All Aboard! Train coming to town
It's Friday night at 8 o'clock, and game one of the Yankees-Angels playoff series is getting underway. Eight men and a teenage boy meet in the basement of a mini-mall on Kings Highway. Soda cans pop open. Dennis Rich walks in.
"I put up signs all over town," he says.
These are not pranksters hiding out. They're members of the Housatonic Model Railway Club, Inc., an organization hosting its 23rd-annual model railway show this Sunday at Fairfield Ludlowe High School. The event will feature intricate model train displays, items for sale, how-to clinics and presentations on train safety. It will cater to children and adults, beginners and experts.
"We usually get lots of kids," says Dean, the club's president. "It's a big family show."
In past years, Dean says, about 1,200 people have attended. Most visitors come from the Fairfield area, but some die-hards travel from farther away. Model train enthusiasts are by and large an aging breed, Dean admits. That's one reason the club tries to build enthusiasm in kids.
"We have one vendor who sells 40 to 50 percent of his merchandise to kids," says Jack Ciarletto, the club's treasurer and a member since 1991. "We urge parents to bring step-stools so their kids can see up into the modules. We don't want them standing on folding chairs."
There will be four different types of layout on display. Each corresponds to a different organization. "Valley HO Trak" builds models on 1/160th scale. "Valley N-Trak" builds models slightly smaller. "Central Connecticut G-Gaugers" builds larger-scaled models. And the "New Haven Society of Model Engineers" will have four big layouts on display.
Hosting a show is the club's main way to raise funds for its projects.
"It's like any other hobby," says Dean. "We have a reason to get together: we like trains."
Dean joined as a 17-year-old in December, 1975. At the time, the club was operating out of St. Paul's Church. It had previously met in Bridgeport. In the 1980s, headquarters relocated to the Fairfield Public Library. It would stay there for 20 years until construction in the building forced it to move out. The club migrated to a storage unit on Frank Street next. From there, ironically, it was ousted as the town began plans to build the new train station.
For the past year-and-a-half, the club's been meeting on Friday nights in the basement of Grosso Mini-Mall, 161 Kings Highway. The facility spans two large rooms with a low ceiling. An "M"-shaped table in the back lays the foundation for the group's new project: a painstaking, fictitious reproduction of the 19th-century Housatonic Railway that runs from Danbury to Pittsfield, Mass.
The centerpiece of the project is the old Danbury rail-yard, where the Danbury Railway Museum now stands. It will be the only portion of the 27-by-30-foot module that isn't double-tiered. The club's been working on this portion for over a year already, but it foresees many, many years of work before the project nears completion.
Dean designed the layout on several sheets of graph paper, a project, he says, that took him over 50 hours. The sheets are cut in places and taped together to create a blue-print of the double-decker plan.
Once finished, model trains will be able to run the following course: From New York, they'll sweep through South Norwalk and Stratford, up the Housatonic River to Danbury. Then, they'll run north through Kent, West Cornwall and Canaan, and enter Massachusetts.. There, they'll cut through the towns of Housatonic, Lee and Lennox before reaching Pittsfield.
While the construction process is riddled with uncertainty, one thing is clear: Building a model train takes a lot of patience. Not even two decades of work in the Fairfield Library could bring the project to completion.
"It was terribly sad dismantling everything," says Dean. "We saved wood, trees, buildings, cars, bridges, just about all we could. But we couldn't save the track."
"Wouldn't you say that with just another five years it would have been completely done?" asks Dennis Rich, who's been a member since 1971.
Dean shrugs. "Is a railroad ever done?"