Catching the trains

December 07, 2008|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Unlike many model train buffs, Tom Sellars doesn't have a train layout spread across his basement or filling his garage.

Instead, for 20 years he has worked with fellow enthusiasts to take over one room of the B&O Railroad Museum's Ellicott City Station each fall and create mountains, valleys, tunnels and towns for the tiny engines to zip around with the ultimate goal of drawing visitors during the holiday season.

For the past several years, the team has included Tony Zingarelli of Perry Hall and Larry Harrington of Kingsville, and Sellars said that for all three train buffs, "This is our layout. This is ours to play with for three months."

The result of their creative efforts will be on display through Jan. 25 as part of the B&O Railroad Museums' Holiday Festival of Trains.

The Ellicott City Station presentation, which is in its 25th year, will feature the new O-scale display built by Sellars, Zingarelli and Harrington, a new Thomas the Tank Engine display and other layouts. Santa Claus will drop in, too. The B&O Museum in Baltimore also will have model train displays built by several different clubs and holiday activities.

Starting in mid-August, the Ellicott City trio put in a combined 750 hours on this year's display, which has nine trains, 30 tunnel openings and five "super streets" with cars zooming around on them.

Among the new features this year is a custom-made metal suspension bridge and an adjoining trestle that the men built to match, a new farm scene they purchased that has a windmill, grazing cows and tiny rows of corn, and a lighted Domino Sugar sign as part of a newly reconfigured city street.

Other new elements are more subtle but add to the overall effect, including a boy climbing a rope into his treehouse, the sound of bells at the crossing gates and a moving work crew fixing a road. Favorite elements from past years have returned, such as a scrap yard with a moving crane, a group of mountain climbers and rescue vehicles with flashing lights.

This year, Harrington said, the model builders benefited from a generous donation of trains, funding and all the trees they could use from Bachmann Trains in Philadelphia. Harrington works for the company, which decided to become a sponsor after viewing the men's efforts last year.

Harrington said the work was easier and a little faster this year because the men switched from using papier mache for building the hills and valleys to medical plaster that is normally used to make casts.

The team doesn't really plan its displays, said Sellars, who works in home improvement.

"We start seeing what we like, and it works its way to what you see," he said.

Zingarelli recalled how happy he was as a boy to see the train displays at local stores at holiday time. Now, he said, he can relate to youngsters' reaction.

"Seeing the kids come through, seeing their faces, is worth every hour we put in," he said.

When the exhibit opened the day after Thanksgiving, one of those faces belonged to 4-year-old Evelyn Luster of Germantown. She pointed out to her parents a crossing gate that raises and lowers and let out an "oooh," when a CSX train went chugging by.

"She really loves trains," said her father, Troy Luster, who was there with Evelyn's mother, Valerie, and her 7-month-old sister, Julia.

In addition to the O-scale layout, Sellars and his collaborators built a small display with interactive elements at the museum's request. Visitors can push buttons to activate a whistle, a crossing gate, figures at an ice cream stand and four other moving pieces while trains race around two loops.

An N-gauge layout, which uses very small trains and scenery, is on display again in the museum's telegraph office. On Dec. 13 and 20, visitors can see Santa Claus in the museum's caboose.

In addition, the museum invited Jeffrey Tomecek of Bel Air to upgrade its Thomas the Tank Engine display, which was very popular in past years.

Tomecek, a retired postal worker who has built models with clubs at the B&O in Baltimore, built a five-level G-gauge layout out of plywood and Styrofoam with tunnels, hills and trees for six characters from the books and videos: Thomas, James, Percy, Toby, Duck and Diesel.

The layout was constructed in pieces at his home and reassembled at the museum, Tomecek said. And while Thomas and James are commercially available, he built the other characters out of pieces from other sets. He also put Harold the Helicopter into the scene and gave him new, rotating blades.

As Tomecek watched the crowds come through on the first day, he said there was no question the set-up was a hit.

"Some of them have come back several times already," he said.

IF YOU GO

What: The Holiday Festival of Trains

Where: Ellicott City Station, 2711 Maryland Ave.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Jan. 25 (closed Dec. 24, 25, 31 and Jan. 1).

Information and admission prices: www.ecborail.org.

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