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Red Caboose Motel
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Red Caboose Motel
Hotel facts and statistics
Location Ronks, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
Coordinates 39°59′08″N 76°09′06″W / 39.9855°N 76.1516°W / 39.9855; -76.1516Coordinates: 39°59′08″N 76°09′06″W / 39.9855°N 76.1516°W / 39.9855; -76.1516
Address
Opening date May 10, 1970
Developer Donald M. Denlinger
No. of restaurants 1
No. of rooms 48 rooms/38 cabooses
No. of floors 1

The Red Caboose Motel (originally named the Red Caboose Lodge) is a 48-room train motel in the Amish country near Ronks, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where guests stay in actual railroad cabooses. The motel consists of over three dozen cabooses and some other railroad cars, such as dining cars that serve as a restaurant. It was developed and opened in 1970 by Donald M. Denlinger, who started with 19 surplus cabooses bought from the Penn Central Railroad at an auction. The property has been expanded and renovated since opening. In addition to providing lodging, the motel has hosted many railroad-themed events and other concerts and dances in its barn. It is in an area with other railroad attractions including the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the National Toy Train Museum. The ticket counter of the Strasburg Rail Road, an almost two-hundred-year-old heritage railway, is 0.25 miles (0.40 km) away, and its tracks run past the motel. The motel has been described as a landmark and roadside attraction. It was listed in Guinness World Records for having the largest collection of privately owned cabooses in the world in 1984.

History

The Red Caboose Motel began in the summer of 1969, when Pennsylvania developer and entrepreneur Donald M. Denlinger bid on 19 cabooses in a Penn Central Railroad surplus auction. Denlinger, who became a "tourism industry legend", also developed the Mill Bridge Village camping resort, the Fulton Steamboat Inn and the Historic Strasburg Inn.

Denlinger, placed a bid of $700 each, $100 below scrap value, on the 950,000-pound (430,000 kg) lot of cabooses. It has been frequently reported, and is published in the historical booklet "Red Caboose Lodge" that was sold at the gift shop, and as of August 2020 told on the motel website, that when Denlinger placed the bid, he did so on a lark, or dare, or to not disappoint his childhood friend, then a Penn Central employee, who alerted him to the cabooses being sold at the railroad's "rolling stock graveyard" in Altoona. He also claimed to have bid below their scrap value to ensure he would not win, had not planned to use them as a motel, and that he forgot about the auction until he received a phone call from the railroad in January 1970 telling him he was the highest bidder and had to remove the cabooses that day or be charged demurrage while in storage.

However, much of the famed story is contradicted by a newspaper article published January 11, 1970, which says Denlinger was inspired when he saw a caboose being used as a tourist information center while he was on vacation in 1969. In a conversation a week later, he mentioned this to his friend, who told Denlinger about the 19 cabooses being sold by his employer. This article says that Denlinger was informed that his bid was accepted and he scheduled delivery of ten cabooses in mid-February with an agreement that the railroad would store the remaining nine for a year. Then on January 4, the railroad called back saying the ten cabooses and a coach had been moved to the Leaman Place junction and he needed to take them that day or at least within 24 hours as the track was needed for other traffic. Denlinger then began driving around trying to find an unused siding where he could temporarily store the cars. A man in Gordonville told him about an unused Penn Central siding in Gordonville, and the railroad agreed to allow him to use it temporarily. The article says the cabooses were moved there the week of January 5, 1970. The article also says that Denlinger already had the location on Paradise Lane in Ronks, Pennsylvania, selected and had obtained bank financing, and chosen the name "Red Caboose Lodge". This article also includes a sketch attributed to Denlinger of a caboose as converted to a motel room.

Denlinger said that the Penn Central had a minimum distance charge of 75 miles (121 km), which he had to pay when the cabooses were moved only about one mile (1.6 km) to Gordonville. He had to pay the 75-mile charge many more times in the future when shunting cars short distances.

At some time in 1969 prior to the unexpected January 4 phone call, Denlinger searched for a property large enough to accommodate the cabooses that was also adjacent to a railroad. Many suitable properties were owned by Amish people who would not lease land to a commercial operation such as a motel because of their religious beliefs. He eventually found a 43-acre (17 ha) non-Amish-owned farm listed for sale in Ronks, 8 mi (13 km) east of Lancaster and about 60 mi (97 km) west of Philadelphia, along the Strasburg Rail Road. He leased the farm for one year with an option to buy.

Denlinger needed financing for the project and contacted a Lancaster bank. A loan officer was intrigued by his story of acquiring the cabooses and his plans to renovate them for use as motel rooms. Before being approved, he would repeat the story to the bank's commercial loan officer and again to the president. Ultimately, they believed the project had merit and provided a $185,000 loan.

Work on the motel began in January 1970 with the laying of 800 ft (240 m) of track on which the cars would sit. The Strasburg Rail Road consented to a temporary connection to their track to facilitate delivery. Installation of utilities and other infrastructure also commenced. On February 27, 1970, the first ten cabooses made their final journey from the Leaman Place junction in Paradise, Pennsylvania, where the Penn Central connected with the Strasburg tracks, to their new home in Ronks, powered by Strasburg Rail Road's vintage Steam Locomotive #31. The engine successfully backed seven cabooses over the curved track of the temporary junction into the motel site but the much longer coach derailed. With no crane available, house jacks were eventually used to rerail the car and the steam engine, having been refilled with water from a fire department tanker, pushed the train farther before the coach derailed again. This time, the car was clear of the Strasburg mainline and the Philadelphia track crew, unable to stay onsite longer, restored the track so the engine could return to its yard. It took the three remaining cabooses with it for later delivery. The cabooses were made ready for accommodating guests with a planned opening by Mother's Day (May 10, 1970).

Design and operation

0432 Strasburg - Red Caboose Motel - Flickr - KlausNahr
Interior

The motel complex consists of 38 cabooses, a railway post office car, baggage car, farmhouse, barn and two dining cars that serve as a restaurant, separated by a boxcar that serves as the kitchen. The cars are parked on actual railroad track. Rather than one linear track, there are multiple shorter tracks to keep the motel layout more compact. The cars are immovable, having been welded to the tracks.

The interiors received insulation over the one-quarter-inch thick steel walls. Initial configurations included a plan with two double beds to sleep four people, and one that slept six in one double bed and four bunk beds. The caboose's cupola was hidden on the inside by the ceiling, but the space was used to house an air conditioner. Electric heaters were also installed, along with a bathroom with shower in the center of each caboose.

Denlinger's original caboose interiors were particularly memorable. Each caboose was equipped with a non-functioning potbelly stove that had a black & white television inside and a lamp hanging from the articulated stovepipe overhead. The cabooses each have a central bathroom but are otherwise unique with different wall finishes. Small furniture that would fit into the cars had to be found or custom made, with some pieces made by a Pennsylvania Dutch cabinetmaker including a combination desk / storage bench with hand-painted American eagle on the top. Denlinger and the renovation contractors did not realize that the cabooses had three-inch-thick concrete floors to lower their center of gravity, necessary when moving at high speed. This made drilling holes in the floor much more difficult than expected.

There are nine different floor plans (seven more that the two originals); some have four or six bunk beds and one caboose is designated the "honeymoon suite" and is equipped with a Jacuzzi.

The exteriors of each caboose were painted bright red, once a traditional caboose color, in 1970, corresponding to the motel's name. They were later uniquely repainted in the livery of a different classic American or Canadian railroad.

On opening day in May 1970, 4,500 people came to see the motel, then made up of ten cabooses and one dining car serving breakfast only. So many people just wanted to see inside a room that in 1972, Denlinger added one caboose for viewing that had been toured by 81,000 people by November 1973.

0472 Strasburg - Red Caboose Motel - Flickr - KlausNahr
Restaurant

Two Pennsylvania Railroad 1920's P-70 railroad coaches, that had operated on the railroad's Reading Seashore Line subsidiary, were acquired from Penn Central's yard in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and brought to the property for use as a dining car restaurant. The restaurant, originally called the Red Caboose Depot Restaurant, opened in June 1974 with a dedication speech by state senator Richard A. Snyder. Each car sat approximately 120 people and was equipped with a mechanism to gently rock the cars to simulate motion.

By 1973, Denlinger reported that the cabooses were booked three weeks in advance during the busy summer season.

A railroad post office car and baggage car and 19 additional cabooses were added in the 1980s. The farm's original house is also used for additional lodging rooms. The town granted permission to add eight cabooses in 1984, which Denlinger said would cost $3,000 each and require up to $15,000 to remodel.

Over the years the Red Caboose Motel has been the home to many events including railroadiana auctions, including one in 1979 when a Reading Railroad caboose was sold, and weekly performances in the barn. On May 10, 1980, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the legendary Great Train Race, a reenactment was held between Strasburg Rail Road Steam Locomotive #90 and a historic stagecoach purchased by Denlinger for the event drawn by four horses.

As of 2018, a miniature train ride, petting zoo, and free movies shown in the barn were available to guests. The restaurant (now Casey Jones’ Restaurant, named after Casey Jones, a notable locomotive engineer) serves the traditional American food that would have been found on trains in the twentieth century as well as local Lancaster County food. Diners can view passing steam trains on the nearby Strasburg Rail Road, the oldest continuously operating railroad in the western hemisphere. The motel and restaurant are closed yearly in January and February.

Museum

In 1972, Denlinger added a Pullman coach as a museum for railroad memorabilia called The Age of Steam Museum. He purchased many items from a collector in Texas, and combined with his existing collection it may have been the largest privately owned collection of steam-age railroad items. The museum displayed 170 steam whistles ranging in size from four inches (100 mm) to nearly six feet (1.8 m) and weighing up to 375 lb (170 kg). There were also railroad bells, the largest weighing 300 lb (140 kg). The collection included railroad crossing markers and other signs, heralds (logos), semaphore signals and engine plates. There was also a mock station master's office.

Ownership

Denlinger, who died in 2008, retired from the operation after 22 years in February 1993 when it was sold for $1.7 million to Kevin and Susan Cavanaugh and partner Peter Botta.

In August 2001, the owners were Wayne Jackson and Scott Fix, according to a report about a potential sewer violation lodged by the town of Paradise. After being forced to close the motel over the issues, they sold it to Dan and Judy Mowery in April 2003. Another report says the Mowerys purchased the restaurant in September 2003 and the motel filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in December 2003. The owner in July 2004 was reported to be Farmer's First Bank. The bank had foreclosed on the mortgage leading to the bankruptcy filing. The property was then under the management of a court-appointed receiver.

The bank tried to dispose of the property in a sheriff's sale in the fall of 2014 but no one was will to pay at least the amount owed on the mortgage, so the bank retained the property.

Larry DeMarco of Philadelphia emerged as a potential buyer in the spring of 2005. He closed on the property on April 15. DeMarco expected to spend $2 million to purchase the property, repair the septic system, and remodel the complex. He had built up forty rental properties in Northeast Philadelphia and sold about ten of them to pay for the purchase. DeMarco had consulted with Denlinger, the original owner. DeMarco upgraded many of the rooms as well as the kitchen and reopened in 2005. DeMarco sold the property in 2016 for $1.7 million. The new owners, who had not previously been in the hospitality industry, had the assistance of a U.S. Small Business Administration loan of $577,000 and immediately began an estimated $75,000 renovation.

Media coverage

The motel has been called "world famous" having been featured in National Geographic, Reader's Digest, Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and the Chinese Life magazine.

It was listed in Guinness World Records for having the largest collection of privately owned cabooses in the world in 1984.

Gallery

Booklet published by the motel.
Excerpt of above booklet.
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