Model trains take Arundel man back to boyhood Basement Lionel layout is crammed with action

December 14, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

Frank McDonald's Christmas this year will mark the recovery of his lost youth -- sort of.

After years of searching, the 45-year-old Anne Arundel County truck driver has finally replaced examples of all the Lionel model trains he had way back when, but which he "sold for a song" when he married and moved into a small house.

"My goal was to replace every piece I had when I was a kid, car for car, along with the Plasticville houses," Mr. McDonald said in recounting the quest he launched in 1987.

He has added the final treasures -- three Santa Fe Railroad passenger cars -- to his kid's paradise, a four-level, 14-foot-by-21-foot layout that occupies most of his Riviera Beach basement, and he can't wait to show it off.

Christmas has already come to the warm, cozy McDonald basement where a Santa figure over the door greets visitors and a cheery log fire flickers in the fireplace. Christmas ornaments and mini-lights brighten the draped evergreen garlands, ready for the party he throws every year for his friends and neighbors.

"Santa shows up at 7 o'clock for the kids, and for me, too. I'll never grow up," Mr. McDonald said with a face-splitting grin.

Fourteen trains -- including a trolley car -- clickety-clack past wooded mountains and farms, across trestles and through tunnels into villages and freight yards, and even around a lighted baseball stadium.

Twenty-five transformers control the lighting for the streets, buildings and other accessories, as well as the 152 pieces of rolling stock representing electric and diesel-powered trains, and steam engines that actually puff smoke.

Mr. McDonald plays the layout like a synthesizer, adding a touch of power here, taking it off there, speeding up and slowing down different trains as they clack around their tracks.

A separate electric circuit accommodates the train layout with its miles of wiring. The circuit, which is accessible from a crawl space beneath the platform and through several carefully concealed trapdoors, took years to complete, he said.

Lights flash everywhere as a helicopter's rotor whirls while warming up for take-off, a searchlight probes the "sky" and radar screens turn in a search for targets.

At trackside, horses and steers file from cattle cars into their pens, a conveyor loads coal into an open car, logs dumped into a sawmill from a freight car emerge as cut lumber and fish swim through the waters of an aquarium car. An oil derrick pumps petroleum, and smoke billows from a burning building.

"People like action. I like action.I'm still just a kid at heart," Mr. McDonald said to explain why he has crammed so much movement into his train layout. "I come down here every morning and just look at it."

Like most model train enthusiasts, Mr. McDonald became interested as a child. His father brought home a set of trains, he said, and a railroader friend of the family let him ride in the cab of a switcher engine as it moved cars around the West Baltimore rail yards.

His mother bought him a second set of trains when he was 14, and he walked to and from school to save the carfare to buy sections of track. Eventually he added a third set.

When he married in 1966, the house he moved to was too small for his relatively large Lionel trains, which ran on O and O-27 gauge tracks. He decided to sell them and buy the tiny HO gauge trains that were becoming popular at that time and which could be set up on a single sheet of plywood.

That, he soon realized, was a great mistake.

Although he continued to set up the train garden each Christmas after moving to Riviera Beach in 1977, he was never happy with the smaller trains.

"HO are just toys" that don't offer the same action as the larger trains, he said, "but I thought it would be too expensive to get back into the Lionels."

Remarried in 1982, he began browsing model-train stores for Lionels.

"I couldn't believe how expensive they had gotten," he said. "I had had a gold mine and didn't know it when I sold those trains for a song."

Deciding to convert space where an unused pool table stood into a train layout, Mr. McDonald went back to Lionel trains and bought several sets before having the happy idea to re-create his boyhood collection.

More shocks awaited him, proving that the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.

For example, Mr. McDonald said catalogs show a Lionel set that cost him $450 in 1964 sells for a minimum of $1,495 now. He needed several years of careful dealing, but managed to obtain that set and everything else except the three Santa Fe cars.

His search ended in August, he said. A fellow collector found the set and sold the three cars to Mr. McDonald for $150.

"Those cars are cataloged at $100 each, so you can see I got a good deal," he said. The oil derrick just added to his layout is this year's early Christmas present from his in-laws, Mr. McDonald said. "They cost $9.95 in 1953 when they came out. This one just cost them $204. It's in mint condition.

"A lot of people think collecting trains is playing with toys, kid stuff, until you get into it. I know the values; I study this all the time and prices are still rising," Mr. McDonald said.

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