Susan Wilson once had a dream where her deceased grandmother
appeared to her and said, “Susan, someday you will own a train.”
Later, she acted on the vision by purchasing a 14-foot-high,
41-foot-long, 52,000-pound caboose. In time, she acquired a
locomotive, dining and coach cars that would become one of the most
popular bed and breakfasts in Alaska.
Aurora Express is as unique as Wilson a genuine Alaska
firecracker. Opinionated and entertaining, her management
philosophy is simple.
“If I am doing something other people are doing, it has to be
better.” Wilson said. “I had little interest in trains before that
dream. Then I began searching for them.”
She coerced her husband, Mike, to devise a way to transport them
over land to their 15-acre property located on a Chena Ridge
hillside overlooking Fairbanks. Over time, they decorated the cars
with colorful frontier themes and antiques. Mike had the chore of
placing the cars on tracks that go nowhere. Yet these cars
transport guests to a long-forgotten era.
“Back in the 1940s and ’50s, railroads were the main means of
transportation,” she said. “Older people start crying when they see
the rail cars. They haven’t seen railroad cars decorated like this
in 50 or so years. These cars bring back memories of a first love
or a courtship.”
The train is not just for retirees who want to reminisce about
days gone by.
“Most young adults today have never seen a sleeper car,” Susan
said. “We have the entire train, from locomotive to caboose, to
But it takes more than nostalgia to impress guests. You also have
to offer a quality experience.
“When my customers first see a train, they hesitate about climbing
up and taking a peek inside. I tell them, ‘Climb aboard and take a
look at the room. If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money
back, and you can book a suite downtown.’ Once they look, they
And for good reason. Each railroad car room is decorated with an
Alaska historical or train-era-romance theme with a whimsical
The first sleeper car is Adelaide’s Bordello named after Susan’s
mother, who is depicted in a full-size barroom nude painting on the
“The nude was already painted, but my mother agreed to have her
face painted to the body,” she said.
The bordello car has a private entry, queen-size bed and bath. The
room is vibrant with turn-of-the-century color schemes and a
hand-painted ceiling with crystal chandeliers. Its paintings,
fabrics and fixtures reflect the colorful atmosphere of Fairbanks’
Another car, called Billy’s Gold Mine, is decorated with antiques
and an Italian hand-blown glass chandelier. The rich gold interior
and decor mirrors the homes of the miners who struck it rich in
Alaska’s gold rush.
The Immaculate Conception car is a magnificent rendition of the
historical, yet petite Immaculate Concept ion Catholic Church in
downtown Fairbanks. Beautiful 10-foot ceilings and church-styled
chairs and religious decor exude a peaceful elegance.
The 85-foot dining car boasts a 65-foot hand-painted mural of the
aurora borealis painted by Alaska artist Milo Marks.
The comfortable lounge area offers seating for 24 and has cable TV
and a telephone. Expect evening music and semi-live morning
entertainment from the Wilson family. Clients delight in a costume
closet, modeling cancan girl costumes and boa feathers. Susan has a
variety of skits that she performs in if there’s a good crowd.
Breakfasts are not typical B&B muffins and coffee. At 6 a.m.,
Susan begins preparing banana-almond French toast, egg souffle,
paprika potatoes, bacon-parmesan stuffed mushrooms, sockeye salmon
dip, chocolate cappuccino cake and a fruit platter, coffee and tea.
The breakfast feast is served daily at 8 a.m.
She claims her clients always want to steal her recipes, and she
obliges only if they replace them with one of their own. Her
bulging recipe box is proof of this ongoing exchange.
Along with a quality breakfast, Susan guarantees moose sightings.
If no four-legged moose appear, she has her daughter Katy walk
around in a moose outfit. At breakfast, Susan shouts, “Moose!
Moose!” Minutes pass before the laughter subsides.
While the guest book is filled with hundreds compliments, Susan
and her husband take it all in stride.
“My greatest nightmare is for her to have another dream about her
grandmother telling her to buy something else,” Mike said.
“Frightens the heck out of me.”
Aurora Express is open May 23-Sept. 7, sometimes longer, de
pending on weather conditions. All rooms are non-smoking and no
pets. Children must be at least 7 years of age.
Rate: $130-$150 per night
Commission: 10 percent