Riding the rails with model train enthusiasts

July 16, 2009 7:13:58 PM PDT
What adult isn't taken back to their childhood by the simple joy of watching a model train run? A group of East Bay hobbyists prove you can still experience it.

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At first glance you might think the locomotive you see is tearing through the East Bay Hills. But in actuality, it is just one of the many trains that run on tracks inside the 10,000-square foot Golden State Model Railroad Museum.

John Morrison is the general manager of the non-profit museum at Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline Park in Pt. Richmond. Morrison is the kid in charge, so to speak, "for better or worse" as he says. "It's a great place to spend my time."

Since 1930, volunteers have worked the rails of this collection.

"You can build model planes and model ships and set them on a shelf and look at them, but model trains, you can actually have it running through real scenery, or scenery that looks real," says Morrison.

The scale model trains meander their way through painstakingly detailed landscapes of the Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada.

It is all a labor of love created by the East Bay Model Engineers Society, one of the oldest model railroading clubs in the nation. Working with these tiny trains is actually much more popular than you might think.

"It is the third largest hobby in the United States," says Morrison. "Right behind stamps and coins."

Seventy-five members of the society pay $20 a month for the privilege of working at the museum. In exchange, they can run their own trains on these tracks and trade stories with other model train enthusiasts.

Separating men from their toys is a little like taking a bone away from a dog -- ownership is a sign of pride. Some train enthusiasts will only part with their toys when they die. Last year the museum received a gift from the estate of broadcasting legend Tom Snyder.

One of the things you can see at this museum is the Lionel train, standard gauge lay-out, owned by Snyder. It was donated after his death and the plaque says it all: "Television broadcast pioneer and lover of trains."

It is that kind of passion that keeps many volunteers coming back to the train museum. Among them, a real railroad man. Roy Whitaker has spent 33 years working as an engineer on the genuine article.

"Well, it's like I tell the guys at the job, I come down here to work, I run the real ones to play," jokes Whitaker.

Even though he runs the real deal, Whitaker says these miniatures give him a view of railroading he can't experience running an actual engine.

"I can watch my train as it goes by and you can visualize certain areas when it goes through, what the train is doing back there, what it's saying on the rails," he says.

What the rails say at this museum is also a history lesson. A closer look at the models reveal a glimpse into the Bay Area's past when the train and street car were king of the West.

"We often get people come in and say, 'I remember that from my youth,'" says Morrison.

You can see the museum for yourself free on Wednesdays or for a small admission fee on Sundays. For hours and directions, visit the Golden State Model Railroad Museum's Web site at www.gsmrm.org

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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