Ever since the Alden children – Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny –  first captured my imagination in their pursuit to escape the ill-tempered baker’s wife I have been fascinated with the plight of the boxcar or railcar. The children, in order to stay together, fled to an abandoned boxcar where they found bunks, a table, a small cabinet, and all sorts of props for their mystery adventures. By age 10 I had decided that I too would live in a boxcar, have a mutt that followed me through the woods, and keep my milk cold by running it downstream on a fishing line. But the history of the railcar is far more luxurious as it captures a time in history when transcontinental travel was long and arduous and creature comforts were hard to come by.

A private railroad car, private railway coach, private car or private varnish is a railroad passenger car which was either originally built or later converted for service as a business car for private individuals. A private car could be stationed anywhere and simply added to the make-up of a train or pulled by a private locomotive, providing splendid upholstered privacy for its passengers. They were used by railroad officials (most notably Leland Stanford, primary investor in the Central Pacific Railroad and founder of Stanford University) and dignitaries as business cars, and wealthy individuals for travel and entertainment, especially in the United States.

“A private car is not an acquired taste. One takes to it immediately,” said Mrs. August Belmont Jr., grande dame of New York City’s Belmont banking dynasty, nearly a century ago. The Chapel Hill, a lavishly restored car, was built in 1922 for stockbroker E. F. Hutton. Stephensen’s car, the Survivor, was owned originally by department store magnate F. W. Woolworth; Cary Grant is said to have courted Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in it.1

The cars were sometimes used by politicians in “whistle stop campaigns” complete with sleeping quarters, an office, and a dining facility. Their role as a tiny house perhaps began less opulently when pay cars with less smaller sleeping and more simple dining facilities were used by a paymaster and assistants to transport and disburse cash wages to rail employees in remote locations without banking facilities.

As the Gilded Age came about in the late 19th century, wealthy individuals had finely appointed private cars custom-built to their specifications. Some cars included observation wings which featured walls and ceilings of glass for the viewing pleasure of guests. Others had cherry and oak dining tables complete with fine chine and gold crusted dinnerware. And yet others featured fireplaces, sconce lighting, and leather furniture. There was no request too large for this magical time. In Abraham Lincoln’s Pullman Car the primary sofa (velvet with button appointments) formed into upper and lower beds (now referred to as the Pullman bed and used on cruise ships globally).

True to form for a tiny house, the private railroad cars were not always built from the ground up. In fact, most were originally used in common carrier service as passenger cars and later converted for use as business and private cars generally consisting of an observation platform, a full kitchen, dining room, state rooms, secretary’s room, an observation room, and even servant’s quarters. There was no standard size as cars could sometimes be as long as 200ft. + and weight in excess of 90 tons!

By the late 1950s, the number of private cars in use had dwindled to fewer than a dozen.

As rail travel declined in the 1960s, railroad companies began selling off cars to museums and collectors. Subsequently, the creation of Amtrak, the federally subsidized rail system, in 1971, boosted private car usage by granting linkup privileges. Over the years, Amtrak’s relationship with car owners has sometimes been tense, as everything from the colors that the historic cars can be painted to what age to ban them from the tracks was negotiated.

Today the cost of owning a luxury railcar – er, tiny house on tracks – is rather high as owners admit to spending $10k to $50k a year to store and keep the car in running condition. Chartering helps offset operating expenses.2  Amtrak, in addition to doing annual inspections, checks each private car on every trip. If a problem is uncovered, a car is uncoupled from the train for repairs, which can cost thousands of dollars. “A lot can shake loose because of the constant movement,” says Elliott. Even when there are no mishaps, Dean Levin estimates that a one-way trip from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. can cost $2,000.

To find out more about the heritage of the railcar you can check out these cars available for rent:

Or if you want to see what can be done in terms of renovating these tiny homes check out:

 

 

1 Smithsonian Mag

 Image courtesy of Train Chartering & Private Rail Cars