Like the real thing of years past, the model steam trains at Leakin Park round a bend with wailing whistles and the bitter aroma of coal steam. Clickety-clacks and a screeching stop are comforting sounds to those who love the arrival as much as the ride. So is the conductor's firm announcement: All Aboard!
The only surprise is that these trains are knee-high to the passengers.
They're not toys, though. The men of the Chesapeake & Allegheny Steam Preservation Society have worked for years in machine shops and garages to create exact replicas of past great trains. Six years ago, they made a deal with the city of Baltimore: In exchange for five to 10 park acres, they would build and maintain a miniature railroad and offer free rides.
For members Arthur Schuster, 75, and Leo Chism, 68, the hours in their workshops are fueled with a bit of nostalgia and a desire to share the mysteries of steam power with generations who have never smelled the aroma of coal-powered steam.
"It's a historic thing" says Schuster. "Kids come over and see the 'black stones.' We tell them we burn them to make the engines move. Well, that really opens their eyes."
During the childhoods of these men, trains were a part of everyday life as well a fascination. Chism often slipped away from home to a nearby station and climbed aboard the engines. There were weekly Saturday night rides to visit his grandfather, who waited at the station in a horse and buggy.
Commuter trains figured in Schuster's life from childhood to adulthood. "In those days, when you thought about speed, you thought about a train," he recalls. Automobiles were slow and often unreliable.
Like many of the 110 members of the steam train preservation society, Schuster and Chism pursued non-railroad careers. But memories and a fascination with the mechanics of railroading have kept them working in garages to create trains. They bring them to Leakin Park to share their enthusiasm with the public, especially children.
The only challenge is to climb aboard without smiling. Scaled to the finest detail, the trains bring into focus the power and beauty of the rods, wheels and valves that once moved millions of passengers to their destinations.
With surprising power, these little trains carry people through 10 acres of park on 3,700 feet of track at a pleasing 6 mph. Many venerable railroad companies of the past -- Western Maryland, B&O, and Chessie -- are represented. On any given Sunday there are usually five to seven trains running and others on display.
"I'm fascinated by the mechanism of trains," Chism says. "It's like a graceful ballet. Watch a steam train go down a track . . . it's very precise, yet very loose in its movement.
Chism hopes that somewhere in the crowd there's a youngster or two who will one day carry on the work of the preservation society.
Tomorrow is the last day of the season for the trains. Theoperate, weather permitting, from noon until 4 p.m. from April through November, on the second Sunday of the month. The rides are free, but donations are accepted. Unlimited rides are permitted -- just get in line again (it takes about 10 minutes or so to complete a single ride).
Directions: Beltway Exit 16 onto I-70 to Security Boulevard; go two blocks to traffic light. Turn right, then an immediate left and go to the light at the top of the hill. Turn right onto Windsor Mill Road. The park entrance is 1/3 -mile on the right. In the morning the public is invited to watch the preparations of the engines.