It’s an incredible sight. Half buried in snow and tucked away on a Montana mountainside a group of relics from a bygone age lie sleeping. They look like abandoned train engines but there’s something too clean – possibly too loved – about them. What’s their story?
Once these brightly painted carriages were the pride of America’s railways. But their final journeys ended long ago and now they sit dormant, waiting patiently as the snow slowly piles up around them.
But is it really a case of these railcars having seen the last of their glory days? A peek inside reveals that everything, from the outside at least, isn’t quite as it seems.
First, though, some history. When the Izaak Walton Inn opened in 1939 the settlement of Essex, Montana was on the up. The Great Northern Railroad that passed through it brought a steady stream of workers seeking board and lodgings.
In a bid to attract tourists there were tentative plans for the inn to become a gateway to the Glacier National Park. The hotel, it was hoped, would become more of a vacation resort.
It was a more modest Izaak Walton Inn, however, that opened at the tail end of the ’30s. The premises – which cost $40,000 – had a large lobby, 29 rooms, ten restrooms and a dining hall. Would it usher the town into a grand new era?
Unfortunately its opening coincided with the outbreak of World War II. Plans for the Glacier National Park entrance were scrapped as people switched their attentions to more important matters.
The hotel may have been smaller than intended but it still looked out of place in sleepy old Essex. With few tourists arriving, and with America’s entry into war imminent, its future must have seemed bleak.
But with its railroad charm and excellent hospitality the Izaak Walton Inn survived. Today, thanks to its proximity to Essex Amtrak station, hiking trails and skiing routes, it’s positively flourishing.
Railroad fans represent the inn’s key clientele, something its staff know only too well. To make sure the Izaak Walton isn’t just a place to rest heads for the night they’ve gone all out to impress their guests.
Not only can enthusiasts watch helper engines shunting freight trains from their room or the hotel’s back porch – they can also bed down in something truly special. Those abandoned railcars aren’t so abandoned after all.
By the 1980s old-style caboose railroad cars had become outdated, so they were gradually phased out. Many went to locomotive graveyards, but five were granted a new lease of life in Essex.
When their working lives came to an end the caboose cars were transported to this rural corner of north-western Montana. By train, naturally.
On arrival they were lifted into position, using a large crane, among the pine trees that border the Glacier National Park. Soon they would be transformed into something amazing.
A team of designers and craftsmen got to work creating new interiors for the cabooses. Reclaimed oak, blue pine and turquoise aspen were skillfully utilized to create a warm and homely atmosphere.
With the addition of skylights and custom-made furniture the old railcars were slowly but surely being converted into quirky train-themed accommodations. No doubt guests at the Izaak Walton Inn would love them.
Among the most popular locomotives is a Great Northern 441, which in its previous life used to regularly chug past the inn. With it open fireplace, king-sized bed and antique furniture it’s now the perfect place for a rail enthusiast to spend the night.
There’s also a blue Montana RailLink caboose, which can sleep up to four people, and an old sleeper car called J.J. The latter’s latest incarnation, which features chocolate leather furniture, is a little more comfortable than its old one.
These grand railroad relics spent years faithfully shuttling workers along America’s train lines – and through some of the country’s most amazing scenery. It’s fitting, then, for the railcars to spend the rest of their days at a charming rail-themed hotel in the mountains.
For fans of historical train cars nothing beats the chance to spend a night or two immersed in their unique charm. That they’re completely luxurious only adds to their undeniable appeal.