Charleston Gazette-Mail – Castaway Caboose: Unhook, UnPlug and Camp in a Railroad Car
DURBIN — Sometimes it’s not so much about where you’re going. It’s about how you get there.
A trip, complete with overnight stay, aboard the Castaway Caboose is one of those times.
After all, there aren’t that many opportunities these days to board a coal-powered 1910 steam engine, chug five miles along a scenic track, and be left alone at the end of the line for a night or two in a caboose that was originally used as housing for railroad workers.
But ever since 2007, visitors have been coming to this tiny speck of a town situated in the northern part of Pocahontas County to do just that.
That’s when Mountain Rail Adventures, a division of the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, teamed up with railroad enthusiasts Jay and Kathy East. The couple had rescued not one but two cabooses — a 1952 Wabash Railroad caboose they bought in 2004 from a junkyard, where it had been for 18 years, and a 1947 model they bought in 2007.
The historical integrity of the cabooses was maintained during the restoration and conversion process, East said. He pointed out the wood plank-paneled walls and ceilings, overhead handrails, original water storage tank, bunks and engineer’s desk — complete with shelving originally used to store and organize weigh bills for the railroad cars.
Boasting about 252 square feet of living space, the self-contained cabooses — equipped with a kitchen, onboard bathroom and shower facilities, and a propane grill — sleep up to six.
“It’s set up like an RV,” East said. “An RV on tracks is all it really is.”
What he calls a simple RV on tracks is enjoyed by hundreds of vacationers every season who want to experience the historic accommodations, train ride and step back in time to a place where cellphones are silent and the soothing sounds of the Greenbrier River’s rippling waters lull you to sleep.
The Castaway Caboose is a much-coveted, sellout vacation destination. “It’s been a year and a half since we began trying to get in here,” said Jack Harder, of Bel Air, Maryland. Jack and his wife, Elaine, finally managed to get a reservation by calling in early January.
Well worth the wait, the Harders said, adding that they hope to take advantage of this and other Mountain Rail Adventures offerings next summer.
“It was a great experience filled with good family time — sitting around the campfire, talking with each other, listening to the river,” Jack Harder said. “It was really soothing.”
They were treated with sightings of local wildlife, too.
“We saw a bear on the way out, and there were some deer in the river right where we were,” he said.
“We were able to experience life firsthand,” said Elaine Harder, who, along with her husband, daughter and future son-in-law, had just stepped off the train and back into the 21st century.
“We spent some time playing cards, with actual cards,” she said. “It was a little throwback, which was very nice. I think being unplugged was the best thing about the experience.”
While the cabooses have a solar panel and marine generator to provide limited access to electricity, they don’t have air conditioning. The only truly modern form of entertainment provided is a DVD player and a box full of movies.
“There was a radio, but there was nothing — nothing — to hear,” Elaine Harder said. “It was a step back in time.”
That’s because the railroad is located close to the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory, designated a National Radio Quiet Zone by the U.S. government, meaning only very low signal strength is allowed for broadcasters, and there is no cellphone service.
Mountain Rail Adventures has an average of 90,000 riders a year among its three depot locations in Cass, Durbin and Elkins, spokesman Chase Gunnoe said. The trains include the New Tygart Flyer, a vintage diesel-powered passenger train boasting a restored 1929 Pullman Car; the Mountain Explorer Dinner Train; the Cheat Mountain Salamander; the Cass Scenic Railroad’s collection of six Shay locomotives, one Heisler and one Climax, engineered to pull heavy loads of lumber; and the Durbin Rocket, the vintage steam locomotive that pulls the Castaway Caboose.
The Durbin & Greenbrier Railroad plays a vital role in promoting and preserving railroad history and allows passengers to experience bygone eras in many different venues including Mystery Murder Dinners and a Wild West Weekend where the train is ambushed and robbed by a band of horse-riding outlaws.
The Durbin Rocket, a Climax steam engine built in Pennsylvania more than 100 years ago, is only one of three still in existence. It has a top speed of about 15 miles per hour, said engineer and mechanic Jim Bennett. A team of men is needed to keep it up and running, lubricating the moving parts, siphoning water from the creek along the way, and shoveling coal into the furnace.
The chug-chug-chug of the pistons is deceptive at first, because the ride is fairly smooth once all the slack is taken up between the cars at the onset of motion.
Links to the past
Departing the station for their own Castaway Caboose adventure, Cindy Smith, her husband, Paul, and his brother Bruce, said that coming from a family of railroaders, they “just had to do” this.
They learned of the Castaway Caboose last year when they brought their RV down from northwestern Pennsylvania — “40 miles from where the Durbin Rocket was manufactured” — to visit the Cass Scenic Railroad, Cindy Smith said.
Paul and Bruce Smith find the historical family connection to the locomotive extremely interesting.
“Our great-grandfather was involved with geared steam engines,” Paul said. “In a very similar setting, our great-grandfather — in the early 1900s — operated Heislers and Shays.”
He said he is interested in “steam locomotives in general and this one in particular because it is a geared locomotive and one of the few left on the face of the earth still operating.”
The Smiths plan to use their two-night stay on the Castaway Caboose as a time to “hide for a few days next to the river,” Bruce Smith said.
“And watch the train come down the tracks with passengers tomorrow,” Paul Smith added.
The trio are accustomed to outdoor activities and plan to backpack the seven miles from their camp at the end of the line over dilapidated tracks to Cass.
“Seven miles one way makes for a pretty long day,” Paul Smith said, laughing. “So we may just sit and read.”