Room With A Choo

Rail enthusiasts capture the action at the nearby Gallitzin Tunnels.
Rail enthusiasts capture the action at the nearby Gallitzin Tunnels. (Gary M. Baranec - For The Washington Post)
By Eugene L. Meyer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Usually you look for a motel well away from any train tracks. And if you can't find one, at least you ask for a room as far from the rails as possible. Well, not here. At this Pennsylvania motel for and by railroad fanatics, a location 50 yards from the main line is a point of pride, and a trackside room is an upgrade.

At the Station Inn bed-and-breakfast in the Allegheny mountain town of Cresson, Pa., the rails are alive with the sound of music -- to the ears of trainiacs, anyway, who flock to the ramshackle building where trains seldom stop. Here they have developed porch-sitting into a fine art of train-watching, complete with straight-from-the-dispatcher scanner soundtrack.

To all but the most avid rail fans, Cresson is almost beyond comprehension. An average of 70 trains rumble through each day, all clearly visible from the lengthy front porch of the Station Inn. Most are freights, some so long they take 15 minutes to come and go. Only a few are passenger trains, and they are barely noticed.

Perhaps only a rail fan (or a patient spouse) could truly love the Station Inn, with its single beds in austere rooms -- no air conditioning, TV or phones. Not to mention the loud rumbling of the freight trains.

I married into a family of this particular tribe. My late father-in-law seldom traveled unless there was a trolley or train museum to be seen, or a ride to be had. My brother-in-law is modeling the B&O Railroad -- from his home in San Diego. For a while, each of my three sons went through a model railroading phase, and we've done our share of excursion train traveling on family trips. I understand the lure . . . I think.

Guests at the Station Inn in Cresson, Pa.  --  through which about 70 trains pass each day  --  watch from the inn's porch.
Guests at the Station Inn in Cresson, Pa. -- through which about 70 trains pass each day -- watch from the inn's porch.(Gary M. Baranec - For The Washington Post)
On my first afternoon, I join half a dozen others on the porch and settle into a rocking chair facing the tracks. Dress is casual and generally includes train caps and railroad-related T-shirts. Most of the train-watchers are male and retired. There's a former banker from Connecticut. A retired state trooper from New Hampshire has brought along his wife. He watches, she reads. There's one couple in their twenties, unusual. They're from Upstate New York. He's a rail fan. She's never done this before and is trying really, really hard to be a good sport.

Cresson, where the Pennsylvania Railroad used to employ hundreds of workers, still has a small engine terminal and maintenance yard. Thus trains often stop to decouple their "helper engines" that have aided their ascent up the mountain, a subject of some porch talk.

At 4 p.m., two freight trains pass each other. These are "all stock," I'm told, meaning container cars and some multilevel auto carriers. A faster Amtrak passenger train whips by shortly before 5. After dinner, Wally Fortier, a retired railroad worker from Vermont, counts 172 cars on one freight train, and his son Mike, a computer consultant, observes approvingly, "That's a lot of trucks that aren't on the highway."

Wally says a westbound freight train passing by is empty. He can tell by the sound. "If they were loaded," he says, "they wouldn't rattle like that."

You learn such train esoterica at the Station Inn, which for the past 11 years has been owned and operated by Tom Davis, a retired New Jersey school administrator and an unabashed train nut.

"We're attuned to rail fans," Davis says. "That's our whole drift." The building was constructed in 1866 as a hotel that Davis has upgraded, modestly, without changing much of its ancient essence.

In my first-floor, track-facing Reading Railroad room -- with curtains of pale green, cream-colored walls and pictures of Reading locomotives on the wall -- are two single beds separated by a night table and light. In one corner is a small desk with a composition notebook containing testimonials to the Station Inn experience. "Trip #7. We come every summer," writes a couple from Wyoming, Ill. "Who needs planes, TV and air when you have the sight, sound and smells of trains."

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