Sleeping in a Historic Railway Carriage - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Sleeping in a Historic Railway Carriage

Sleeping in a Historic Railway Carriage

By Anthea Gerrie

indianapolis union station


It’s a recycled rail station with a spooky reason to jump aboard for the night.

By Anthea Gerrie

From the lobby, it’s an ordinary business hotel, all patterned carpets and corporate signage — until you step through a second-floor doorway and, like Harry Potter in Kings Cross station, enter a parallel world. Because this hotel is also one of America’s oldest rail depots, preserved for posterity, with three 1920s trains sitting on their original tracks. 

The Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station gives guests the chance to sleep in a bit of history. Indianapolis was once second only to Chicago as a Midwest rail hub, but traffic fell off with the rise of air travel and the 1888 landmark was threatened with destruction. Developers turned the station into a hotel: 13 Pullman carriages, which have been gutted and modernized, are named for historical figures like Winston Churchill and Rudolph Valentino. They also retained the steel girders of the train shed, now an atrium, and salvaged turn-of-the-century stained-glass ceilings in an effort that has taken 25 years and $8 million to complete. 

Some TripAdvisor reviews report a spooked-out feeling, but more flag significant train noise in the middle of the night.

And what historical spot doesn’t come with its own “ghosts”? Two dozen spectral white sculptures dressed in period costume dot the now-silent platform. But the real ghosts are elsewhere in the building, says sales and marketing manager J.J. DeBrosse: A “hissing” in the basement ballroom, formerly the steerage waiting room, “made hairs stand up on the back of my neck.”


Some TripAdvisor reviews report a spooked-out feeling, but more flag significant train noise in the middle of the night. While the period railcars are nailed down to the tracks, a newer commuter station runs right behind the hotel. But “most guests say it adds to the ambience,” DeBrosse claims. 

Indianapolis Union Station

Indianapolis Union Station

It might seem like a great idea to replace rail travelers with nostalgia-seeking hotel guests, but Annie Fitzsimmons, a contributing editor to National Geographic who specializes in reviewing hotels, thinks it’s pushing the whimsy and not addressing the fact that travelers are, first and foremost, in search of a sound night’s sleep. She likes when hotels preserve historical elements of their properties, “but not when it’s gimmicky or put on just to attract attention.” 

DeBrosse believes nearly half of all the guests, who pay $199 per night on average, are drawn by the historical location. But for all of the attention paid to recapturing yesteryear, the rooms on the tracks are surprisingly modern and uniform. While bright and tasteful, there has been no attempt to evoke the golden age of rail travel with the walnut, brass and leather of original Pullman cars. 

For those who fancy spending a night in a railcar, it can be an adventure out of history — with modern conveniences like large flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi. But train buffs should bring earplugs as well as their cameras.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories