A Model Railroader


November 01, 1992|By MARILYN MCCRAVEN

With his beefy hands streaked with grease and sweat dripping down his face into the red bandanna tied around his neck, Rick Steffe tugs on his bib overalls and begins to answer a stranger's questions about the train he just rode on in Leakin Park -- the cars of which Mr. Steffe built with his own two hands.

Everyone wants to know about the silver, brown and tan train cars -- powered by a black engine and followed by a red caboose -- that Mr. Steffe created in the basement of his Leonardtown home last winter. The train cars are being used by the Chesapeake and Allegheny Steam Preservation Society, of which Mr. Steffe, a Treasury Department manager, is a member.

The group operates the trains, which are small models of old-fashioned, steam-powered trains, in the West Baltimore park the second Sunday of each month from May to November, weather permitting. This year the last scheduled run is Nov. 8, noon to 4 p.m., weather permitting. (Call [410] 448-0730 on run dates for more information.)

The debut season for Mr. Steffe's train -- a shiny model with handsome blond-wood seats -- was a tremendous success, he says. The four cars -- two gondolas, a tank car and a caboose -- comfortably seat six or seven passengers.

Q: How did you get into model railroading?

A: As a young person I was a interested in scale-model railroading. . . . It gets in your blood. My grandfather worked on the Western Maryland Railroad for most of his life. I can remember as a little tiny kid he would take me down to Fort Covington to the yards, and they still had steam engines . . . that just fascinated me.

Q: So this has been a longtime hobby?

A: Well, you know what happens to a lot of people, you put your hobbies to the side when you get married. About four or five years ago I thought, 'Gee, I want to do this again.' So I got the shop back together.

Q: Isn't building train cars rather difficult?

A: It's harder for me than most because I still don't have any formal training.

Q: How did you decide to tackle this project?

A: Sometimes we would have a lot of engines up there [in Leakin Park] but run short on [passenger] cars. To help out the effort, I decided to build some riding cars. I decided last summer to make it my winter project. I acquired three kits. They just contained flat pieces of aluminum, pieces of tubular steel, some castings and a set of blueprints, and bags of bolts, nuts and rivets . . . tons of them. Some of the cars have 500 rivets in them.

Q: How did you begin the process?

A: All of the sheet metal work has to be cut and sized, everything has to be drilled, and pieces have to be riveted together by hand. I had never set any rivets before, and that was something I had to learn how to do. You have to not only assemble the parts, you have to prime and paint the metal, make the seats for people to sit on.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the project?

A: Well, no train is really complete without a caboose. . . . There are lots of them out there, but I decided to make the caboose totally from scratch. I got a sheet of plywood, some tube steel, and drew up my own set of blueprints and built it.

Q: Did it get frustrating?

A: That doesn't happen; it's a labor of love. As things start to come together you pat yourself on the back and you say, 'Gee, I didn't know I could do that.'

Q: How much did it cost?

A: Everything in total -- not counting the wheels -- was probably under $900, with the wheels, the couplers and brakes another $1,100.

Q: But that doesn't include the cost of the engine?

A: No, my mother helped me get that. That cost a lot -- $7,500.

Q: How did you feel when you first saw it run?

A: You work on stuff and you get it all checked out, and when it works like it's supposed to, that's a nice feeling.

Q: What do you get out of this?

A: Most of the time when I'm out there, I'll feel something tugging at me and I'll look down and it's a little tiny child, and he'll just say thank you.

Q: You not only built this train but you operate it yourself. Did you drive other trains before you had your own?

A: No, usually I would be a passenger riding in other people's trains. Most of the time I would play conductor and ride in back of the train and make sure everybody was safe. The thing I wanted to do was to have my own engine and operate it.

Q: What's your next project?

A: I have a locomotive under construction that I've been working on for four years. It's coming along . . . the winter is the time for building stuff.

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