The End of the Line
Have you slept in a real caboose? If you want a vacation experience that's a little off the beaten track (but very close to downtown Lake Geneva) ... the End of the Line will welcome you aboard.
From the plush comfort of one of his more lavishly decorated train cars, Dave Hanley told me the story of how he and his wife, Pat, created the End of the Line - a Lake Geneva hotel that's made entirely out of cabooses.
Dave has been along for the whole ride, from the first spark of an idea to a wild trip into town on a lurching train, then turning that train into a hotel and finally, many years later, retiring to manage it.
How Did They Get the Idea? It all started with Dave's mother-in-law, back in 1982. She habitually visited the Hanleys' Wisconsin farm during the summer months, which led Dave to consider that she needed her own space. So Dave - a pretty original guy - bought her a caboose. "We turned it into a little house," he says. "She loved it!"
Dave's mother-in-law got such a kick out of staying in a caboose that he and Pat decided to expand the concept into a hotel. The idea was more adventure than business venture. "I didn't leave my job at first," says Dave. "It was more for fun than profit."
To finance the plan, the Hanleys sold their farm and their house in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, and bought a mile-long stretch of abandoned "right-of-way" (railroad track and 50 feet of land on either side of the rails) near Lake Geneva.
Then they bought 43 cabooses, three boxcars and a Pullman car.
Where Did They Get All Those Cabooses? "We went over to the Chicago & Northwestern and Milwaukee Road Railroad yards and picked them out one by one," remembers Dave.
There were quite a few cabooses on the market at the time. Now, they're almost impossible to find. Dave explains that in the early '80s, electronics technology was developed that allowed engineers to monitor their trains with computers. Traditionally, that had been the job of conductors, who rode in a caboose and kept an eye on the train, looking for problems such as "hot boxes": overheated, smoking axle bearings. When conductors spotted a hot box, they would stop the train and fix it.
The new technologic developments of the '80s put both conductors and cabooses out of business, and cabooses across the country began to gather in train yards to quietly rust. Or be rescued.
A Lurching (and Illicit) Ride North The Hanleys linked their 1,410-ton purchase into one long train, moved it onto the abandoned railroad track, and had it driven up to Lake Geneva.
Dave, Pat and their son, Mike, then 20, went along for the ride. "Actually we snuck on," Dave confesses. "They told us we couldn't, but we wanted to ride up in the train." Since the engineer didn't know anyone was on board, he didn't worry about driving smoothly.
"It was awful," remembers Dave, rolling his eyes. "All the signals were gone, so they had to send an automobile ahead of the train to guard the crossings. We kept lurching to a stop and starting again, and all these loose things were flying around inside. What's usually a half-hour ride took us four hours. What an experience!"
It was also an experience for the people who lived nearby. "We were going through people's back yards where for 10 years there hadn't been a train," chuckles Dave. "They were flabbergasted."
Open For Business The Hanleys spent a year and a half sprucing up the cabooses, painting them a jaunty red and converting the interiors to hotel rooms. "We wanted it to be a train on the outside, but comfortable inside," says Dave. "We had an architect design the interiors, and my wife decorated them. She loved decorating."
Six months after the Hanleys set to work remodeling the cabooses, the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad removed the tracks that had led the cabooses into Lake Geneva. So the hotel truly became the "end of the line."
The aptly named End of the Line opened for business in December of 1984, complete with a "Round House" lobby that was - and is - a sight to behold. If you look closely, you can see that three of the walls are actually boxcars. The reception desk looks like an old-fashioned ticket window, complete with bars. The lobby is filled with railroad memorabilia, working model trains and antiques. A side room has a library of books and magazines (it's here that doughnuts, orange juice and coffee are served every morning). Dave is working on turning another side room into an exercise room.
Who Stays There? Who stays at the End of the Line? "Well," says Dave, pushing back his Wisconsin baseball cap, "some are railroad buffs, some want something unique for a wedding or anniversary. This place attracts all kinds of people, from yuppies to baby boomers to families with young kids. It's really fun to watch the kids, especially when they walk into the lobby. Their eyes just bug out. You can just feel the emotion in it. We've had hundreds of notes written by kids, saying 'Thank you for the nice weekend. We loved staying in your caboose.' "
For Sale Last summer, Dave and Pat put the cabooses up for sale. "After 15 years, we decided to retire, and came up with the idea that people would like to own a caboose," says Dave. "They all sold within two months, and we've still got a waiting list."
The End of the Line still functions like a hotel, though, because most of the cabooses are in a rental pool, managed by Dave. The only difference is that many of the new owners have redecorated, so you can choose from styles that range from masculine and modern to Southwestern and skull-festooned. There's also an "Africa" caboose with zebra wallpaper and a cheetah-patterned lampshade and a "New Orleans" caboose with a lace canopy over the bed and white trellises covering pale green-painted walls.
Cabooses in the Wild Behind the lobby, the cabooses stretch for a third of a mile, still sitting on the railroad track that brought them to Lake Geneva. "As far as I know, we're the longest hotel in the country," says Dave.
All around are the wetlands. "It's full of gorgeous birds like Indigo Buntings, bluebirds, orioles, Purple Martins, wrens and cardinals," says Dave. "And it's beautiful in the fall, when the leaves are changing colors. The wetlands go back for acres, and it's all preserved land. No one can build on it - this'll always be here."
He fell silent for a moment, looking out at the waving green trees. The cabooses stretched behind in a neat line; the roundhouse loomed solid above. I asked him, "Did you always have a special interest in trains?"
"No, not really," he said, smiling. "It was just an idea we had."
Prices Standard Caboose: sleeps family of four, TV, AC Weekday: $69 Weekend: $89 Deluxe A: sleeps family of four, TV, AC, kitchenette Weekday: $79 Weekend: $99 Deluxe B: sleeps family of four, TV, AC, kitchenette, private deck Weekday: $89 Weekend: $109 Villa Standard: sleeps six in two connected cabooses, TV, AC, kitchenette with microwave, private deck Weekday: $99 Weekend: $129 Villa Deluxe: sleeps six in two connected cabooses, TV, AC, full kitchen with microwave, private deck Weekday: $109 Weekend: $139
How to Get There End of the Line is at 301 East Town Line Road, about a three-minute drive from downtown Lake Geneva. From the town center, take Highway 50 (the main drag) east. Turn right on Wells (the light just after the Burger King). Follow Wells to the first stop sign, turn left. Go about two blocks, and you'll see End of the Line on your left.
Reservations The End of the Line is open May 15 to October 15. For reservations, write or call: End of the Line 301 East Town Line Road Lake Geneva, WI 53147 800-747-RAIL. In Wisconsin, 414-248-RAIL Major credit cards accepted. It's probably best to call ahead for a reservation, especially in July and August. But once you get there, ask if you can pick out which caboose you like. If there's extra space available, they'll be happy to show you around! LGG