Atascadero News Photo courtesy of Joe Coulter • Joe Coulter of the Atascadero Elks Lodge runs the Atascadero Elks Club Train in Paso Robles during a recent event. The train has been delighting children at North County events for the past 15 years.
The Atascadero Elks Club train has been delighting children at North County social gatherings for about 15 years.
The train was built by longtime Elks member Joe Coulter after he and fellow Elk John Vance saw a similar contraption in a magazine somewhere.
“Joe asked what [we] could do to help the lodge and help kids,” Vance said. “The train was the idea. He thought about it for a while and then he did it.”
Coulter built the train, which almost every Atascadero resident is familiar with, was built out of a sit-on-top lawnmower and some disused chemical barrels. He said the engine was built from wood and sort of sits atop the lawnmower, which tows eight cars behind it.
The cars were made from unused chemical barrels affixed to some modified hand-trucks and with child-sized lawn chairs screwed in place inside.
“I’ve been doing it a lot of years,” Coulter said. “I do it because I love it.”
And the way he did made it easy on himself. Which is to say that the entire kit and caboodle was designed so that a single person can run the whole operation from top to bottom. The “one-man-show”-ness of the train is something that Coulter is very proud of.
The train’s home is on a trailer which can be towed behind any vehicle with a towing package. The engine, a lawnmower, sits inside the trailer while the cars rest on a railing on the outside of the trailer. They are secured with rope and the mechanism that attaches each car to the one ahead of it. And they’re light enough that any reasonably fit person can lift them off the trailer, hook them up, and drive them around.
And drive around, they do. Most recently, the train did its rounds at the Atascadero Lake Park on the Fourth of July. It took children — eight at a time — over the bridge near the playground.
Eight children at a time, the train can serve a lot of kids. Vance said that since the train began pulling youngsters, he doesn’t think its ever pulled less than 200 at any given event. And, he added, that the train often sees up to 500 children per event.
Coulter’s wife, Barbara, said the train’s very first ride was on Easter, 1999, at the Sunken Gardens. She said it rained that day, but “it didn’t stop the little kids though. They rode in the rain.”
Barbara said the train has been a delight to be a part of since that first day, despite occasionally long lines.
“Kids don’t mind waiting, it’s the parents,” Barbara said. “One little girl looked and told me, ‘I have lots of patience.’ And she did.”
Coulter, the owner of the train, has been an Elk for approximately 50 years, Vance said. Maybe more. But at 84 years old, he’s slowing down a little. But fellow Elk Don Collier’s been picking up extra duties with the train over the past few years and has nothing but praise for Joe and Barbara.
“[Joe] and Barbara really created the train years ago,” Coulter said. “They maintained it and provided it at no cost to the Elks. Joe was always there to volunteer his train.”
Collier said that while the train has always been free, donations are occasionally made. Every penny donated to the train, he said, is turned around and donated to an organization that helps sick children who can’t leave the house for therapy. And it’s donated in Joe and Barbara’s names.
Donations to a good cause aside, people just seem to love the train. Even when they hate it.
“A little boy got into one of the trains and he screamed and just cried and cried because he didn’t want to ride the train,” Vance said. “Then, all of a sudden, his mom, I think it was, said ‘I’ll walk with you.’ Well, she took about 10 or 15 steps and you could see he didn’t want his mommy around any more. For the rest of the day, you could not get that little boy out of the train. When the day was done, the parents were so grateful they made a donation. The following year, he came back. And he rode it every year after it till he was too big.”
Collier said he believes that Coulter will continue to be involved with the train until he absolutely can’t do it any more.
“Their legacy is they’re doing it for the kids and they’ll do it for the kids until the day they die,” Collier said.
But what will happen when that day comes?
“We made a commitment to ourselves at the lodge that the train would run until there’s nobody [left],” Vance said. “But we’ve got people lined up to run it for years to keep Joe’s legacy running.”
The next scheduled appearance of the Elks train will be at the Heritage Oaks Bank Fun on Sunday, Sept. 30 in Paso Robles. Giant smiles on tiny faces are free, but donations go to a good place.