TRAVEL: Love trains? Sleep in this old caboose in the Blue Ridge Mountains

TRAVEL: Love trains? Sleep in this old caboose in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Unique lodging facilities often find appeal with more adventurous travelers. Vacationers can stay in a treehouse in Cave City, Oregon, a teepee in Holbrook, Arizona, or a cave near Parthenon, Arkansas. Bisbee, Arizona, is home to a motor court with vintage RVs, while in Long Beach, California, guest rooms are available in the permanently docked Queen Mary. These and other unusual options are available for travelers who enjoy lodging experiences that are out of the ordinary.

Train buffs are a breed apart and would likely enjoy a night in a facility associated with railroading. The Isaac Walton Inn, a 1939 employee hotel built by Great Northern Railway, is popular with rail enthusiasts and one of our favorite Montana stops. In addition to regular hotel rooms, the inn offers overnight accommodations in several refurbished cabooses and a converted Great Northern diesel locomotive.

We recently visited with an enterprising fellow in Rockbridge County, Virginia, who devoted considerable time, energy and money to offering travelers the experience of staying overnight in a converted 1926 C&O caboose. This may be a good alternative if you are a train buff but can’t get to Montana anytime soon. During our visit, the caboose owner shared the story of how he got into the caboose lodging business.


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A sofa in the living area converts into a bed. The decor is pure railroad.

Tom Bradshaw, operator of a portrait studio for 40 years, admitted he is always searching for a project. The caboose idea came about nearly a decade ago when he was viewing a PBS program about a restored lighthouse. Tom said a light switched on in his brain when the lighthouse owner commented that people love staying in a lighthouse or a caboose. That gave Tom an idea. He and his wife had spent many years collecting railroad memorabilia and they owned a lovely piece of property in the country, so he decided to search for an available caboose.

We have discovered during decades of travel that nearly every community, however small, has a story worth telling. It may be a tale about an individual who once resided there or a long ago battle fought nearby. Perhaps it is a bridge with a rich history or a house where something of consequence took place. Unique museums, monuments, stores and people offer insight about a community’s character and history. Discovering these stories makes travel more enjoyable.

Following several dead ends, Tom bumped into a friend who asked just one question, “Do you want a steel one or a wooden one?” A week later a wooden caboose was delivered to Tom’s property in what the new owner described as “deplorable condition.” Restoration required roughly five years, with Tom performing most of the plumbing and electrical work.

Tom said the biggest problems he faced were the kitchen, hot water and the bed. Space available for the kitchen was quite limited and equipment had to fit through the steel doorframe, so the kitchen was custom made. He solved the hot water problem by installing an on-demand hot water heater. With insufficient space for a dresser, Tom settled for a captain’s bed that was custom made to fit through the doorframe.

A railroad-crossing signal flashes to welcome guests entering the parking area. Tom commented that train enthusiasts have arrived from all over, including Europe and Australia. He said the happiest are the children who are excited at the prospect of staying overnight in a caboose. On the day of our arrival, he mentioned the departing couple’s little boy started crying because he didn’t want to leave. Any railroad buff, including an adult, can relate to that.

Tom Bradshaw’s caboose is located in a scenic region of Virginia offering visitor activities and attractions that range from cave tours to animal parks. There is even a nearby drive-in theater. Nearby Lexington is steeped in history with the appearance and feel of early America. The town of a little over 7,000 citizens is a great place for a downtown stroll with a mandatory stop at Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe. Several buildings, including the Stonewall Jackson house, are open for tours. Lexington is also home to two institutions of higher education: Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute. Each offers a fine museum.

The caboose is in a wooded area outside the small town of Natural Bridge, Virginia, about 15 miles south of Lexington, at the south end of the Shenandoah Valley. The caboose is a short distance from Natural Bridge State Park, which is noted for an impressive 215-foot high natural bridge. Interestingly, the park’s acreage was once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

So, here’s an opportunity to enjoy peaceful slumber in an historic caboose while taking in the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. For this, you can give Tom a tip of the hat.