Cover Image: Klaus Nahr from Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Speaking in their Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, the Amish people of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, have an expression about cabooses:

“Comes the little red box and the train is all.”

It means, of course, that when you see the caboose go by, it’s the end of the train.

Going…Going…

For one Lancaster County man, however, cabooses were not the end of a train, but rather the beginning of something else entirely.

You see, back in 1969, businessman Don Denlinger placed a bid on 19 25-ton N-5 caboose being sold by the Penn Central Railroad. There are several stories behind the reason why he did it, as Denlinger was not particularly known for being a railfan.

Some stories say he did it on a dare. Another says he did it as a joke. Still another says Denlinger had an old friend that worked at Penn Central who told him about the auction, and not wanting to disappoint him, Denlinger went ahead and placed a bid on some old cabooses.

Whatever the story, Denlinger really didn’t want to win. As a matter of fact, when he placed the bid, he offered $700 for each caboose, $100 below each caboose’s $800 scrap metal value, never expecting to win.

During a blizzard in January 1970, Denlinger got a phone call from Penn Central saying that he, in fact, did win the bid and needed to pick the cabooses up immediately as they were blocking the railroad near Leaman Place. Don Denlinger hung up the phone wondering what he was going to do with 19 cabooses.

On the Right Track

After shifting locations several times, Denlinger would eventually find a place to put his cabooses that he decided to turn into a one-of-a-kind motel – a 43-acre farm along Paradise Lane that also just happened to be conveniently located next to the train tracks of the Strasburg Railroad.

The cabooses were delivered in February and Denlinger immediately started converting them into motel “rooms” complete with private bathroom and shower combo.

The number of beds was determined by the layout of the caboose. There were, after all, nine different floor plans with the couples’ suites offering a full-size bed only while the family cabooses featured four to six beds – full beds for the adults and bunk beds for the kiddos. Another caboose dubbed the “Honeymoon Suite” even had a Jacuzzi.

Though the outside of every caboose was painted red, each interior was also decorated differently Still, each one included what we can only call the pièce de résistance inside – a non-working potbelly stove with a black and white TV stuck inside it. Other furniture included a combination desk/storage bench with hand-painted American eagle on the top, custom made by a local Amish cabinetmaker.

(Fun Fact!  Red became the traditional color for a caboose simply because it was the cheapest paint color available.)

Finally, just a little over five months after he won the cabooses, Don Denlinger opened up the Red Caboose Motel on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 10, 1970. Around 4,500 people came to see his new 10 caboose motel and dining car restaurant.

What’s more, because so many people were asking to have a look at the rooms, Denlinger brought in another caboose in 1972 as a kind of “show room model”.  Being the entrepreneur that he was, however, he charged 10₵ per head for a self-guided tour. Near the end of 1973, close to 81,000 people paid their dime and got a preview of what sleeping in a caboose looked like.

Over the years, Denlinger also became something of a Lancaster County hospitality and tourism legend opening other famous places for lodging and camping such as the nearby Historic Strasburg Inn, the Fulton Steamboat Inn, and Mill Bridge Village.

In 1993, Denlinger decided it was time to retire and sold the Red Caboose Motel for $1.3 million – a lot more than he originally bid on it over 22 years before. Donald Milton Denlinger died at the age of 72 on December 23, 2008.

Keeping this Train Rolling

Image: Klaus Nahr from Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nearly 30 years after it was first sold, the motel has changed hands a few times and has been expanded or upgraded in one way or another. Today the Prickett family – Tyler, his wife Katherine, and his father and mother, Todd and Debra – own the Red Caboose Motel and adjoining Casey Jones Restaurant (located in two railroad dining cars).

Today the Red Caboose Motel is home to 38 cabooses, a baggage car, and a mail car. However, instead of the traditional red, you’ll find the cabooses there today all decorated in different paint schemes and colors of some of America’s most famous railroads.

Depending on your overnight needs, you can choose from a 36ft2 (11m2) Couples Caboose to the more spacious (for a caboose) 62ft2 (19m2) Family Caboose. And of course, there’s always that special Honeymoon Caboose – still complete with Jacuzzi – for you lovebirds. There are also rooms available in the farmhouse for those who like to sleep in something that doesn’t have wheels.

All rooms have been upgraded for maximum comfort and include a refrigerator, a microwave, independent climate control, private bathrooms, free WiFi and a flat screen television (sans potbelly stove, unfortunately.) Additionally, all rooms are non-smoking.

You’ll also find plenty of family-friendly fun at Red Caboose. Take a genuine Amish buggy ride and learn all about daily lives of Lancaster County’s “Plain” people. There’s also a petting zoo, an arcade, and even seasonal movie nights complete with popcorn.

For more information on how you can get on track during your next visit to Lancaster County, visit the Red Caboose Motel and Restaurant website here or call 717-687-5000.

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