds of bits and pieces of railroad history not only connects him with his family's past, but helps preserve it.

There is an entire shelf full of signal lanterns, those lights conductors swing.

There's a shelf full of sledge hammers, some with handles, some without.

There are oil cans with long snouts or short, fat or thin, depending on what part on an engine they were meant to oil.

There are bells, bottles, bolts and books in abundance. A model train clogs one shelf. News clips, scrapbooks, maps, magazines and movies fill racks.

Need an instruction manual on how to run a 100-year-old steam engine? He has one.

One long shelf, several feet deep, is filled with office supplies: rubber stamps, desk tools and mysterious implements that even Couturier puzzles over. They are the bequest of Scotty Durrant, an executive in the Union Pacific Railroad for more than 40 years and a former museum board member.

"He's one of the biggest donors. A lot of this stuff came from him," Couturier said.

The Durrant collection is a huge display of the day-to-day tools of managing a railroad half a century ago that otherwise would have been tossed because there's no earthly use for most of it today.

There include plaques, memorabilia, telegraph-dating machines and things that can best be described as "contraptions."

Couturier moved an old telegraph key and pulled out a black box with a hand crank on the side. He unlatched the lid and uncovered a flat space with a spindle and a couple of dials.

"I don't know," he said, but then pondered it for a minute.

Context is everything. He looked at the word "Instructograph" written inside the lid, then remembered the telegraph key and some flat tin cans next to the box that contained tapes of Morse code.

"I'll bet it played those," to teach Morse code operators to hear and read the code as it was transmitted.

Stacked in one corner is a marble tombstone holding up a wooden grave marker. They're both from Kelton, he said, which was a stop on the line across Great Salt Lake. The marble marker says "Fred Lewis," but the wooden one is illegible. He's not sure how either got into the basement, but there they sit.

Value is particularly tricky. Historic value is not the same as collector value. That war bonnet would have both if it could be proved it was at Little Big Horn -- but how do you do that?

Some things are too obviously valuable. He'd like to see the museum display more of a whole drawer full of pocket watches that have been donated over the years, but the museum needs more secure display cases before it can risk that.

On the other hand, there's the giant sewing machine.

It's worn and battered, with little cash value, but in 1914 it was used to make shoes by James Waterfall, who had a shop on 24th Street.

His descendants donated it because it was certainly used to fix railroaders' shoes and boots. If the station can assemble a display showing how intertwined the histories of Ogden and the railroads are, it would fit right in.

Until then, it's safely locked up.

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