Something About a Train...

by Jonathan Wright

Romance, magic and the world in miniature…

You wouldn’t know it was there. No sign alerts you to its presence. The unmarked entrance is at the bottom of a cement stairwell around the side of the Pekin Park District administration building in Mineral Springs Park. For more than 30 years, this basement has been home to a small group of model train enthusiasts—the headquarters of the River City Model Railroad Club.

A Lifelong Love Affair
“I became a model railroader when I was six and my dad gave me a Lionel train set,” says Don MacGregor, the club’s current president. Like many of the kids growing up in his neighborhood in the 1950s, it became a passion that would last throughout his childhood. When he went off to college, MacGregor gave away his vintage Lionel equipment, but eight years later, he would find that his love affair with trains wasn’t over.

In 1968, a model train set in a Woolworth’s dime store caught his eye around Christmastime. “So I bought it!” he exclaims. “I played with it for awhile, put it away and brought it out again next Christmas. One year, I kept it out until Easter. The following year, I just never put it away!”

“By the time I was five or six, there was a train set up all the time,” recalls Don’s son, Mark MacGregor. “I remember only being able to watch at one point—not being able to touch anything. Then I was allowed to touch the cars, but not the engines. Then, at one birthday [he said], ‘Okay, if you’re careful, you can touch the engine…’ There are old movies of me driving these trains and hitting switches…”

“…in a hat and overalls!” Don interjects, laughing. “He took to it, and we made [the layout] bigger and bigger. One day, when he was about nine or 10, he said, ‘You got any track you’re not using? And do you have an engine you don’t care about?’ So I set him up right next to mine… and he just went nuts with it.”

Over the years, father and son continued to develop their mutual hobby together. In the early ‘80s, they rebuilt their home layout from scratch; it would last for more than two decades, until 2006, when Don, having retired from a teaching career, sold his home in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and moved to central Illinois to be closer to Mark, who had graduated from ISU in the mid-‘90s and landed a job at WMBD-TV. They planned to set up a layout in Don’s new home, but that changed when they discovered the model railroad club in Pekin.

The Lay of the Land
Nine hundred feet of elevated track covers the majority of the club’s space, in what is most likely the biggest layout in the area. It’s an HO-scale layout—the most popular for railroad modeling—meaning that the track, trains and scenery are built to a 1:87 scale of their real-world counterparts. The track winds around the 20-by-50-foot room—through tunnels, across bridges and around bends, hugging mountains and forests, factories and farms, stockyards and mining depots—a world in miniature, complete with real-world train sounds and lights, all controlled by a Digitrax radio DCC system.

The sprawling layout is a testament to the pooled talents of its members, who each bring unique specialties to the table. “One guy knows all about electronics… [He’s] hooking up relays, hooking up lights and making everything work,” notes Mark. Another, who specializes in metalwork, fashioned a piece of steel to strengthen a bridge. “Other people can build [scenery] for months and not even run a train,” he adds.

One member, an engineer at Caterpillar, designed every aspect of the club’s newest section of layout using sophisticated CAD software. “He designed the whole thing on a computer,” says Mark, “exactly where the tracks were going to go, where all the plywood was going to go…” It’s a far cry from the recent past, when layouts were designed by hand—“a lot of math on paper.”

The scenery, he adds, is critical to transforming a layout into something that the “non-train person” can enjoy. “You can build scenes, add little people and little cars… stuff that people can recognize… Then you get their attention.”

And the scenery can be “whatever you want it to be,” says Don—rural or urban; industrial, pastoral or anything in between. The only limit is one’s imagination. “The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has a $3 million HO-scale layout,” Mark says. “One whole section is just downtown Chicago. It has the El, the [former] Sears Tower, all the buildings…”

Indeed, the scenery in a model railroad layout tends to mirror reality in one way or another. “Some people will model a specific year from their childhood,” says Mark. “Some pick a 10-year period. Some even pick a specific day. Others just build a layout and run whatever they want.”

A layout can be as simple or as intricate as you want it to be, but the more there is, the more you can do. “If you get enough on your layout, you can operate it like a real train,” Mark explains. “You can have industries and businesses… You can drop cars off, pick cars up, have a passenger train that runs through and the freight trains have to take the side track. If you set all that up in an operating session, you can get other model railroaders to bring their stuff over, and you can all run together.”

That’s what happens at the club on Thursday evenings. “We’ll have 10 guys come down, and they’ll all set up their trains. We run them and just make sure we don’t run into each other. And just running it is fun—you don’t have to have a reason or a purpose—it’s fun just to watch them.”

Romance of the Railroad
And that gets to the heart of the hobby—and any hobby, really. Whether you’re a baseball card collector, ham radio enthusiast or model railroader, it’s not always easy to explain your passion to an outsider. But that’s the beauty of hobbies: you don’t have to have a reason for it, if it makes you happy.

And so it is with the MacGregors. When I ask what it is about trains that appeals to them, I get an enthusiastic response, but no defining answer. “We’ve done it, we’ve seen it, we identify with it,” says Don. “I don’t know—it’s just something that gets me going…”

“Whenever I see train tracks, I always stop to see if there’s a train coming,” Mark adds. “The actual train coming by is cool, but when you look down and see lights coming… you’re like, ‘What is it? Where’s it coming from?’”

There’s a fascination with the track itself, its prescribed path in sharp contrast to the freewheeling nature of the automobile. There’s an appreciation for the railroad’s enduring nature, and for all the work it took to build. There’s a fondness for the “smooth ride…” the “steel wheels on a steel rail…” the rhythm of the “clickety clack.” There’s delight in the notion that when people see a train coming, says Mark, “Everybody stops and waves.”

And there’s a whole world within a model train layout that can absorb you. Don swears that when he watches the California Zephyr come around a certain bend, he can actually see the real thing in his head, running through the Rocky Mountains. And for many, there’s a dose of nostalgia for the past, though Don says that, for him, “Nostalgia isn’t really it.”

Just about every kid likes trains. Mark was one of those kids, as was his father before him, their shared hobby a bonding experience going on four decades. And in real life, they take the train whenever they can. In 2002, Don and Mark rode Amtrak all over the country for 16 days, and thanks to a credit card that earns them Amtrak points, they haven’t paid for a trip in over five years. They also enjoy going out to Galesburg to watch the trains pull into the station. “Every time you’re out looking at real trains,” says Mark, “you’re doing research for what we’re doing here.”

Why do trains fascinate us so? There seems to be something quintessentially American about them, a throwback to the “good ol’ days.” They tug on our heartstrings with the same romance and magic that’s conjured up by the Old West or Davy Crockett’s wild frontier. But in the end, says Don, “There’s just something about a train. And that something is whatever you want it to be.” a&s