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.

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]

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Mike - October 22, 2014 Reply

Wow! What a unique and interesting idea! Not one that can easily be replicated though. I imagine that there are still a limited number of old railroad cabooses sitting around in the back of some railyards accross the country, but these things are very heavy and locating them to where you would want to live could prove both difficult and expensive

Edward - October 22, 2014 Reply

Really enjoyed this. Also, your series on boats. Keep it up, Andrew. Your articles are an antidote for boring.

    Andrew M. Odom - October 22, 2014 Reply

    Thank you so much for your kind words Edward. I try to keep a focus on how the modern tiny house movement may have taken shape or found itself in the bones of other unconventional homes.

Becca - October 22, 2014 Reply

Wow… the inside of that train car looks so modern, while the outside looks historic. Best of both worlds 🙂

david - October 22, 2014 Reply

so strong and solid looking. All that concentrated strength, and the memories they must have from those long rollicking years along the tracks. Now at rest. Finally.

Ed Presley - October 22, 2014 Reply

Has anyone looked into or already done the following. Load a tiny house, mobile one on a flat deck trailer, unto a flat rail car and traveled throughout the country. Price? Possibility of being shunted aside for stops in different cities and then continuing on later. This idea excites me, does not require pulling the tiny house.

    jipsi - October 23, 2014 Reply

    WOW. That is a really cool idea… traveling wherever the rail takes you…I’d love it! Hmmm… but I have a feeling there would be a hefty price (of being pulled along on a flat car), even if only as ‘cargo’. And probably more rules and restrictions than one could shake a stick at…. as always.
    But a great diversion of fancy and inspiration, no less!
    I cannot see how rehabbing/repurposing a railcar (box car, caboose, etc) could cost more than similarily fixing up a cargo container to live in, though, unless one was trying to do a period-type restoration…

Linda - October 22, 2014 Reply

How interesting and very cool!!!

Bill Freeman - October 23, 2014 Reply

wish there were builders here in Maine and if anyone knows one or close to Maine let me know.

MJ - October 23, 2014 Reply

Thanks for a great article with some wonderful history along with a dose of tiny house application. I’ve read a few stories of people who live in these and their stories never fail to intrigue.

My own ‘wish I could do that!’ started with the Boxcar children as well, so thanks for that memory flash too!

Vermont Tree Cabin - October 23, 2014 Reply

Wow, what a unique idea! Love this train design. The insides looks amazing as well. Very luxurious.

I bet Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory would love this!! 😛

Samantha - October 24, 2014 Reply

Hi.

I was wondering if you could share some details about how this conversion is possible…in terms of mere pragmatics. Where did the Davidson’ buy their caboose? How did they transport it? Or what are transport options? How expensive is the acquisition and transport? Thanks!

    Andrew M. Odom - October 24, 2014 Reply

    Unfortunately Samantha I can’t offer any details about how the conversion is possible. I write from more of a “finished product” standpoint and don’t dive too far into the process pool.

jo - October 25, 2014 Reply

I loved The Boxcar Children! That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the photo.

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