CABOOSE MOTEL. Riding the rails to dreamland

The man wearing the New York Central Railroad cap greets you with a smile. No, he doesn't have a room, but he does have a great little caboose and he'll have you ``on the right track'' for the night in no time at all. The pun is intended, for Donald M. Denlinger is the owner-operator of the world's only caboose motel, a fact that has placed him in the Guinness Book of World Records for several years now.

The Red Caboose Motel on the outskirts of this Pennsylvania Dutch town, consists of 19 cabooses that once roamed all across the country on the tag end of an assortment of American trains. How they got there is the result of a little fun that went wrong. Those who know Mr. Denlinger say his jovial sense of humor bubbles to the surface constantly and that once it got him into ``a whole heap of trouble.'' But it is also a success story involving imagination, ingenuity, a refusal to quit in the face of obstacles, and a good deal of faith in God.

In 1969, Denlinger bid on the collection of railroad refugees in jest, convinced that he'd never be awarded the purchase. After all, he had submitted a ``laughable bid'' that was about $100 less than the pure scrap value of the 950,000 pounds of steel the string of cars represented to any smelter. That he'd miscalculated badly came to his attention six months later in the middle a January blizzard.

The Pennsylvania Central Railroad phoned to remind him that if he didn't collect his rolling stock by that afternoon there'd be some hefty fines to pay. Remind him! That was the first he knew the cabooses were his.

In the middle of summer the problems would have been daunting enough; at the height of a winter storm they were awesome. A railroad official pointed him in the general direction of some siding (track) where he might store his rolling stock for the time being. By prodding in the snow with a shovel he finally found a piece of track long enough to take his string of cabooses. It was just one mile from where they were sitting. That's when he learned that the minimum hauling charge on the railroad is for 75 miles. Before they were finally in place on Paradise Lane off Route 30, Denlinger had to have his cars hauled on several very short ``75 milers.''

It was easy to get discouraged and he was tempted to get his cabooses to the nearest scrap smelter before he lost his shirt on the project. But Denlinger had long ago learned to ``give prayer a chance.''

Soon he dug out of his attic the toy train set he'd had as a boy. Then with the tiny caboose tucked into his pocket he set off for the bank. By now he had some idea of what he might do with his unintended purchase.

In front of the loan officer he self-consciously displayed the miniature on the large walnut desk. He had, he said, bought 19 of these and could he have $185,000 to renovate them. The astonished banker asked if they were HO or standard gauge, to which Denlinger quickly replied that they were not toys but the real thing - the 25-ton, N-5 variety.

At this stage the bank president was called in and Denlinger repeated the story, only to repeat it yet again when a third official, this time the commercial loan officer, joined them. The bankers were intrigued by Denlinger's story. More important, they saw merit to his idea of turning the derelict but sturdy railroad cars into motel rooms in this tourism-rich region of the country. When Denlinger left, he already had the advance on a loan that would enable him to buy the needed land and begin the renovations.

Getting the cabooses in place, transforming them into sleeping accommodations (many of them with a double bed up front and four bunk beds aft) presented a host of challenges. When the railroad cars arrived (after numerous breakdowns and glitches) at their final resting place, the renovation contractors had some surprises waiting for them. One was the flooring. Drilling was frustrating, because they didn't know that every car had three inches of concrete on its floor needed to provide a low center of gravity while traveling at high speeds on tracks. Another problem: The shower stalls couldn't pass through the doorway, so holes had to be cut into the sides of each truck and welded shut after the shower was in place.

By a host of ``little miracles,'' says Denlinger, the problems were solved one by one, making it possible for the world's only caboose motel to hold its open house on Mother's Day - just 4 months later.

In five hours that day some 4,500 people toured the caboose units. Children delighted in the experience and families made reservations then and there. The attraction of a ``railroad experience'' (the restaurant is a restored Victorian dining car) has been consistent ever since. In season the motel is filled weeks ahead, even months ahead for certain holiday weekends.

Former railroad families, in particular, are drawn to the motel whenever they are in the area. But all guests old enough to remember the great days of train travel, and many who are not, are readily ``lost in a nostalgic dream,'' says Denlinger. From a dining car window they might watch an Amish buggy trotting along the road; from another they can see the Strasburg steamer puffing by on its scheduled runs to Paradise and back.

How realistic is this train experience? That depends on your imagination, but on at least one occasion it was too realistic for some guests. Late one evening a man rapped on the office door demanding his money back. ``My wife can't sleep,'' he said. ``She says the caboose is moving and I believe it, too, since I could hardly get to the bathroom without stumbling against the wall.'' In fact, each caboose is welded to the rail on which it stands. Even so, the couple were refunded their money and left in search of more conventional accommodations.

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