Leakin Park hosts tiny trains

Miniature railroad offers the free rides to the public once a month

April 13, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

The beats start slow, then swell with speed, clickety-clacks giving way to chucka-chuckas and shoo-shoo-shoos. A whistle, a squeal, a whoo-whoo. Low rumbles and trembling tracks - a percussion symphony led by a conductor in a pin-striped cap.

"There are a lot of rhythms in the railroads," Charles "Bill" Kinzer says just as a train slides by outside in Leakin Park. He pauses to listen. "Choo, choo, choo!" he chimes, mustache jumping.

Kinzer is president of the Chesapeake & Allegheny Steam Preservation Society, which kicked off its annual season of free train rides Sunday, part of a quarter-century-old deal struck with the city: Members allow the public to ride their miniature trains - one-eighth the size of the real thing - on the second Sunday of the month, April through November, in exchange for 10 park acres, which they lease for a dollar a year.

Like the trains, opening day 2009 started slow. By noon, a half-dozen vehicles were in the parking lot, one for each person sitting atop the cars attached to a diesel model locomotive, ready to wend its way along 3,300 feet of hand-laid track at 6 mph. Behind it, a steam locomotive model sputtered and stopped. Trouble already.

A season of rest will do that, said society member Craig Close.

The group - the CALS, for Chesapeake & Allegheny Live Steamers - has more than 100 listed members, though 30 or 40 are active. They're mostly men, and they come from all walks and professions, according to Kinzer, a retired physician. He has been a member since 1972, and a train lover since he was a tot in the 1930s.

All of the members share a passion for trains, especially steam engines.

"A lot of it is the romance of it and the history," CALS member Paul E. Seyfrit said in a telephone interview Friday.

Inside headquarters, images of olden-day trains hang on the walls, and meticulous models of trains that once ran on now long-gone tracks sit high in storage bays.

The CALS locomotives, most privately owned, stand about 2 feet high and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, Seyfrit said. Some were made by members, and some were purchased. They come in diesel, electric and steam versions and can pull more than 60 people, though they usually don't. They cost between a few hundred dollars - if you have the skills and equipment to make them - to the tens of thousands if you buy them.

"Some of them are like Rolls-Royces, and they cost as much," said CALS chief mechanical officer Mike Schroeder.

The diesel model queued up to go Sunday doesn't ride like a Rolls-Royce. It squeaks and rocks and vibrates past trees still waiting for their buds.

In 2005, Baltimore Magazine called the Leakin Park trains a hidden treasure. In 1996, the magazine called them "the best cheap thrill for overgrown adults."

Richard Fulton came Sunday "because I've got a 4-year-old," he said referring to son Garrett.

"That's his excuse," his wife, Catherine, said.

They were there about 1 p.m., and things had picked up since noon. Several dozen people waited in line, many of them younger than Garrett. By June, the line will be 50 people deep.

"I had trains when I was his age," Derek Carey said with a nod to his 2-year-old son Micah, a Thomas the Tank Engine fan. "He's reminded me how much fun they are."

A few yards away, a CALS crew is going to work on the sick steamer, a model of a British slate-mining train. Its valve control timing had been off, but it was looking good again. The conductor gave it a try, and the little engine could, pistons pumping and valves releasing.

The steam traveled up the smokestack and did what it does.

Said Kinzer: "The steam says choo."

RIDE THE RAILS

Chesapeake & Allegheny Live Steamers

What: Rides aboard a miniature train pulled by an electric, steam or diesel locomotive along more than a half-mile of track at 6 mph.

When: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every second Sunday of the month through November (weather permitting)

Where: Leakin Park off Windsor Mill Road in Baltimore

Cost: Free (donations accepted)

Track phone: 410-448-0730

Online: http://calslivesteam.org

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