The double hoot of a steam train jolted me awake. I peeked out the window above my bed. A wispy gray tuft billowed behind a massive coal-burning locomotive as it chuffed across fields of Amish farmland toward Paradise, Pa.
People come to these pleasant hills of Lancaster County for its countryside shops selling fruit and shoofly pie and its quiet, winding roads with the only sound the click-clacking of horse-drawn buggies. But we came for the rumbling, the soot and the clanging. We came for the trains.
The weekend trip was only half over, and already we had waved at them, climbed up them, rode on them and eaten inside of them. And yes, I was actually sleeping in a caboose.
We had managed to do all this in Strasburg, Pa., a town in Lancaster County that has been building a following for decades with its historic railroad that operates excursion steam trains, a railroading museum and a motel made up of 39 cabooses and railcars, in addition to two other model train sites in the area.
It seems absurd that I questioned whether this railroading enclave would interest both my husband, Michael and our trainiac toddler sons, ages 2 and 1. The earliest indication, the moment we got out of the car parked in an open field near the Strasburg Rail Road and they ran in three different directions, suggested that yes, it would.
Our first stop was the Strasburg Rail Road, a tourist railway for more than 50 years and a working railroad since its charter in 1832. Beyond its regular excursion rides, it offers themed outings linked to the era of steam power and catering to all manner of visitors. There are wine-and-cheese, murder-mystery and first-class dinner rides. There are rides celebrating hobos, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. There’s even a steampunk festival.
At the other end of the spectrum is the reason we went there: Thomas.
For those who don’t have a preschool-age child in their lives, that would be Thomas the Tank Engine, a fictional steam locomotive featured on DVDs and in toy-strewn playrooms everywhere.
The railroad’s “Day Out With Thomas” events, held in June, September and coming up Nov. 22 to 24, are its biggest days. The event drew 31,000 people over nine days last June. We were among the 5,500 wild-eyed, Ergobaby-wearing parents in a stroller derby vying to get close to Thomas on one of those days.
Clutching toy versions of Thomas and chunks of pizza in their hands, our boys clambered onboard the 1917 steam train with the bright blue shell, red trim and moving eyes, and called out, “All aboard!” Thomas pushed us backward down the track and into a brief reverie of farm-fresh air before bringing us back into the railway station.
We took a break of sorts before a relative and her school-age children joined us on the railroad’s classic 45-minute steam train ride to Paradise and back.
On our way back from Paradise we hopped off at the single stop the train makes, Groff’s Grove, planning to catch the next train returning from its excursion.
Stepping onto a strip of grass between the tracks and a cornfield, we raced the train chug-chugging, slowly at first, as it headed back toward Strasburg.
We kept running right into Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, a 15-acre old-fashioned fun-fest that straddles the railroad tracks. There were sack slides and hay chutes, bouncy huts and wagon rides. There were pick-your-own pumpkin and “popcorn” patches, and the centerpiece, a 5-acre corn maze with 2 1/2 miles of paths and an optional multilevel treasure hunt.
Once back in Strasburg, we drove to the Red Caboose Motel, just down from the railroad. The children scarfed down spaghetti dinners followed by ice cream at the motel’s restaurant, a converted 80-ton coach car.
Then we checked into our room. Or rather our caboose.
The layout inside the car was, fittingly, like a railroad apartment, with one room leading into another, and a bathroom tucked to one side. With carpeting and paneled walls, a television and a mini-fridge, it was just like any other motel room — except this one was a caboose. One with a petting zoo, several train-theme playgrounds and an observation deck at the top of a silo all a short walk away.