Train to Nowhere

Aurora Express on track as historical Alaska B&B

By: Christopher Batin

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 explore.”

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 always stay.”

And for good reason. Each railroad car room is decorated with an Alaska historical or train-era-romance theme with a whimsical touch.

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 right wall.

“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’ past.

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