Life Aboard Your Own Caboose: How to Buy a Train Car

An old railway car can make a practical yet exotic guesthouse, vacation home, workshop, or roadside business site.

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by Unsplash/Robert Linder

Is there an empty spot on your property that could use a unique workshop, studio, roadside store or guesthouse? If so, you might want to buy a train car–an old caboose, or a bunk car (a boxcar with windows, converted to house railroad track workers) could be the perfect structure to fill that space. Right now, North American railroads are in the last stages of updating their rolling stock, modern train operations having made most vintage cars unsafe. In addition, most trains no longer carry cabooses, so thousands of these veterans are now sitting idle.

The purchasing agent for your nearest railroad can tell you whether the company is selling any old cars. A couple of years ago, one big railroad company had more than a thousand cabooses for sale. Soon, however, all wooden cars and most of the steel ones made before the ’40s will be gone. Most will be scrapped, but some will be purchased privately. Typical prices for steel-bodied boxcars and cabooses run between $2,000 and $4,000. Wooden cars, when they can be found, are generally cheaper.

Over the past 10 years our family has acquired four wooden cabooses and five kinds of boxcars (along with rails, ties and assorted artifacts) that we use for studios, offices, guest rooms, playrooms, warehouses and workshops. We live in the wilderness without phone, electricity or running water, and our four teenaged kids do their schooling at home. Together, we own and operate Good Medicine Books, the publishing and mail-order arm of our Good Medicine Cultural Foundation and Historical Society, for which we have assembled these cars as the Rocky Mountain Freight Train Museum. Got all that? Good; then we’ll proceed with how you can do something simultaneously practical and exotic like buying a caboose.

First, before you get too excited about the whole idea, see if your local zoning laws allow it. Most caboose owners have their own land–usually rural acreage, where regulations and clearances tend to be more accommodating. Often property taxes do not apply, especially when cars are put back on their wheels (they lift off for moving), since they are classified as portable structures. However, don’t let that classification fuel any fantasies of main-line railroads hauling you and your car around on their tracks or letting you camp on their sidings, as some used to do. Today, they just want to get rid of their old cars. Period.

caboose parked in the grass next to a teepee

Railroad-car buyers are often disappointed when they look at what’s available. Most of the cars are beat-up or worn-out. My own caboose–in which I’m writing these words–sat on a weed-grown siding for more than two years before I first saw it. By then, every window had been smashed, doors were off their hinges and the floor was so littered and dirty I could hardly walk on it.

But several days of sweeping, mopping, patching and painting left us with a handsome, sturdy car–a fine testimonial to the Canadian Pacific Railway carpenters who built the caboose in Montreal back in 1922. For 50 years this car followed CPR trains of all kinds, traveling an estimated million miles or more and becoming a living piece of railroad history.

Nostalgia is an important benefit of owning a railroad car, especially if you value history or are intrigued by antiques and collectibles. An old conductor we know named John Egan wins hands down for owning a car with nostalgic value. He still rides on working cabooses during the week, but on weekends and holidays he and his wife travel to the scenic White Mountains of New Hampshire, where they relax aboard the very first caboose he ever worked on as conductor–back in 1949. The railroad sold this wooden antique some years ago, and now John has lovingly restored it. Still, we’ve found it’s the practicality of each car that makes it well worth its cost.

John’s caboose, by the way, is parked with several others on rental track belonging to the diesel- and steam-powered Conway Scenic Railroad. The site is landscaped and offers power, water and a sewer system. Unfortunately, liability problems in recent years have all but eliminated this option for most private railroad-car owners.

Next door to the Egans, Blanche and Howard Audibert own a 1910 caboose. “I love the car,” Blanche exclaimed during a recent visit. “I only wish we could spend more time in it.” To reach it, they travel up from their home in Florida, where Howard is an award-winning architect. A lifelong admirer of trains, he dreamed for years of owning a caboose. “I can’t think of a better vacation home,” he says of his dream come true.

Howard redesigned the typical caboose interior–9′ × 30′–to create a small sitting room where the conductor used to work, a dining space where the potbellied stove used to be, plus an efficient kitchen underneath the cupola. One of the former closets now holds a toilet, the other a shower (“You kind of have to back your way into them”). Upstairs, the four cupola seats fold down into two narrow “but cozy” sleeping berths. The little home also has wall-to-wall carpeting, stereo music and ample electric lights, even in the closets. That seems pretty luxurious to us, living as we do with kerosene lamps and wood heaters.

An even more unique retreat is the former reefer (refrigerator car owned by Howard’s brother and his wife, parked just down the track. To fit in with its railroad museum home, the car’s outside remains original–still lettered Bangor & Aroostook 7574–but a modern vacation home has been installed in its interior. Open up the original side doors and you discover a set of glass sliding doors, which look out over the beautiful countryside beyond the railroad yard. For additional lighting, the four ice-hatch doors on the roof have been replaced by skylights.

Another conductor of our acquaintance has assembled a small fleet of cabooses that he’s rebuilding for a unique bed-and-breakfast, located near Washington State’s popular Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad (where he works part-time). He and his teenaged son are also restoring an old mail car that will feature a model-railroad display.

black and white photo of a native american man sitting on a chair

Cabooses readily lend themselves to interesting business ventures. We’ve heard of antique, craft, and cheese shops, fruit stands, bars and even McDonald’s restaurants. Some owners finance their own cabooses by buying extra cars to restore and resell (see “Making a Living by Buying and Selling Cabooses“). Lately, some classic passenger cars have sold for five- and six-figure prices.

The fellow who would make out best if cabooses ever become that valuable is Don Denlinger, who owns 40 of them. They make up his world-famous Red Caboose Motel in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania–down in tourist-heavy Amish country. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as having the world’s largest private collection of cabooses; with our mere four, we won’t argue.

Denlinger has rebuilt the insides of his cars to include roomy beds, showers and toilets, air-conditioning and even color televisions mounted inside potbellied stoves. A few of the cars are divided in half to make two single units. Country-style meals are served “down the track” aboard a lavishly furnished Victorian dining car; another dining car serves milk shakes and ice cream. Don’s motel rooms are often booked up months in advance. Of course, it helps that they’re parked alongside the Strasburg Rail Road’s main line, whose steam-powered trains carry year-round tourist traffic.

Caboose, bunk car, reefer or coach–if properly cared for, any one of them can make a good companion for which you will find endless uses. We have used ours for reading books, writing them and shipping them out; one car is a gym for the boys, another their bicycle repair shop and storage place. A few winters ago we even held a traditional tribal ceremony aboard a caboose; the visiting elder who conducted it for us commented on the old car’s spirit during his prayers. Anyone who owns an old railroad car would know just what he meant.

an old red caboose

Steps to Buy a Train Car

1. Find someone in your area who already owns one, bring them a sack of apples, and ask them to recount their experiences. Also, take a look at their car to get ideas for yourself and make sure you can really live with one.

2. If your impression is favorable, follow any leads that person gives you. Phone the purchasing agent of the nearest railroad and ask what old cars the company has for sale; you may be offered a good one right on the spot, or you might receive a list of available cars on which you can submit bids. Watch for old cars on railroad sidings and ask a company official about their future. Look in the classified ads of rail-oriented magazines (especially Trains, which often has cabooses advertised, or visit the nearest railroad museum and talk to its members. Phone large salvage companies as well.

3. If a car is available, check zoning laws before you buy it to see if it can be moved to your property. Such cars are usually forbidden in suburban backyards. If laws do allow it, measure your clearances at the site and along the access route very carefully. Railroad cars are big, awkward and heavy, typically 15 to 30 tons, plus another 10 tons if you get the two sets of wheels. Buildings, bridges, power lines and fences have all been known to get in the way. We’ve knocked down three gateposts and two trees, lifted several overhead wires with poles (scary stuff!) and broken countless branches along the way.

4. You will need a heavy-duty crane and a neck with a low-boy trailer. Talk to the operators and discuss the logistics of your move with them. If they cannot look at the site and car themselves, be sure to give accurate weights, dimensions and possible difficulties. They’re generally not responsible for any tight spots you get them in. Ask them about permits, liabilities, getting a pilot car, etc.

5. If your car will keep its wheels, have the track laid before you make any move. Experienced railroad track workers can often be hired on their day off to accomplish this far better than the average homesteader. If you’re using a foundation instead, have it finished before the move. Again, the movers will leave you responsible for the results of improper planning.

two children standing next to a cart in front of two train cars

Caboose-Buying Advice

Don Denlinger, who has 40 cabooses (so far), offers this advice.

Buying the caboose is the easiest part. The hard part is moving it and sexing it up.

When you start restoring a car, do it right! Shortcuts will cause sorrow later. In the case of steel cabooses, sand the whole body right down to bare metal and remove all rust. Then apply good rustproofing before the main coats. When you just paint over bad spots, they only get worse.

Don’t try to save money by restoring the car yourself; hire a professional. Retired railroad workers are often glad to get a chance to do a little extra work like this; try to find one who worked in the car shops. Otherwise, look for an old conductor; they generally knew how to look after their equipment. Don’t forget all the neat anecdotes you’ll get in the process! Those are the jewels of caboose life.

Adding wooden interiors to steel-bodied cars helps maintain moisture control. A layer of Styrofoam sprayed on the roof greatly reduces the heating problems that plague solid-steel cars. It’ll also cut down on heating bills by a great deal, though it costs a lot and doesn’t quite look authentic.

One of the biggest headaches for caboose owners is keeping their roofs from leaking. This is especially true with wooden cars, whose roofs traditionally were covered by strips of canvas and coats of tar. Years of rolling up and down tracks usually leave joints and fittings loose and leaky. But volunteers at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum (North Freedom, Wisconsin) have tested two products that should resist leaks for up to 20 years, have high fire-resistance and give a close-to-authentic appearance. One uses a combination of cotton/polyester canvas (a stretchable material) waterproofed with a 0.9-mil layer of a brushable, liquid neoprene; the other uses a single-ply synthetic rubber material (EPDM) similar to inner-tube material.

If you buy a railroad car but haven’t decided whether or not you’ll keep it, don’t make major alterations to it, or else it will lose its potential value as a historical piece. Those used as personal dwellings are generally left as unaltered as possible. At the other extreme, railroad cars used for ice-cream stands and other such businesses often have both their side walls removed in order to serve customers, with the rest of the interior heavily rebuilt to accommodate the business run inside. Be sure the railroad car you like suits your intended use before you buy it. They’re no easier to get rid of than they are to get!

two young men working on a gas-powered water pump

Adolf Hungry Wolf and his family–wife, Beverly, and children Wolf, Okan, Star and Iniskim–live outside Skookumchuck, British Columbia. Together they have written more than 40 books on native culture, outdoor life and railroad history. Originally published as “Good Medicine Aboard My Own Caboose” in the November/December 1990 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

  • Updated on Jan 3, 2022
  • Originally Published on Nov 1, 1990
Tagged with: boxcar, bunk car, caboose, Native American, railroad, train car, water pump
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