During the Great Depression when Gordon Crosswaite was a boy in Anderson, Ind., he'd lie awake nights listening to the mournful whistles of steam engines, and he'd pretend to be on a train, traveling to some mysterious, faraway place.
The railroad yards were only half a block from his home, and he'd stand by the tracks, watching as trains passed through Anderson en route to Chicago and New York or beyond to the Deep South. After a while Crosswaite got to know one of the "hosters," a crewman who shoveled coal into idle engines to keep up the pressure, and sometimes the hoster would allow Crosswaite to ride with him in the locomotive to the coal tender, half a block away. For an 11-year-old boy who'd never been far from the little hamlet in Indiana, it was Christmas, the Fourth of July and a birthday rolled into one.
The fantasy of traveling to faraway places would never wane for Crosswaite, not even after he'd left Indiana for a teaching career in San Luis Obispo. He never forgot those boyhood nights, listening to the steam whistles--moments burned into the memory like a sweet first kiss. And so in 1971, when a vintage rail car was up for sale in San Luis Obispo, Crosswaite scratched together a down payment, and suddenly a life-long fantasy surfaced.
Crosswaite spent several years refurbishing his rail car, preparing for the day when he could put it back into service, hooking it onto the rear of an Amtrak train and leasing it to charter groups. It was superb, with its Victorian-style lounge, galley, stateroom, bath and two bedrooms plus a rear platform where passengers could watch America pass and wave to motorists at crossings and sip a drink and pretend that a gentle land of an earlier era still existed.
As an amateur railroader, the 59-year-old Crosswaite isn't alone. Indeed, the American Assn. of Private Railroad Car Owners lists nearly 200 members who graduated from Lionel electric trains as youngsters to the exciting world of the Iron Horse.
All this bodes well for the well-heeled traveler who, like Crosswaite, is struck with the desire to slip away to another world, riding the rails in spiffed-up coaches that frequently date from the romantic steam-engine era. Members make deals with charter groups to rent the cars for a day, a week or sometimes a month at a time.
Laddie Shrbeny, director of special movement for Amtrak, receives more than 100 requests a month from private-car owners who want to hook up with passenger trains. Sometimes his job gets outrageously frustrating. His most complicated assignment involved a couple of car owners who decided to travel 15,000 miles "from sea to shining sea." The problem was, they wanted to do certain sections together, then go their separate ways and rendevous at a later point.
Shrbeny agonized over that one. The logistics involved were horrendous. Making sure that the cars rendezvoused later would boggle the mind of NASA's Mission Control.
Some AAPRCO members reserve their carriages for their private use. The majority, though, lease their cars to individuals and groups. And while such travel is a joy, it's expensive. To charter Crosswaite's car for a two-day round-trip journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco with 25 passengers figures to cost about $240 apiece. That's for transportation and meals. Passengers do not sleep on the train. Still, it's pure luxury. Fresh linen. Fresh flowers. Dining on board recalls the golden era of railroading.
On the other hand, Crosswaite has leased the car for as little as $850 a day plus a couple of hundred bucks for the crew and Amtrak's fee, which can run anywhere from $1.10 to $2.10 per mile. Switching is extra. And occasionally, Crosswaite says, he turns a profit.
Some cars feature shiny cherry-wood interiors of the '20s, while others come off strictly as Art Deco. A Detroit industrialist spent $1 million restoring a vintage car that originally was wired by Thomas Edison for auto tycoon Henry Ford.
Brett Eisele, an industrial real estate broker in Casa Grande, Ariz., has been a self-described "rail nut" for years, although it wasn't until recently that he got his own car.
"I stole it for $45,000," Eisele says. On the other hand he spent a bundle refurbishing the interior with its wood paneling, brass railings and spacious bedrooms. Eisele recalls sipping a beer aboard his private car one rainy night, listening to the click , click , click of wheels while crossing a bridge near St. Louis. "Pure heaven," he muses.
A car in mint condition today fetches anywhere from $300,000 to $2 million. Eisele, unlike a majority of association members, uses his 1926 vintage car with its cherry-wood interior strictly for personal pleasure.