The Nauset Model Rail Road Club’s elaborate tracks and detailed replicas prove that model trains aren’t child’s play.
In a basement in Orleans, a working train yard comes to life—at a fraction of the size. The 3,000-square-foot basement—comprised of layouts of train tracks, buildings, and scenery—brings all of the intricacies of a life-sized operation to life, from the puffs of smoke to the whine of whistles. And the trains themselves are substantial, constructed from brass, steel, or plastic and sized to five different scales.
Once a week, the Nauset Model Rail Road Club (NMRRC) opens its doors to the public and invites newcomers to come and experience the niche world of model locomotives. It’s a hobby that combines reverence for the nation’s industrial past, renewed youthful enthusiasm, and remarkable creative investment. “It keeps my mind engaged,” says Andrew Petrou, a club member since 2001. “I’m not flopped on the couch, watching TV.”
Model railroading in the United States traces its origins to 1830s England, where carpet railways were popular Victorian-era children’s toys. These Birmingham Dribblers, as they were known, were made of brass and ran around on the floor—tracks came later—and operated on actual working internal boilers. By 1890, electric transformers were used to move the trains around fitted pieces of track. American Flyer was the most popular brand, known for the S-scale of trains that were popular in the 1930s. By the postwar period, when metals were more available after wartime rationing, Lionel trains became emergent, with their larger O-scale trains. Members of the Nauset Model Rail Road Club speak fondly of model railroad pioneer John Allen, who maintains a strong influence in the Lionel designs. The postwar Lionel layouts use regular cast metal engines and cars, popularly designed as actual steam train engine replicas.
The Nauset Model Rail Road Club was founded in 1989, comprised of a group of train enthusiasts—all with their own individual home layouts—who wanted to be a part of something bigger. The club moved frequently in the early days, going from one member’s home to another to work on each different layout and operate the trains. Creating layouts that were not only authentic, but just as importantly, ones that could be easily disassembled, moved, and reassembled became a priority as the club moved through half a dozen locations before arriving at its current location on Route 6A in 2005. Now, under the presidency of Roy Jones, the roughly 70-member club has a basement full of trains and decorations that stretch to the ceiling. Dues entitle members to use any of the trains, which come in five scales (smallest to largest): N, HO, S, O, and G-gauge. N-scale locomotives are the size of a pinky finger. G-gauge trains—sometimes called garden railway trains since they are often deployed outdoors—are large enough to knock you off your feet if you aren’t looking.