July 2011

Training Days

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2011 / ,

Writer: Rob Conery / Photographer: Stacey Hedman

The Nauset Model Rail Road Club’s elaborate tracks and detailed replicas prove that model trains aren’t child’s play.

Nauset Model Rail Road Club

The scene of first responders rushing to an accident in front of the Town Fire Station plays out in this toy train model. Photo by Stacey Hedman

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.”

Nauset Model Rail Road Club

No stranger to life-like detail, the model features a picturesque lighthouse atop cliffs. Photo by Stacey Hedman

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.

Nauset Model Rail Road Club

Nauset Model Rail Road Club member Andrew Petrou looks over his model trains. Photo by Stacey Hedman

Each scale has it’s own devotees who contribute trains, equipment, and know-how to the various layouts at the club. “Some people prefer running the trains, others are good at landscaping,” says Petrou. “Some like collecting certain boxcars, some like weathering the buildings, stringing lights, decorating.”

The decorations run the gamut from downright whimsy—some layouts include giant sharks, even dinosaurs—to down-to-the-last-detail representations. One decoration depicts the intricacies of a coalmine with small, plastic men shoveling coal onto a conveyor belt, which travels up on a shaft from underground into a coal yard, where the tiny train cars pull in and pick it up.

Nauset Model Rail Road Club

Each locomotive is hand painted with intricate detail. Photo by Stacey Hedman

Community involvement is a critical component of the NMRRC. Each year at Christmas time they give away three complete train sets to Orleans-based Lower Cape Outreach Council, which distributes the gifts to underprivileged Cape Cod youth, who are train lovers as well. During the weekly open houses, especially during the Christmas season, as many as 200 people cruise through to check out the trains, speak to members, or share stories with each other. “We just enjoy sharing the hobby,” says Jones, who has been playing with model trains since he was five years old. “It’s fun just running the trains and operating the layout.”

In addition to the extensive collections at the clubhouse, most members have home layouts—and they love to kid each other about them. Jones expounds on the magnitude of some of the members’ outdoor layouts. He winks at Petrou. “Some are as large as five acres in size,” Jones says. Petrou laughs because he is building a layout that will snake through a piece of property adjacent to his home that includes his wife’s flower garden and an outdoor storage barn, where he will stow away the big G-gauge train cars in the evenings and inclement weather. “It’s only about half an acre,” he says.

Talk to any member of the club and they’ll tell you they’ve loved trains since they were a kid. And while their reasons for sending trains around a track might be different as adults, the pleasure they get hasn’t changed one bit.

Rob Conery is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life.

Rob Conery

Rob Conery writes a weekly fishing column for Cape Cod Times. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he splits time between a hobo camp in western Maine and his native Cape Cod where he has spent 45 consecutive summers walking distance to Lewis Bay. He has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE including a recent piece on Cape Cod and Islands divers, and his novel Winterland is available on Strawberry Books.

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