My Love Affair with Model Trains

(Some of this is very “inside baseball” for model railroaders. You’ve been warned.)

Like a lot of model railroaders, I was introduced to trains as a young child. There were the toys, like the train that dragged a hammer over ties that sounded musical notes. After that, came battery-powered trains.

Then came the fateful day that an N scale train set (very small models–1:160 proportion) appeared on a 4×8 sheet of plywood laid on a pool table in our suburban Chicago home’s basement. I don’t remember a whole lot about it; I imagine my non-railroading  parents figured a small child needed small trains.

I was about five years old at the time, so N scale didn’t last long.

But when Dad pulled his childhood Lionel three-rail stuff out of storage, I got very interested. He even had a 4-8-4 scale Hudson, passenger cars, and the orange and blue handcar that changed direction when it bumped something.

Soon the smells of ozone and Lionel’s reliable smoke (from the pills you dropped down the smokestack of a steam engine) filled the basement as my empire took shape.

Dad also found some background pieces with fold-out three-dimensional buildings, so I created my first viewblocks in the middle of the loop of track. I had no idea why this seemed so cool, but it worked. I set up his Plasticville school, church, station and hospital and added figures. The people of Plasticville spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around the tracks, and then being run over by trains—but it gave the hospital plenty of business.

I still remember my first locomotive to run on that three-rail track—mine, not one of Dad’s hand-me-downs. He drove me to Park Lane Hobbies in Calumet City and let me look at the walls full of engines until I picked out a bright orange DT&I SW9; I have no idea why I chose it. Maybe the color caught my eye.

The other major influence on my model train psyche as a kid was the massive O

An overhead view of the M&SF. Remember, each train car you see is about a foot long.
An overhead view of the M&SF. Remember, each train car you see is about a foot long.

scale Museum & Santa Fe layout at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It was a thing of beauty. Silver streamliners glided around the layout alongside freight trains. You could listen to recorded voices explain railroading through telephone handsets. And you could get a bird’s-eye view from the upper level, a real treat for a short kid.

I’m told I never got past the train layout to the rest of the museum for several years’ worth of visits. It was, and is, my inspiration for everything a layout should be, even with its lack of detail and bad design—no one would ever get a close-up view of the Grand Canyon scene in the center of the layout because it was 25 feet away from the edge of the benchwork.

I still loved it, and became an even bigger fan when I learned, as an adult, that it was largely the work of one man, Minton Cronkhite.

The layout gave way, after 60 years, to a modern, HO scale exhibit in 2002. I was crushed when I found out. The new layout’s not the same, and, sadly, I missed the online auctions of the locomotives, rolling stock and structures from the M&SF.

I eventually moved to HO scale (kind of mid-sized models; 1:87 proportion) myself, mostly with Tyco plastic stuff—the Sears catalog was great for dreaming about train sets and accessories—and I also began reading Model Railroader magazine (first copy: Feb. 1975) and learned about the virtues of Athearn’s well-made locomotives. I was an early adopter of foam scenery for layouts: My parents got me a 4×8 sectional HO scale layout made of Styrofoam in the mid-1970s.  That was great fun—trains climbed hills and went through tunnels. And, I found, plastic cement melts Styrofoam.

An Illinois Central "Highliner" commuter train
An Illinois Central “Highliner” commuter train

During all those formative years, I was exposed to real trains in the form of Penn Central, which didn’t stick at all, and the Illinois Central electric commuter trains, which kind of did. I loved to watch them when I visited my aunts and uncles living near downtown.  The game I played was to guess whether the next train would be an old Pullman Green heavyweight train (circa-1930s) or one of the cool new bi-level Highliners that entered service in 1971.

Eventually, I grew up (it took years), and model railroading stayed a part of my life. It’s been a challenge, because I spent many years working in TV news, which meant a life spent moving around the country. I rarely got close to finishing a layout before it was time to tear it down and move.

Flatland railroading in Iowa. Built in a Tucson bedroom, circa 1989.

I did build a fairly complete N scale layout based on the Rock Island in Iowa during the 80s. It was a lot of fun and I got my first taste of the new Kato GP50 locomotives as a result. I was amazed at how smoothly they ran.

Later, in Rochester, New York, I built a 4×6 HO layout with added shelves, based on North Carolina, which is where I had most recently worked.

Actually, the layout was the Kitty Hawk Central built by Jim Kelly as shown in

The KHC underway in Rochester, NY, about 1998.
The KHC underway in Rochester, NY, about 1998.

Model Railroader magazine. This is where I began to hone my interest in the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.

Over time, I amassed a huge collection of ACL, SAL and other southeastern HO equipment for a planned empire. Boxes and boxes of engines, cars, structure kits—everything I’d need.

Then, after moving it all through three states, I finally got my basement-with-a-house on top in the railroading mecca of Denver, home of Caboose Hobbies, which billed itself as the “World’s Largest Model Train Store” before it closed in 2016. (I’m happy to see that another store by the same name is opening in a Denver suburb.)

I was all ready to get started with my ACL project when my then-Mother-in-law gave me an On30 (O scale, 1:48 proportion, with rails a scale 30 inches apart; “narrow gauge”) set based on the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas TV special. (It’s my favorite. Don’t judge.) That decision launched me on an On30 course.rudolf_train2

I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive the Bachmann line was—and it ran nice, too. I began collecting and filling my basement with an On30 layout. The HO stuff stayed packed for “someday.”

I learned to handlay On30 track, because I thought it looked better than the regular HO track the trains would run on. (I found out you could get pre-made On30 flex, but by then was having fun handlaying.) Kitbashed some cars from the Bachmann rolling stock. I developed my skills as a modeler in Denver.

I loved that layout. It had no scenery, but I would still gaze lovingly at the track and run trains around it.

…until my divorce. My ex-wife got the house and the basement. I did manage to hang on to a lot of the trains and buildings.

Now I am married to Rhonda, who is fascinated by my love of trains and model trains. Maybe it’s time to pull them back out of storage.

Rhonda loves trains, too. Go figure.
Rhonda loves trains, too. Go figure.

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