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'It's my sanctuary.' How a retired rail car became a dream machine in Westport

Westport is known as a train community. But less than 5 miles from its busy Saugatuck station, in the woods off Newtown Turnpike, you'll find the town's only stationary rail car--a more than 100-year-old red caboose, retired from the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Line.

Marissa Alter

Oct 1, 2023, 1:27 PM

Updated 290 days ago


Westport is known as a train community. But less than 5 miles from its busy Saugatuck station, in the woods off Newtown Turnpike, you'll find the town's only stationary rail car--a more than 100-year-old red caboose, retired from the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Line.
"It's my sanctuary," said GiGi New, who currently lives in the home in front of the caboose. New said she and her family moved there, in part, because of the unusual addition in the backyard.
"This for me is what pushed it over the edge and for my husband--this caboose. Hands down," New explained.
That was in 2016.
But the caboose's Westport chapter actually began over 45 years ago with Alan Abel, who lived in the home there.
Alan Abel was a writer, musician and public speaker but most well-known for being "America's Greatest Hoaxer." He notoriously pulled prank after prank on the media and public, often with the help of his wife, Jeanne Abel.
The couple moved to Westport in the 1970s to raise their daughter. Jenny Abel was about 3 years old when her dad got the caboose as payment for speaking to a railroad company. Alan Abel grew up in a small town in Ohio with an active railroad, and his dad's general store was next to tracks.
"Alan as a little boy would always wave at the man at the end of the caboose, and he would wave back, so he had this fondness for things railroad," Jeanne Abel explained.
The Abels were skeptical town zoning officials would allow a rail car in their backyard, so they said it was a playhouse for Jenny Abel.
"They did deny at first permission for us to have it. Of course they did! We were living in a town where growing your grass 4 inches is a questionable thing, you know?" joked Jeanne Abel.
But Alan Abel didn't take no for an answer and brought his daughter along when he asked officials to reconsider. The younger Abel was the key.
"My dad taught me how to cry on cue, and that's how we got this caboose," recalled Jenny Abel. "They relented because I used tears as a weapon. I was like three at the time. I think neighbors were bewildered how my dad pulled it off. He was kind of like a magician."
Neighbor Pat Farmer, 94, remembers it well. Farmer still lives behind the caboose.
"One day some people came and laid the tracks literally that it sits on," she told News 12.
The caboose itself came down Newtown Turnpike on a flatbed truck, then had to be installed with a crane.
"I grew up in the years that the train was how you got there, so to me, I thought it was just great," Farmer said, laughing. "It takes a certain person and personality to have something like that close at hand. It just worked out here."
Farmer was among the 200 guests, including celebrities, at the Abels' "Caboose Christening Party."
"It was a wonderful affair. To me the prize part were the musicians. They sat on the top of the caboose," Farmer recalled. "It left an impression on my mind."
"There were dancing horses in the yard, and then we had like a kazoo parade," said Jenny Abel. "When my dad did something, he didn't just do it."
"He did it big," added Jeanne Abel, finishing her daughter's thought.
The caboose became part of Jenny Abel's childhood, not as a playhouse per se but something she played on and around. It was really an office and oasis for Alan Abel.
"My dad came out, and he would write there. I remember him putting his feet up on the desk with his legal pad, and I do think there was a lot of creative inspiration."
It was often the backdrop of Alan Abel's interviews with TV news crews.
"He was proud of it. He was proud of the fact that he got a train in his backyard," Jenny Abel stated.
The Abels said goodbye to the caboose in 1998 when they moved out of Westport.
"We were hopeful that whoever would take ownership of this house--that they would protect the caboose," Jenny Able told News 12.
That's where screenwriter Kara Holden and her husband, Hollywood actor Ryan Devlin, came in. They fell in love with the house because of the caboose. In 2011, the couple enlisted HGTV to breathe new life into the old car so it could be Kara's writing space.
The Abels were thrilled.
"That meant that the caboose was saved in a sense," said Jenny Abel.
The TV show shored up the exterior, gutted the interior and redecorated it. One wall is filled with actual old train tickets.
"It was definitely a different space when we had it. It was not as fancy. It's like Martha Stewart quality," said Jenny Abel.
But the caboose still pays homage to its Westport past with framed pictures of the installation and the man behind it.
It has a history, no doubt about it--one that's repeating itself in a way with its current caretakers. Nick Sadler is an actor and his wife, GiGi New, a TV writer. The caboose is where she works.
"This is like my own genie bottle to write in," New told News 12.
It's a place that's made magic for her.
"It just allows me to kind of open up in a way that I couldn't do from a house. I feel the creative arms around me in this little caboose," explained New.
There's something that's always fast-tracked imagination here, from Alan Abel to Holden and now New.
"It's fascinating, right? It is fascinating," stated New.
"It has a story, and I think people of creative nature frankly respond to that," said Jeanne Abel.
You could call it a dream machine -- one that continues to chug along.
"People who live here are giving back to us by keeping it alive, because I do consider it protecting my dad's legacy," said Jenny Abel.

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