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A 19th-century Studebaker Wagonette, once used to transport guests to the Byron Hot Springs, rolls down the streets of Concord as part of the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West's Pow Wow parade around in the mid 1950s. (Courtesy of East Contra Costa Historical Society)

BYRON -- For two years the small group of do-it-yourselfers have labored to save a relic of transportation history.

The 19th-century horse-drawn carriage that once shuttled guests and mail between Byron's train station and the town's resort had been cast off like so much junk with the changing times, but Chuck Hunter and fellow members of the East Contra Costa Historical Society are about to showcase the transformation the vehicle has undergone.

"It's fun to take something that doesn't look very good and make it look the way it did when it was brand-new," said the Discovery Bay resident, who's spent hundreds of hours varnishing, sanding and putting parts back together.

The Breakers, as they call themselves ("We're volunteers, and we take lots of breaks," Hunter says of the name's origin), began restoring the carriage after it was donated to the historical society.

Built sometime in the late 1800s -- the exact year has been lost in the annals of history -- the Studebaker wagonette had carried passengers the approximately 2½ miles to Byron Hot Springs, a now-abandoned resort that was a getaway for film and sports celebrities.

Riders mounted the carriage from the rear and sat in two rows of seats that faced each other, squeezed so close together that their knees almost touched, Hunter said.


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But omnibuses, as they were popularly known, fell into disuse as Studebaker began manufacturing automobiles just after the turn of the century, and the Byron one was about to be burned as debris when someone spotted it in a field and intervened.

The omnibus was transferred to another storage facility only to molder there for the better part of three decades before Hunter and company stepped in.

The group of mostly retired men -- among them an aircraft mechanic, nuclear engineer and gun store owner -- began meeting twice a week for four hours at a time to work on the dilapidated wagon.

The leatherette roof sagged and in some spots had been reduced to tattered strips.

One of the wooden sideboards had fallen off; the other was rotted, as were the wheels.

But the metal undercarriage was still in good shape, so the group began to disassemble the omnibus and rebuild its frame.

One of the men drove the wheels to Montana, where a wheelwright who does jobs for museums the likes of the Smithsonian fitted new wooden spokes and a rim onto the original outer metal rim and hub.

The Breakers replaced the remaining parts locally, sanding, staining and assembling what they crafted from poplar, ash and white oak.

Some paid for the materials themselves, and a Brentwood auto body shop donated the cost of painting the vehicle; East Contra Costa Historical Society contributed an estimated $3,500.

The goal is to have the omnibus ready for opening day of the society's museum on April 5, after which it will make appearances in holiday parades around the county, Hunter said.

The group's online research has turned up only three other mentions of omnibuses in museums, he said, adding that those they contacted have said the rarity of restored Studebaker models makes them more valuable than a Wells Fargo stagecoach.

But whatever price it might fetch is academic because this omnibus will be a permanent part of the Knightsen museum's collection.

"We would never sell it," Hunter said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/rowenacoetsee.

old BECOMES new
What: Annual opening day of East Contra Costa Historical Society's museum, where volunteers will showcase the Studebaker horse-drawn carriage they restored. Refreshments will be served.
When: 2-4 p.m., April 5
Where: 3890 Sellers Ave. (at Sunset Road), Knightsen
Information: 925-634-8651