I Am a Model Railroader, Like My Father Before Me

Kids and trains, man, they’re like kids and dinosaurs.

My father was an avid model railroader and built a sprawling empire in the basement of our home. Trains in some form were a constant in my life as long as I can remember. I have memories of standing by train tracks in all sorts of weather waiting to see one; me running his trains too fast on his home layout. “Faster, Daddy, Faster,” I would shout as a five-year old.

Dad grew up on the Erie Lackawanna main line in New York. He modeled that railroad for nostalgia purposes, I imagine. When I got into the hobby as a young adult, I also favored the Erie Lackawanna. I’m not sure why I did. It would be on brand for me to model the more modern railroads with the wide cab locomotives and double-stack container trains, as well as to buck my dad’s influence. Maybe it was as simple as I liked the paint scheme and wanted to be able to borrow his trains to run with mine. We were both members of the North Shore Model Railroad club, and enjoyed running our trains on the massive layout. Life got in the way and we had to resign our membership 20 years ago.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. In 2011 he succumbed.

During the years he was fighting the disease he wanted to build a small switching layout in a spare bedroom. He bought some locomotives and rolling stock, replacing what he didn’t want any more from the earlier layout. I also never got rid of my collection. It sat in Rubbermaid bins for almost 20 years following me from apartment to apartment and to my current house. After he died, his Rubbermaid bins sat next to mine. It was a crowded closet.

Three years ago I was feeling creatively restless. I was still in contact with my friend Jeff and we had tried forming a few bands to keep in music. He was still a member of the North Shore train club and I decided to rejoin the club. I was struggling with writing and drawing as creative outlets. Working on trains felt like a way to be creative but engaging a different part of my brain.

This is when I became thankful that I modeled the same railroad as Dad. It was easy to mix-and-match the trains. At first I tried to keep the collections separate and sometimes just run Dad’s trains. About a year ago, I merged the train collections fully. I store complete trains sets in plastic bins to run at the club. One bin is mostly Dad’s trains with a handful of mine mixed in. It wasn’t intentional; it just worked out that a lot of his cars looked good together. I was up at the club Father’s Day weekend. I didn’t give it much thought as I grabbed “Dad’s Bin” on the way out the door. It was more a case of thinking, I haven’t run those cars in a while. I wonder if everything is adjusted properly? During a pass on the layout it hit me: These are Dad’s cars, and it is Father’s Day. I had a tear in my eye, but a smile on my face. I felt his presence strongly, happy that his trains were being run.

Working with trains still helps me feel close to my Dad. It would be the same even if I modeled a different railroad, or a different era1. I know the reason he wanted to build a model railroad was his way of fighting the disease. He was still active in the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society’s mailing list and would ask questions about the layout he had in mind.

This past weekend, a lot of my feelings about Dad, trains, and his influence on me all came to a head. We held the annual open house for my train club. It is one of the few times a year we are truly open to the public and it’s the model railroader’s version of a fancy dress ball. A lot of members bring out their best trains — the trains that a lot of work and effort went into. I ran a train that had one of Dad’s locomotives and a baggage car he had been working on. My claustrophobia tends to act up during the show when the small aisles of the layout get crowded, so I usually stay in the back working one of the staging yards to help members get trains on, and off, the layout. I was at my post when I saw Dad’s train go by. I mentioned to the gentleman running the train it was mine, and it turns out he had also grown up on the Lackawanna main line. He mentioned the train was getting a lot of nice compliments as he ran it.

On a later pass I mentioned how the engine and the car were Dad’s and how he bought the engine when he was sick hoping he would be able to run it before he died. He never got the chance. My new friend mentioned that he was sure Dad would be smiling right now seeing it run. I told him I knew he was.

On the second day of the show, I brought one of Dad’s favorite engines — a brass Erie Berkshire — with the hopes of running during the open house. Sadly, the steam engine and a key turnout on the layout didn’t get along so I didn’t run it during the event. At the end of the day, when I had the layout to myself, I ran it around the layout with a cut of cars that were all Dad’s. This is the one train I haven’t cross populated with any of my stuff. The label on the bin just says 1950, the name I gave the train, but it’s really Dad’s Train.

I don’t run that train often. The story I was telling myself is the engine is older than I am. That one day it will stop running and why hasten it? But, I can fix it if that happens. Running it this time, I knew why I don’t run that train often: that is the train that Dad should be running. Running his new engine and the baggage car, I can celebrate his spirit and optimism in trying to defeat a terminal illness.

Running the Erie Berkshire, though, I feel his absence.

  1. I also model the modern day Union Pacific, but the bulk of my collection is 1970s-era Erie Lackawanna.