Parents instinctively want to re-create their favorite childhood memories for their own children. When we adopted our son, now 5, he arrived with an innate love of trains that reflected and even outpaced my own childhood devotion to all things railroad. It was only a matter of time before we retraced my childhood visits to railroad sites in this Amish county town, with our tow-headed young’un in tow.
Since 1959, the Strasburg Railroad has offered excursion rides along its tracks through Amish farm country in lovingly restored coaches that are in extremely good condition, especially compared to some other short-line railroads across the country.
Each ride – pulled by a steam engine – is a little less than an hour, and the conductor’s patter hasn’t changed much from what I remember when riding these rails as a child. The conductor still points out the turkey farm the train steams past and teases guests with the notion of a “ghost train” across the valley that responds to the Strasburg Railroad’s whistle.
“We pay that ghost $27.50 a day to sit there and blow that whistle back to us,” the conductor joked about the echo.
The Strasburg Railroad does offer more coach options than it did two decades ago, including reasonably priced lunches in air-conditioned dining cars. Just last month, the Pinball Pendolino Car debuted, offering guests a chance to play pinball while riding the train.
Our son arrived at the station dressed in his striped engineer overalls, eager to board and equally interested in the station-based add-ons, including hand-propelled Cranky Cars and a miniature steam train originally used at Coney Island (both free for kids 2 and under, $5 ages 3 and up).
Red Caboose Motel
For the train fan who visits Lancaster County, there’s really no other choice: You must stay at the Red Caboose Motel, a fixture along the Strasburg Railroad tracks since 1969. Each of the motel’s 40 rooms is a retired train car, 38 cabooses plus one baggage car and one mail car.
Larry DeMarco bought the motel in 2005, and he’s renovated many of the cabooses over the past decade. The original room design from the 1970s was marked by tacky composite wood paneling; the cabooses with makeovers feature less dingy accommodations with neutral-colored walls, larger bathrooms and sometimes reconfigured bunk beds in the caboose’s cupola. (We stayed in Caboose No. 7, which includes a double bed, three bunk beds and a spacious bathroom.)
“When I got it, the bank owned it and only four or five rooms were even functional,” DeMarco said. “We had to upgrade the plumbing, the electrical and some other stuff.”
A self-described real estate investor, DeMarco was living in Philadelphia when he bought the motel. “I always wanted a home away from home, and I thought it was something my kids would love,” he said.
He moved to Lancaster permanently in 2009. “I like trains, but I wasn’t a train buff. I’m just an adventurous guy who likes trying things.”
This summer he rented out the property’s barn and farmhouse for use in the sequel to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” due in theaters next year. (Friday and Saturday nights during the summer, weather permitting, motel guests can watch movies projected on the side of the barn.) “We’re working on getting the barn redone so we can have events there,” he said. “Barn weddings are big now.”
The motel includes a dining car serving breakfast, lunch and dinner that’s leased out to a restaurant operator. As a child, it was one of my favorite places to eat because the car was on a hydraulic system that made it bounce as if it was clickety-clacking down the track. During our June visit, the hostess claimed that the system was operational but we couldn’t feel any movement.
Also, the music playing wasn’t the endless loop of railroad songs I remembered from my childhood, a disappointment. But any trip to the Red Caboose Motel is a good trip when you have a pint-sized train devotee in tow who can amuse himself turning the caboose brake wheel and shouting “All aboard!” repeatedly.
“We have so many rail fans and former Red Caboose kids who bring their kids, it’s just great,” DeMarco said. “This place will be here forever because we have so many fans and then there are people just discovering it, too.”
Three train museums sprang up within a mile of the Strasburg Railroad, two devoted to toy trains and one that displays the real deal.
The National Toy Train Museum, situated directly behind the Red Caboose Motel, displays toy trains from the 1800s to the present. It’s more suited to collectors or aficionados of Lionel trains and the like from times gone by. But there are also buttons to push to activate several train sets that offer some appeal to train-crazy kids. The Choo Choo Barn displays one enormous, highly detailed train set, complete with tiny versions of the Strasburg Railroad and Red Caboose Motel among other Lancaster attractions.
The enormous set-up also features an A-frame house that routinely catches fire. A firetruck exits a nearby fire station, and when it stops in front of the house that smoke wafts out of, tiny firefighter figures hop off the truck, raise a ladder and real water squirts from their hoses until the faux fire is extinguished. The level of detail holds appeal for children and adults alike.
For travelers with time and budget for just one train museum, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is the best bet. This museum boasts an impressive array of railroad equipment – steam and diesel engines, various types of train cars – housed inside a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall.
The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania is officially dedicated to collecting, preserving and interpreting objects relating to the history of railroading in Pennsylvania, but it also offers a lot for children, including an educational wing filled with toy trains to play with, a diesel locomotive cab simulator and a steam engine mock-up where kids can shovel “coal” (pieces of black foam) into an engine’s boiler.
On the last morning of our stay in this railroad buff’s paradise, our son started barking like a dog from the top bunk in the cupola of our caboose room, which is not unusual. He imitates our dog a lot. When we asked for a translation to English, we knew our trip to Strasburg was a success: “Thanks for bringing me here,” he said sincerely.