All Aboard: Tiny Houses Take to the Rails

“…what thrills me about trains is not their size or their equipment but the fact that they are moving, that they embody a connection between unseen places.”
~ Marianne Wiggins

I remember the first few lines as if I read them just this morning. “One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” And thus began the adventure of the boxcar children and a lifelong fascination of mine with life in a rail car.

It seems that trains hold this special place in the American collective memory. They evoke this element of grandeur and this air of mystery. From the glamour of the 20th Century Limited to the suspense of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express trains have shaped the landscape literally, figuratively, and academically for the better part of 120 years.

20th Century Limited

Even now rail afficianados and travelers can enjoy a slight upgrade by hitching their own rail car to an engine and caboose. In fact, according to the Amtrak website:

Amtrak provides the ability for rail/train car owners to have their privately-owned rail/train cars attached to our trains between specified locations to see North America in an extraordinary way. We also provide many services, including 480v standby power, water, ice, septic, car wash, parking, and switching.

The charges to the owner of the private car include an annual registration fee, concurrent with the annual PC-1 inspection, as well as a mileage rate based on the number of cars on that particular movement request and other charges based on the services requested. View our Private Car Tariff terms and conditions, and other information about private car movements.

This is great news for normal people like Chuck Jensen. In 2011 he was interviewed by the Washington Post in an article talking about rail car owners and the subjects of their passion. Jensen had recently hooked up his refurbished 1923 Pullman sleeper – the Kitchi Gammi Club – and was preparing to host a group of guests chartering the car.

Charter outings and private parties are what typically pay the expenses of these interesting tiny houses which annually cost upwards of $18,200 (adjust for inflation) for annual storage, insurance and maintenance costs. The Kitchi Gammi is a Pullman sleeper originally built in Calumet City, IL in June and July of 1923. The car was originally named the Mountain View and was built to Pullman plan 2521C, lot 4690. There were twenty cars built to this plan, known as the Mountain series of which only 20 were originally built as 10-section observation lounge cars with an open observation platform. The Kitchi Gammi boasts a kitchen, a kitchenette, two bathrooms, 5 dining tables, a master bedroom, a crew bedroom, and a lounge to seat 10.

Kimmi Gitchi

In the past few years though the idea of live aboard trains has taken on new meaning. As more and more people search for smaller housing, unconventional housing, and sustainable (by way of recycling) housing, emphasis has been put on refurbishing old rail cars and living in them as a immobile unit. Perhaps the most popular though is the Caboose as trains no longer carry them regularly and rail companies are modifying their stock and decommissioning their old. Many of them require major work though and are not cheap to restore at all. One example of a truly glorious restoration is the 1949 Railroad Caboose owned by Samuel and Barbara Davidson of Mercer Island, Washington.

Robinson Caboose 1

At 260 square feet the Davidson’s have lived in their caboose for over 30 years! The design features floor-to-ceiling picture windows on one side overlooking a large 8′ x  20′ private deck and sits on actual rails. The home serves as a live/work space for the Davidson family and for the occasional renter. Some of the restoration work (and cool, original features) include the Otis Elevator metalwork in the bathroom and the stained glass window on the outside door. The tiny house has been updated though with the addition of electricity, heat, water, washer/dryer, and a full kitchen. It is a modern day work of art based on a nostalgic art foundation.

Robinsons 2

Robinsons 3


photos via Apartment Therapy

Whether mobile or stationary train cars offer a new way of tiny house living. They speak to the nostalgic vision of a traveling America while also providing a warm, cozy, and interesting way to adventure through this world.


By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

Adventures with Dorothy, or Tiny Living Lite

Hi, I’m Pia, and I’d like to share with your readers how I accidentally fell headfirst into, and headlong in love with, living Tiny.

Dorothy babes love buses

Dorothy babes love buses

I had been infatuated with Tiny houses for about 5 years before I found Dorothy. I have a background in Architecture and I’ve lived in lots of beautiful and unique homes and places, though never ever for long enough. Overall, small, clever spaces just have a practical appeal, plus they’re absolutely gorgeous and romantic (tiny handcrafted wooden hobbit mound? Yes please!), and what nomad doesn’t secretly pine for a nice, lockable, four-walls-and-a-roof combination to call her own. If that particular combination happens to be technically portable, even better.

However, with custom Tinies coming in at tens of thousands of dollars, and the ideal of crafting my own being delayed by my resolute singleness and complete and comical lack of skill with heavy power tools, I’d consoled myself to Cabin Porning and Float Home-creeping and Tiny House Blogging…for the next few years, anyway.

Dorothy exterior with glorious mountainscape

Dorothy exterior with glorious mountainscape

That was until the end of the ski season in Canada had me pining for a nice, practical van to move my diverse collection of used snowboards and dancing shoes across the country. I came across and advertisement for a 1989 Chevy bus, freshly retired from ferrying disabled kids to and from school, in pristine condition, and going for a song. A vintage, golden shortbus, all boxy windows and brown vinyl interior cannot, once seen, be unseen (obviously), so I rang and emailed and rang some more, until she had been promised to me, and my plans had all changed. I was going to buy a school bus. I was going to cut out the seats and put in a bed and curtains of every color, and I was going to live in it. Because I was young and free, dammit, and I was absolutely smitten.

Dorothy exterior with riding ensemble

Dorothy exterior with riding ensemble

And guess what? In defiance of all probability and rationality, that’s exactly what I did, and it was, and is, the best thing I have ever done. I gathered handy roommates and gave them borrowed power-tools and we cut out rusted seats and fossilized bubblegum on early spring afternoons, salvaging seat-belts and selling the frames for scrap. We named her Dorothy, and cleaned her down to a blank, spare shell, then raided thrift stores and yard sales to fill her back up again. Friends heard what we were doing and turned up with blankets, houseplants, fairy lights, and candy. I had a personal shopper at Home Depot who patiently sold me, and then processed returns on, most every possible tie-down in the store, until we achieved the perfect balance of securely-anchored to girly-handmade and effortless-appearing. I tried to minimize the damage to Dorothy’s original body in our renovations, using existing bolt holes and finishes where possible, and covering things with removable screws and stickers, rather than permanent glues and paints. I knew that Dorothy would not be mine forever, and that her future owners could have as much fun taking her back to basics and working with her original bones as I was. With a lot of love, a lot of magnets, a lot of string, and a whole lot of good luck, we were ready to take her on the road within a fortnight.

Dorothy exterior with trendy vintage bike

Dorothy exterior with trendy vintage bike

Since April, Dorothy and I have stayed in ski carparks, playgrounds, backyards, driveways, RV parks, vineyards and riverbanks. We stayed, memorably, for a week in the industrial estate in Banff when her starter broke, and we’ve been towed twice, by the same handsome tow-truck driver, because I am terrible at timing stops for the auto propane she runs on/guzzles. She’s carried dogs, cats, bikes, and up to 10 people (I have wall-attached seat belts for 8), and she’s slept up to 3 people in relative (very companionable) comfort. She’s delivered us safely and uncomplainingly on a road trip through British Columbia and Washington State. And everywhere we go, she makes people smile. Little kids wave from the back window of their family wagons, and sweet gas-station attendants always have a story about their own van or caravan that they had when they were my age. If I drive her at night, drunk people always try to flag us down, and I swear I only get 20% of the parking tickets I deserve… Continue reading

Catawba Falls Cabins

While on a recent trip to North Carolina, a walk in the rainy woods revealed a few mushroom-like cabins tucked into the trees. The Catawba Falls Campground’s gypsy cabins are 8×14 foot arched wooden cabins available for rent and sleep up to four people. They share the campground with a few other cabins for rent.


The cabins, complete with small porches, include four built-in beds, lockable storage space and lockable doors, heating and AC and electricity for lighting and computers. While cooking is done outside on picnic tables and the tiny cabins do not contain bathrooms or showers, the campground does offer larger cabins complete with tiny kitchens that include a dorm refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot as well as AC and heating.



The cabins are located right next to a bubbling creek and are about a two-mile hike from beautiful Catawba Falls. The cabins rent for $50 a night and bedding is available for an additional fee. Dogs are allowed in and around the cabins as well.


Contrary to what the little gnome says, this place is hard to leave.


Photos by Christina Nellemann and Catawba Falls Campground


By Christina Nellemann for the [Tiny House Blog]