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Rail fans make tracks to train buff's bed & breakfast

Sunday, October 03, 1999

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CRESSON, Pa. -- The list of creature comforts was a little thin at this bed-and-breakfast that Tom and Eleanor Lyons were checking into.

 
Alan and Bonnie Jarvela, Gardner, Mass. pausing a moment to talk as they check into Tom Davis's B&B in Cresson. They will spend the week there enjoying the trains and the area. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette) 

No air conditioning. No phone or television in any of the five rooms. And a note about that set of three railroad tracks 40 yards across the street: Expect maybe 25 freight trains a night to thunder past at about 50 mph.

Tom Lyons could've been a smidgen or two happier last week when he and wife Eleanor came from Elizabeth, N.J., for a stay. It was that unceasing train traffic.

He was worried he wouldn't get his share.

"We wanted to stay here two nights," Lyons said as he carried his suitcase up the front steps. "They only had enough vacancies to book us for one."

"Rail fan," his wife explained.

Oh, well then, of course.

The place is called Station Inn. And to folks with an unshakable railroad jones, this is paradise with a 100-foot front porch. That's the main line between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia out there, good for 70 trains a day.

You can watch trains rumble by all day. You can hear them clatter past all night. You can read train magazines, study train maps, talk trains with brethren carrying on their own torrid love affairs with railroading. All trains, all the time.

Maybe a person can take only so much of this. Or maybe not. In the six years that Station Inn has been taking guests, Maryland state trooper Clay Hartness figures he's come from his home on Maryland's Eastern Shore about 20 times.

"I just love it so much," he said.

"It gets to be almost a 24-hour thing," said Les Sittler, a lawyer in Fly Creek, N.Y., just outside Cooperstown. "It's like a big parade of trains."

Sittler and his 16-year-old son come back to Station Inn about twice a year. "We love it," he said.

 
  Tom Davis leans on a pair of wooden school desks on the empty porch of his bed and breakfast. The porch is usually filled with railroad fans. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

The innkeeper is Tom Davis, 69 -- compact, white hair, white beard, boss to Station Inn's staff of four. In his work shirt, flannel vest, ankle-high boots and jeans, he looks like he spilled out of an L.L. Bean catalog.

"As far as I'm concerned, rail fans are all crazy as bedbugs," he said as he slumped easily into a front porch rocker and propped a foot on the porch rail. Then, a few breaths later: "I'm as bad as the rest of them."

Oh, at least.

This, properly, is Thomas A. Davis, Ph.D., Harvard man, prestigious school administrator, retired from a career with some of New Jersey's primo school districts. He's certifiably crackers about trains.

Davis grew up in Baltimore, the most train-addicted of three brothers, often getting to wheedle a bunk and ride long hauls with his father, a dining car steward on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

By the time he hit then-Towson State Teachers College in suburban Baltimore, Davis was working nights as a railroad brakeman. A Saturday night date with his future wife, Nancy, was tracking down freight crew pals and riding the locomotives.

By age 35, Davis was at Harvard, earning his doctorate in education administration -- and working as a fireman on the New Haven Railroad.

"In the summer, all my classmates were out doing consulting work," Davis said. "I said, 'You're crazy. What are you doing spending your last summer in school, doing what you'll be doing for the rest of your lives?' "

His own plan was to retire in suburban New York City and spend time drinking of the Big Apple's culture. But Davis' wife died after a lengthy struggle with cancer. They had no children. He found himself going into New York only a few times a year.

"I wasn't vegetating," he said, "but I wasn't active a lot."

So, he made himself a Plan B: Find a place along the railroad, preferably the stretch of main line between Harrisburg and Altoona, and open a bed-and-breakfast.

"I always wanted to live by the tracks," Davis said.

Problem was, when he set out looking seven years ago, the B&B crop was pretty thin. Davis wound up putting down $85,000 on the 133-year-old Station Inn -- two stories high, 100 feet long, "a pretty sleazy bar with furnished efficiency apartments upstairs," he said.

Davis had never so much as opened a how-to book on innkeeping. Next-door neighbor Alice Suc-kinos sized up his business acumen in two words: "He's crazy."

This, after all, was Cresson, population 1,800. Tidy little town, summertime refuge for Pittsburghers back at the turn of the century -- but not a place with enough business to keep a trackside bed-and-breakfast alive.

"I said, 'Do you see all these people out here all the time wandering around the tracks with their cameras and their camcorders?' " Davis said. " 'Do you think they sleep in the trees?' "

Cut to the bottom of the ledger. Davis figures the place -- its rooms running from $40 to $70 a night -- is booked to an average of 75 to 85 percent of capacity between mid-March and mid-December. "Weekends are almost 100 percent," he said. Callers hunting rooms for this weekend's Altoona Railfest, 15 miles away, should have been phoning last March.

"Every time I'm there, it's filled," said rail fan Richard Kearns of Brewster, N.Y.

And neighbor Suckinos?

"I'm amazed," she said.

The Station Inn draws, in part, because it's a fraternity of kindred spirits -- some packing cameras and binoculars, some with radios to listen to transmissions from the trains, others with log books just to copy the numbers of passing locomotives. You can talk C40-9Ws here, and somebody will answer back.

"You get some high-powered people who go there," Sittler said. And then, he said, they just melt into a blend that jaws about trains together.

"The railroad puts the trains out there. The guests entertain each other, and then they pay me so they can sleep in a bed," Davis said.

It's a formula others like.

Four miles down the main line, Michael Kraynyak, a Chester County bank vice president and 30-year rail buff, bought the former Gallitzin Borough Building for $35,000 and plans a four-room bed-and-breakfast where guests can watch trains shooting out the mouth of the 3,600-foot Allegheny Tunnel.

In Fallston, the single-bedroom Fallston Flagstop opened recently, boasting close-up views of CSX and Norfolk Southern lines and promising facilities "based upon those found at the highly popular Station Inn in Cresson."

Take that to mean the dainty charm that breeds in B&Bs won't get past the front door alive. The Station Inn is done up in vinyl siding. Its porch is a worn yellow and brown.

"It's very clean," Kearns said.

"But the place is no prize to look at," Davis said.

Martha Stewart never slept here. The five rooms, furnished with twin beds, are dubbed for railroads and painted in the railroads' color schemes. You could swing a railroad tie in here and never hit a charming canopy bed or an intimate breakfast nook.

There's no cross-stitched "Welcome" in the foyer. Across from the 4-by-4-foot Pennsylvania Railroad logo, there's Davis' hand-lettered plea to rail fans who've been wandering the tracks all day: "Please remove grease and mud from shoes when entering."

The decor is largely railroad pictures with smatterings of memorabilia that the traffic totes in. "Lamps, photos -- people drag stuff through the front door that's been in their garages for five years," Davis said.

Which means one more reason why Station Inn won't make it with the mainstream B&B crowd.

Which means Davis is pleased. A night across from the main line would only irritate the mainstreamers, he figures.

So, he tries to wave them away -- in part, with a brochure that highlights everything Station Inn doesn't have.

"No hot tubs or whirlpools. There are no farm animals in the back yard," it says. "The Inn has no antiques, no Early American furnishings, no homemade bread or jam."

"I don't want the B&B Volvo crowd. I don't want the B&B yuppies," Davis said. "They'd go out looking for a classic B&B experience, come here, go home and tell people what a miserable time they had up in the hills."

Even for rail fans, Davis warns: Bring the spouse only if the spouse is long-suffering.

"Keep love alive. Don't bring the wife to the Inn for her first rail fan trip," he wrote in one magazine ad. "Take Amtrak to D.C. stay at the Ritz Carlton on Massachusetts Avenue. Book the presidential suite. ... Now THAT'S rail-fanning."

In the meantime, though, Davis seems to have little trouble keeping amply stocked with rail buffs. And for now, he figures on business as usual.

Since even the keepers of vacation spots have to get away on vacations of their own, Davis is off for a few days next week. He's going to ride an excursion train out of Cumberland, Md.



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