Model students at work

Model builders, alumni of a class at HCC, combine their train modules for a display

December 02, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the sun

Dick Schwanke built his first model train when he was 6.

By the time he entered middle school, he had switched to building model cars and airplanes. But he was drawn back to the hobby that included making elaborate environments to go with the models.

"There is so much more to trains than just straight modeling," said Schwanke, a 55-year-old Bel Air resident. "You make scenery and then you get to do something with them, they don't just sit on a shelf."

Schwanke is still building trains, but he has taken his hobby to a higher level.

He teaches modular railroad-building at Harford Community College. The course, "Model Railroading: Modular Construction," culminates this month with an exhibit, built by students who have taken his class - and who also make up the Harford Modular Railroad Group - at Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air.

The exhibit includes about 50 sections, or modules, that are put together to form an extensive model railroad. The track for the exhibit totals more than 200 feet, and will weave throughout five rooms at Liriodendron.

In Schwanke's course, which consists of five three-hour sessions, students learn to develop a model railroad theme, build structures, create scenery and lay track.

"There's a lot of detail work involved in creating a train module ... so it takes a lot of time," Schwanke said. The 10-member group has been working for more than a year on the modules for the exhibit, he said.

The modular approach allows for sprawling model train setups, Schwanke said. The modules include elaborate scenery, animated workers, outdoor landscaping, and twisting, turning tracks.

"When you make modular trains, you have to be a carpenter, an electrician and an artist," he said. " ... It's not just about putting trains on a track."

David Renard, an honorary club member who taught model railroading at HCC for 30 years, says he has seen an increase in model railroad enthusiasts in the county during the past few decades. In recent years, the trend has veered toward digital, remote-controlled trains and additional sound effects for the trains, he said.

"The idea is to run trains in a realistic way, in a realistic setting," said Renard, 71, of Bel Air, who earned the status of master model railroader about 35 years ago through the National Model Railroad Association. "We try to make the trains and their surroundings as realistic as possible."

Schwanke's passion for the hobby got a big boost from Renard. After taking Renard's class in the late 1990s, Schwanke, an environmental programs manager at Aberdeen Proving Ground, started helping with the class in 2000. He took it over in 2005.

The alumni of the classes have exhibited their work at various events, including the 2006 National Train Show in Philadelphia and the Great Train Expo held at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium in August, Schwanke said.

At the public exhibits, members fill roles such as train master, who organizes the layout; chief civil engineer, who plans the layout to fit the space allotted to the exhibit; and digital command master, who makes sure the electronics are operating properly.

The modules depict both historical and fictional scenes, he said.

Schwanke created a farm scene based on a real Harford County farm for the exhibit that runs at Liriodendron from Dec. 14 to Dec. 16. The scene depicts a stream, cows, silos, barns and a farmhouse, Schwanke said.

Donald Holmes of Abingdon created three modular railroad scenes for the exhibit.

The first scene includes a bridge that runs over Octoraro Creek in Cecil County. Holmes chose the site because it's scenic, he said. The module includes cliffs, hills and a road that runs beneath the bridge.

The second module, which he called "New Town," depicts construction workers carrying crates, and shoveling to make way for development. The third module shows a wooded area being cleared for development. It features construction workers chopping wood.

Creating scenes requires many hours of work, says Holmes, 56, but he finds it relaxing.

"Building modular railroads brings a calm to me," he said.

Holmes first became interested in trains as a boy in 1954 when he would stand on the sofa of his Eastern Shore house and watch the trains pass. He received his first model train, an American Flyer, at age 4.

"Part of my interest is that it takes me back in time to my childhood," he said. "But also, I like the idea of being able to control a downsized version of something that runs this country."

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