Abandoned Choo-Choo - Caboose Hobbies - Denver, CO
Once again, just looking for a quick story to write, turned into a much bigger project that I didn't see coming. As I was writing the last story (2021 Topps Silver Pack Top Whatever), Caboose Hobbies burst into my head...
That awesome train mural is long gone.
The building that once housed Caboose Hobbies was demolished in 2017. Which was supposed to be the story I was going to write. I took a bunch of pictures before it was gone, and this seemed like a good time to show them off. But as it always goes, I start working on a new idea, and that spawns off other ideas that fit the theme. Suddenly, I'm thousands of additional words in. This story ended up touching a few more nerves than I'd expected when I planned it out.
March 22, 2015.
Here's one of the two pictures I have of Caboose Hobbies, while it was still open. Located at 500 South Broadway, I'd driven past the building hundreds of times between 1996 and 2018. I loved that train crashing through the north wall, but I never stopped to look inside.
This picture was taken while I was driving around the Denver Metro Area, taking pictures of buildings I found interesting. That was how I spent the early morning of my 40th birfday. And pretty much once a week for the last four years I lived in Denver.
March 22, 1979.
36 years earlier, my parents got a Tumbling Loco as a gift for my 4th birfday. I don't think The Skills Ladder educational box set was a birfday gift that year, pretty sure it was my sister's. I do remember some of the activities contained inside that were kind of fun.
I have no idea what happened to The Skills Ladder...
But I still have the Tumbling Loco box!
Shortly after Laura and I moved into our house (which is fairly close to both of our families houses), I would take boxes of stuff home from my parents, that belonged to me as a kid. Every few visits home, I'd end up bringing a few more boxes back with me. One of those times was the Tumbling Loco, which had been found in a closet while my mom was moving stuff around. Happy to bring this home!
I love the old school cheap box art, the typesetting isn't even a straight line!
The best part is the original 1979 Spencer Gifts price tag on the bottom!
The only other open Caboose Hobbies picture I have. This one is from May 19, 2015. Also taken while driving around Denver. See, it was more than just a birfday thing. It was late enough in the day that the store was open, and customers were inside. But I was not among them...
I was a big fan of trains as a little kid, and received this train book for X-Mess in 1980. (I was dressed very brown that day.) Wonder what ever happened to this book?
Another haul from the folks house included this old black & white TV box. It was a TV I bought with my lawn mowing money, from KMart, in the early 1980's. Now it was filled with my sister's and my children's books from early elementary school. Most of them had a published date between 1964 and 1982. I had started working on a story about all of them, but it was put on hold in early 2020.
While that pictured Trains book wasn't in this box, there were a few other children's train books amongst the 50 year old contents.
A cute little story, about a cute little toy train...
Advancing on to slightly more informative subject matter...
And of course...
Who totally should have sued Thomas the Tank Engine into oblivion.
When I was about 5 years old, my dad took me to a model train show at the Northtown Mall, in Blaine, MN. That used to be an annual event, every February, for a few years when I was a kid. I loved seeing the mini universes that people would set up in the mall's interior hallways. Intricate scale plastic towns and villages, linked by railways, with small -yet realistic- trains traveling through deserts, mountain tunnels and forests.
Although that hobby never stuck with me, for a few years of my childhood, I was all into it. But at 5-6 years old, it's a little advanced and expensive to really get into. Still, I loved looking at model train displays, and would occasionally bug my mom into buying me a copy of Model Railroader magazine. Understanding very little of what I was reading, but digging the pictures a whole lot!
Those memories would sometimes go through my head when I'd pass Caboose Hobbies, driving south on Broadway. Such as the early morning of January 29th, 2017, when I took this picture. I didn't know the store had permanently closed at this time. I was still thinking of how I really should go in there to see what they had on display. And how it all harkened back to when I was 5-6 years old.
Precisely the age I was when I'd started acquiring my first train set. If I remember correctly, a friend of my dad's gave him a basic start-up set, which he gave to me. It may have just been a bunch of parts that never worked to well. Origins of that is a bit hazier.
I'll discuss my first official train set in a bit, but first I want to show this pamphlet that came with it! (If it really did... I can't be certain...)
No indication of the published date printed on it. The train set it came packaged with, was purchased in the Spring of 1980.
And the other side of the tri-fold pamphlet.
My favorite part coming under the costs paragraph: "Most accessories and kits are reasonably priced. The expensive items can often be purchased with a Master Charge or similar card permitting easy time payments." Which basically transcribes into. "You're damn right this hobby is expensive. Get your credit cards out, we're gonna max them!"
On May 5th, 2020, my parents house caught fire. While the fire was quickly contained by the Coon Rapids and Andover Fire Departments, it still caused significant damage to the house and detached garage. The garage was a large structure with a lot of boxes and Rubbermaid bins in the back. All filled with family belongings, accumulated over the last 50 or so years. In order to put out the fire, Firemen tossed everything out of the fire created hole, and into the backyard. Once the fire was out, the burned out walls were covered with plywood.
Over the next few weeks, we spent a lot of time sifting through the ashes.
My Dad was in his late 70's, and suffering from advanced Dementia. He had several strokes up to this point, and was barely able to move around the property, due to poor balance and deteriorating muscle coordination. Communicating vocally was also very difficult for him. We wondered what he thought about all this. He'd walk around looking through the damage, or sit on a chair on the front steps. Staring vacantly. After a few minutes, he would be overwhelmed by all of it and go back to the car. Usually sleeping in the front seat until we were finished.
I can't imagine how he was processing the destruction of his home and everything he worked most of his life to build. Now he barely had the energy or desire to even look at it.
While picking through the debris, I found my old Lionel train engine, buried under some burned 2x4's and cardboard boxes. To the left of the engine, a small piece of 3-railed Lionel track can be seen. More of that track was buried in charred debris.
I pulled the engine out from under the smoked wooden beam. While it hadn't burned, the plastic had started to melt from the heat.
Digging a little further, I found a melted Lionel crossing gate. I didn't find the "X" sign with flashing lights that once went with it.
This has nothing to do with the model trains, but I was pretty bummed the fire destroyed this classic metal Tonka dump truck. This model -dating back to the mid-1970's- would have been really cool to keep.
Even further under the charred rubble, I found a few of my mom's singed baseball cards!
March 25, 2017.
Guess they're not renovating...
Two weeks later, on April 9, 2017, I finally made the effort to go to Caboose Hobbies. Only it wasn't to go inside to reminisce about model trains. Now I'd have have admire and document the building from behind a dark green painted chain link demolition fence. Caboose Hobbies would be coming down soon. Like so many of Broadway's notable residents, as progress lays it's gentrifying stink up and down the road.
I parked in the overflow lot across the alley from Caboose.
Some jackass had already painted a large pinkish whatever-that-is on the bricks. I get it. Buildings are going to get tagged by vandals. But if this is what you're going to do with the medium, why bother?
Can you provide parking for someone trying to take a visual record of the store that I can't go inside of before it's gone?
At least that idiot with the pinkish-brown paint had the class to leave that famous "train crashing through the wall" mural alone. Meaning I could take a good picture of it, without a pointless splatter of brick colored paint ruining it. I'd like to think there's a code amongst taggers that you don't destroy art.
You can see a reflection of me taking this picture, in the window. Not sure why I was reaching over the fence to take this, instead of shooting through the chain link holes.
That painted name and address above the door was a nice touch. No avoiding my reflection in this picture.
This super helpful door sign told me that Caboose Hobbies closed this location on September 11, 2016.
However, a new store would soon be opening in Lakewood!
Meanwhile, back in May, 2020...
After the fire inspector declared the structure safe to enter, we were allowed to go back inside the house, to salvage what we could. This was a process that took a couple of weeks. Timing was a silver lining, as I was able to take the needed time off from work to help out. This was in the early stages of the nationwide Covid shutdown. While I was deemed an essential employee, we had very little work coming in. A relief that I wasn't needed there, because I was needed here...
The fire destroyed most of the main level. Upstairs suffered extensive smoke damage, but the smoke in the lower level and basement wasn't as bad. It was bad, don't get me wrong, but there was a surprising amount of stuff that could be saved. My mom kept what she wanted, and I moved most of that to the open stall of my garage. For further sorting down the road.
She found this box in a lower level closet. The top had some obvious smoke damage, as did the top layer of paperwork inside. "Train Parts" was written on the side of the box. Meaning parts of my childhood train set survived the fire! This box would definitely be brought to my house for further exploration. But promptly forgotten about...
A few weeks ago, I thought about writing about the Caboose Hobbies pictures I'd taken. The next day, I re-found this box while looking for something completely unrelated in the garage. Well, if that isn't the perfectest of all timing! Now I have a logical tie-in with the possible Caboose Hobbies story!
Underneath all of the papers (that I scanned and will show throughout), this box had a bunch of boxed HO scale train cars. All purchased in 1980. And that's really cool!
That means these boxed train cars pre-date even Caboose Hobbies' South Broadway location! They opened here in 1981. Before that, their store was in downtown Denver, at 610 15th St. That building is long gone. Just as this one will soon be...
Because it's apparent that no one came forward with enough evidence of historical significance that would sway the city.
So these hand-painted signs on the exterior windows will soon shatter to the ground, as a shovel rips the structure out from under them. Sad end to such a happy business...
This would amount to the best look inside Caboose Hobbies, that I would ever get. A bunch of shelving pieces and some of a large table, can be seen through the reflection of Sam's Club, just across Broadway.
In 1988, actor Gary Coleman, of The Kid with the Broken Halo fame, worked at Caboose Hobbies. According to a story in the Westword, he bought a home in Highlands Ranch, and worked part time at the model train store. Before moving away from Colorado a short time later.
Of all the hand painted signs and logos on these windows, I didn't see any mention of A.H.M. (Associated Hobby Manufacturers), who were responsible for all the train cars in this box. According to the Googles, A.H.M. ceased operations in the mid-1980's. Which explains the lack of promotion...
A.H.M. probably went out of business due to this really tone deaf slogan:
Of course, reading that printed on each of the boxes, immediately brought to mind...
What I found inside the box was a little dirty, but in overall decent shape. I have no idea if any of this stuff still works. Figuring it out by cleaning everything up, then putting everything I have together to test it, is just something I don't have time for.
But it did include the original paperwork for that engine!
Just in case I want another project to tie up my ever shrinking free time...
Yeah, that's pretty intricate. No wonder a 5-6 year old me was intimidated by this hobby. Even some 40 years later, I still don't understand any of this stuff. And I'm really not proud of that.
This box had a bunch of train cars, there were no tracks inside.
Just pictures of tracks, printed on a train car box.
Also an empty box that once had tracks inside.
With different pictures of tracks on the back of it.
So this tanker car has nowhere it can go, if it were freed from it's box.
And the Lackawanna coal car had no insert inside the box, to keep it in place.
Unfortunately for the Caboose, it's home was the dingiest box in the box. Also placed back in that box, upside-down for some reason. I should have fixed that before taking the picture.
As a tribute to that dusty caboose box and the difficult to see through plastic window, I retroactively replicated that through the window shot, for this sign inside Caboose! This was to inform customers that even with the store closing, online orders were still being processed.
Pretty interesting that I thought to do this, when it would be several more years before I knew why...
Someone shrunk Thomas's head.
I bet it was Tootle.
I liked this painting, high up on the building's facade. Sad that it would soon get smashed apart and fall to the ground. Again, I'm glad that vandals didn't destroy it before I was able to take this picture.
Lionel has now been around for over 120 years, according to this window logo painting.
Which is a much better logo than what they were using in the late 1970's.
It was inside this box that I found the other part of that melted crossing gate. The "Automatic Highway Flasher" was fully intact and reasonably clean, despite a box with a dirty window falling out. At least the box scanned well.
This is going to be displayed along with other significant pieces in my personal toy museum. While it sucks that the gate was lost in the fire, this is the better part to have intact. I like this, even if it's a different scale than all of the HO's in the box.
If I'm remembering correctly, the melted train engine was "O" scale. Looking online, Lionel was the main producer of "O" scale model trains, which are significantly larger than HO's.
These are pictured on the side of the box.
Along with tracks and other stuff.
The four page accessories instruction pages were still inside the smoke damaged train parts box.
I do remember at one time having this Lionel train set up in my parents basement. The crossing gate and Automatic Highway Flasher were hooked up to the track, and lit up when the train went by. I can still picture it working some 40 years later.
My dad even made a custom table for that track. It had a cut out section in the middle, so you could crawl underneath, and stand up inside of it. The table was dismantled in the late 1980's, when I moved my bedroom to the basement. Now I needed the space the table occupied, for my (Jello) bed.
Lionel Trains made the ultimate sacrifice for the creation of Basement World.
While I was happy that taggers and vandals left the window paintings and mural alone, the simple word balloon "Pain" here made me laugh.
One (second to) last shot on my phone of the mural and entrance to Caboose Hobbies, before going back to my car.
And the last picture I took of an intact Caboose Hobbies, before driving away.
I should have walked down the alley for pictures behind the store. Caboose Hobbies was the combination of two separate buildings, that were joined together to make a single large store. Actually so large, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Caboose Hobbies as the world’s largest model train store, in 2014.
Soon it would be gone forever.
There was brief re-spark of interest when I got the Transformers Electric Train and Battle Set for X-Mess, a few years later. At that point, I combined the other train sets worth of tracks, and made different shaped tracks. Which was fun, but I kept having problems with all the parts and getting them to work. Being a 10 year old, I gave up rather quickly.
The message was clear, electric trains are not my thing.
But I still like them!
I still have this boxed train set today. Ended up being a catch-all for various HO Scale electric train parts. A bunch of extra track, two power packs and other things that I don't remember inside.
The Transformers part of the train would be fairly complete if I hadn't lost a bunch of these generic plastic robots that came packaged with it. And also the cardboard buildings and power lines.
Now these were just something to save with the rest of my collection, instead of furthering a hobby.
But I still liked trains!
That's REAL pewter!
I even bought a ticket to the Tiny Town Train, in Morrison, CO, in 2007!
April 30, 2017.
Three weeks after I took the last set of Caboose Hobbies pictures, I saw the facade was being removed from the building. That was enough for me to pull into the Wendy's parking lot across the street...
So I could hide in the bushes and sneak up on it!
The last picture I took of a mostly intact Caboose Hobbies.
In the Spring of 1980, Kellogg's cereal ran a promotion where a certain amount of box tops, added in with a certain amount of cash, would get you an official A.H.M. manufactured Tony the Tiger Electric Train Set. Remember it being a whole lotta Rice Krispies that Spring! I also remember it taking forever from when my mom sent it in, until the box with my Tony the Tiger Train Set showed up on the front porch.
Then I had to wait even longer... That following weekend, so my dad could help me set it up.
I even saved the mailing label from the box!
Some of the Tony the Tiger train parts have been lost over time, and some of them ended up in the box that I just talked about. But I think that every piece of paperwork included with the set, was saved in the smoke damaged "Train Parts" box.
Here's a copy of that warranty!
I don't remember how many cars were a part of the Kellogg's train set, but I still have a few of them.
This one is my favorite.
Come on A.H.M.! It's your promotion, and you misspell "Tony"?
Clean it up!
Eggo waffles gets a car as well!
A.H.M. spelled it correctly at least.
While I’ve never seen an actual train car painted with Kellogg’s logos or branding, I do wish they’d make model train cars complete with creative colorful tagging, for authenticity’s sake! Now that would make an electric train set that I could fully get behind!
May 7, 2017.
I waited a little too long before making it back to Caboose Hobbies. There was very little of it left now.
A few beams and a lot of broken wood.
The southern half of the building had a floor that was considerably higher than the northern half.
Tools of destruction and what they've done.
Brought to you by Hillen Corp. Purveyors of Demolition and Used Brick Sales.
A small collection of Caboose Hobbies bricks. With pieces of the old engine-crashing-through-the-wall mural, painted on them. I'm assuming there was a request to salvage some of these bricks for people, instead of letting them get destroyed with the rest of the building. I couldn't see inside the large container they were weighing down, but I'm suspecting there were more bricks inside!
It looks like the instruction manual that came with the Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger Electric Train Set has spent the last 35 years buried under those bricks. Well, it did survive a house fire... Without knowing what all of the numbers in the lower left corner of the booklet cover means, I can see what appears to be the date: 11-23-79. Which would jive with the arrival of my train set, in the Summer of 1980.
“Your set may contain some of these accessories” means this is a generic booklet, that was likely slipped into a variety of different train sets. The Kellogg’s set was an oval track, including a rerailer and power pack, but (sadly) no automatic crossing gate.
It didn’t have any Spur Switches or Uncoupler Sequences either.
The back page is full of helpful information, and if this isn’t enough for you, they suggest checking out several fine books, available from your local hobby shop. Or several fine magazines dealing with model railroading. Like Model Railroader or Railroad Modeler.
Or Modrail Roadler...
Or Modler Roadrail...
Or Roadmod Railler...
You get the point.
Not like any of these are being published anymore...
Actually wait, I was STUNNED to see copies of Model Railroader at the grocery store the other day.
And if they were, they’re not about to be sold at Caboose Hobbies. You can now see all the way to Rocky Mountain Coin, with all the choo-choo's removed
Hey, Hillen! There’s more bricks you need to come pick up!
There's actually a bunch of different bricks going on where the north wall used to be. The remnants of the angled entryway can be seen. Not that there's much to see anymore...
A small Mallard Duck (clearly not Bob) roams the store, looking for "The Finest HO Trains From Around The World", and finds nothing. Has to be disappointing. Fly all the way to Denver for Uncoupler Sequences and the store has been demolished. Poor little fella...
Looks like Rocky Mountain Coin used to have a window here, probably sealed up as whatever the southern half of Caboose Hobbies used to be was built. Whenever that was. The demolition crew left a pretty clean break between buildings. The front wall sure looks like it was pretty thin when it was here.
With some nice green and white linoleum tile, surviving the first scraping.
You could almost still picture an electric train store here.
With inventory that looked something like this...
HO! HO! HO! HO! HO!
A fine selection of A.H.M. classic retro rail cars.
These wouldn't have fit in very well with a themed Kellogg's Tony the Tiger Train set.
This box was inside the smoke damaged "Train Parts" box, but was empty. This box once had either a series of small plastic electric poles, or an assortment of even smaller plastic road signs. I'm almost positive these were bought at Jolly's Hobbies in the Apache Plaza Shopping Mall, in either 1979 or 1980. (Hobby store closed in the early 1990's, shopping mall demolished in 2004. I need to get an Apache Plaza story written. 200 sounds like a good number...) This box pre-dates it's roommates, since the HO Trains are simply Trains here.
Obviously they were meant for train sets, but I ended up using them in the sandbox. I would make cities and roads in the dirt, for my toy cars. Then I needed road signs and light poles for those cities and roads, made of dirt. So these all ended up there, instead of waiting for an official train set up. Of course they were all quickly lost. Well, some of the light poles still survive today, and have a home inside the Transformers train set box.
Some of the other A.H.M. products, as shown on the other boxes in the "Train Parts" box:
11 engines, and one box panel of some available miniature plastic buildings:
They made a HO Signal Tower, a HO Station and even a Gruesome HO.
(Whatever that is...)
But where's the HO House?
Comparing the two scraped halves of a Caboose.
More bricks for Hillen!
Looks like there's some of the mural spread around there.
Wonder if this half of the store had a wood floor, given all the shattered wood splinters they've moved to the edges of the foundation. There's my car in the upper right side of this photo. Across the ally, in the Caboose overflow parking.
Then I got back into that car and left.
A week later (May 13th, 2017) I drove by the Caboose remains, on my way home from wherever I was. Hillen picked up the bricks, and the floor of the south half of Caboose was now getting chopped apart. Somehow doubt Hillen was as interested in trying to salvage the green and white linoleum tile that was left behind after the building was demolished.
So that was that for Caboose Hobbies. I still drove by often, but very little was going on there. Just a large swath of dirt, behind a chain link fence.
If you're like me, and all this choo-choo talk has left you a little hungry, may I suggest a heaping pile of Royal Hawaiian Pork Cutlets!
I've never tried this recipe, but the card was stuck inside the "Train Parts" box.
And likely has been since about 1980...
October 1, 2017
Something appears to be happening at the Caboose Hobbies vacant lot. While it's just a collection of construction equipment now, I guess it's back on my radar.
One week later...
October 8, 2017
This morning I decided to drive west on Alameda Avenue, until I ran out of interesting things to take pictures of. Which included the new location of Caboose. (Apparently, all Hobbies were dropped?) The new store only lasted a few years, and closed in December, 2020. Another small business Covid casualty. Although online reviews paint a slightly different picture. A store that struggled to keep inventory, leaving a series of disappointed customers.
December 10, 2017
How did I not hit that guy illegally walking directly into the path of my car? After two plus months of the equipment sitting there, stalling for time, it was now starting to work on getting ready to build something...
But what would it be?
January 28, 2018
Oh... Another Starbucks? Really?
Could they build something more lame to replace a Denver icon?
There's probably already 6 Starbucks within a 5 block radius of here.
April 8, 2018
And it's going to be a rather big Starbucks...
April 29, 2018
Maybe it'll be a Starbucks that sells toy trains in addition to overpriced coffee drinks?
May 13, 2018
This is the last photo I took of the Caboose Hobbies property. Starbucks was not yet open when I drove by.
Laura and I moved back to Minnesota on June 1, 2018. The main reason we left Colorado (besides the skyrocketing cost of living) was to live closer to our families. And as much as I still miss living in Colorado, moving to Minnesota was the right thing for us to do.
At least I never saw the Starbucks open.
My dad passed away in his sleep, on the morning of June 26, 2021. We had hoped that he could make it long enough to see the house repairs completed. My parents never planned on moving back into the house after the fire, and were going to sell it once it was rebuilt.
This was his house key. Also on the keychain was his charred Army dog tag and a tag from his welding job at Strong Scott Manufacturing. Where he welded in the 1970’s, before the company closed up. His keys were on the kitchen counter when the fire broke out. The cupboards hanging above them collapsed, pressing and melting some plastic onto the dog tag, which was pressed against the key.
Laura and I made the photo and memorabilia display for his funeral. His house key and this keychain, with the melted plastic still attached, were featured prominently amongst some other artifacts of his life.
Love you, Dad.