The Old Town Model Railroad Depot
The Internal Revenue Service is on fire! Red-and-blue emergency flashers scat about the structure, but this is a fire that will never, ever be put out. “As you can see,” Nick Pecoraro offers, “the firemen are all just standing around, letting it burn.”
It’s meant as a little joke, this faux conflagration, one that is made all the better when Pecoraro reveals that Gary Hickok, the owner and mastermind behind this miniature city in the Old Town Model Railroad Depot, is a retired investment counselor. Pecoraro acts as tour guide today; Hickok is taking some time off during the time that I visit.
As we amble through the rooms (one is day, the other night) and survey the miniature world before us, Pecoraro points out a multitude of canards and double meanings that are hidden within the model-train layout, albeit hidden in plain sight. Model railroaders, it turns out, are not without a sense of humor. And possibly, a sense of planetary omniscience: Pecoraro toggles a few switches on a small remote not unlike one for a television, and a model post-WWII-era fast-food diner the size of a cake sparks to life. Lights come on, 1950s rock and roll plays.
“Can I take your order?” a woman’s voice is heard to say.
“I’ll have a burger and fries and a Coke,” comes the answer, presumably from the tiny car parked at the drive-up window.
A frieze of motorcycles winds down a mountain road
“Gary,” says Ted Pecoraro, “wanted to build a big layout.” He explains that it was three years in the planning, but only about six months were spent on the actual construction. Why? “Because we had a lot of help,” he says. Meaning from grown men who are skilled at carpentry, scenic painting, model-making, and electronics. The scale-model fruits of their expensive labors: a frieze of motorcycles winds down a mountain road toward a job site where construction workers run jackhammers. Earth graders grade. Welders weld. Across the banks of a clear stream, sunbathers sunbathe.
Further down the mountain in a gully, a pack of homeless people huddle around embers. Around the bend is an oil refinery on the outskirts of a city plot aglow in the soft yellow of street lights. Electric sign boards light up. Lions in the city zoo roar. A man sits, smoking a cigar in his second-floor office. The tip of his stogie glows orange in the twilight. The layers of details, frozen in time (only the trains themselves move) are stunning. A visitor leaves the museum wondering when, exactly, this pastime stopped being for kids.
Model railroaders have been called the “world’s most compelling underground community” and although some enthusiasts are famous (Neil Young holds patents for his model-train-related inventions; Rod Stewart owns a layout or two; Frank Sinatra also enjoyed the hobby) the basic model railroader is essentially an endangered species. Youth, as a whole, no longer participates in the hobby. There is a geekiness inherent within the whole model-railroad experience, but it is tempered with enthrallment. One finds oneself waiting for the little train to make another loop around the layout, watching while it passes.
Later, while we are having lunch next door, Bruce Cameron will explain the attraction.
“There is something inherently fascinating,” he says, “about looking at a scale-model representation of the world.” Cameron, perhaps better known as a jazz trumpeter of national import now living in La Mesa, is a longtime modeler himself. He once built a working scale-model railroad layout small enough to fit into the nook behind the cash register at Reed’s, a train specialty retail shop that he co-owned at one time. In all the years that he worked the store, did he know of any women in the hobby?
“It took me about a year to break through.” Sara Kelly, 45, lives in Oceanside. For the past couple of years, she has been filming and editing Model Citizens, a documentary about the model-railroad hobby. “It’s a very protected community. The one thing I confronted through all of this was suspicion. A lot of them were happy to have the attention and the chance to talk about something they were passionate about. But some were leery about having a media hit job done on them. Then others,” she says, “were very concerned that they wouldn’t be classified as playing with toy trains. It’s not about toys, and it’s not about kids. For them, it’s about a very real representation of the real world.”
Kelly was surprised to learn that her interview subjects “understood the obsessions that drove them, and why.” She identified three sub-groups.
“Some are only interested in operations [meaning, the moving of model cargo or passenger cars from one destination to another just like real trains] or interested in rolling stock, or in modeling. Some of them aren’t even interested in seeing their trains run. Some of them only care about making their models look as real, as close to the original as possible. You’ve maybe heard the term ‘rivet counter’? Like, if there’s 32 rivets on the original locomotive, there has to be 32 rivets on their model, too.”
We meet for coffee in downtown La Jolla, why Kelly gives me her assessment of who they typical model railroader is. “It seems to be the kind of person who is free to enjoy this sort of thing,” she says, “free to pursue their interests. A lot of it’s a control thing, about creating your own world, or, the world as you want it to be. I can understand the appeal of wanting to take control of something.”
For the past couple years, Sara Kelly has been filming and editing Model Citizens, a documentary about the model railroad hobby.
Kelly also chairs the journalism department at National University. “What I didn’t understand at first was how serious it can be. Operations, the running of trains, how to operate trains on a layout,” she says, “can be so challenging.” She talks about the high degree of intelligence among model railroaders. “This can be like a brain exercise, the same kind of brain exercise as doing a job as an engineer, or playing a game of chess.”
Is Sara Kelly going to get a model train for herself? “No. People keep asking me that.”
“Model railroading is the world’s greatest hobby,” Mike Thornhill says. “It encompasses carpentry, painting, miniature diorama construction, model-building, layout, drafting, and electronics. It’s also a disease.” Thornhill is tall and outgoing. The former scuba diver and dive instructor is tanned and does not look close to his 67 years. He carries himself with athletic poise. He gets paid to work one day per week at the Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park. He runs trains and he educates the public. He calls his North Park garage Mike’s Museum. “It’s set up for trains, and I have another three layouts in a 600-square-foot basement room that I rent. That’s how crazy I am about trains.”
Is he ever criticized or ridiculed for being a model railroader? “My wife thinks it’s kind of nerdy,” he admits. “Well, actually, everyone in the family thinks it’s nerdy. My wife says are you gonna go play with trains again today?” he says, laying on the mock-sarcasm. “No. I’m going model railroading.” His look is unbendable. How else to explain the substantial amount of money and time and effort that goes into re-creating the world in exacting miniature?
“See those clouds over there?” Thornhill points to some fake cumulus perfectly airbrushed onto an azure backdrop. “The designer, he’s getting ready to put in an electronic lightning bolt.” Such is the attempted realism at the colossal model railroad in the basement at Balboa Park in San Diego, the largest such model railroad museum in the country. Thornhill explains that the layout is not by chance, that everything about it replicates one particular day in 1949 along the long-defunct San Diego-Arizona Eastern railway. He says that a lot of model railroads are that way, a certain moment frozen in time.
“I grew up during that era when the holy grail of Christmas presents was a train set. That was back in the 1950s. I got my first train set when I was about 10,” he says. “And then a few years later I discovered girls and then cars, and I sold my trains. Thirty years later, I came full circle back into the hobby of model railroading. And I really love it.”
Like so many other men involved in model railroading, Thornhill too is concerned that the hobby is not growing. The main reason? “Kids aren’t getting trains for Christmas any more.” He says that young kids at the museum tend to get excited when they see the trains, and that the Model Railroad Museum does have a youth program. But there’s a secondary problem, he says, and that’s the high cost of model railroading.
Elvis playing at the Palace
Gary Hickok, for example, admitted to spending close to $250,000 to build and curate his layout in Old Town.
That’s on the extreme high end, and Thornhill knows it, but he also knows of layouts that cost even more. “The hobby’s getting out of the price range of the average family budget,” says Thornhill. “Even the most basic layout costs a couple thousand dollars, which is cost prohibitive for the working family.”
The word ‘Trains’ appears 11 times along the bottom margin of the big sign outside of Reed’s Hobby Store in La Mesa. Owner Steve Bovee, 70, sits in a back room cluttered with railroad memorabilia and model train cars and Lilliputian buildings in various states of assembly. The only music comes from the constant zoosh of computer fans in the desktops atop the work bench. Talk turns to how trains figured into Einstein’s theory of relativity, about how it was indeed the childhood gift of a toy train that inspired the genius to seek out a life in science.
Bovee has a multitude of projects currently in play. One of them is a model Santa Fe train engine the size of a Twinkie into which he is installing lights and a sophisticated decoder that can read whatever instructions are being sent at any time by a computer. That’s right, he says. Computers are used to help run model railroads these days.
“It’s gotten more technical. There’s central computer systems using a standardized coding system similar to cell phone technology. It’s a cell phone on wheels. The decoder can read a ‘packet’ of whatever information is being sent to it specifically on the train tracks along with the electrical current that powers the motors.” Lights? Whistle? Speed? The sound of an engineer talking? “All of that,” says Steve Bovee, “is encoded purposely for that particular engine.”
It’s a technical hobby, he allows, “but we’re artists too. I’ve heard people call model railroads three dimensional art.” Then, there’s the therapeutic effect. “I lose track of what’s going on around me when I’m modeling.” Bovee gently lifts a scale model of a pre-war gas station off a shelf. Every detail, from the wood siding to the windows to the trim and signage are rendered in beautiful detail. The entire building fits in the palm of his hand. But it is missing key ingredients.
“I’d add a base and a road, maybe some old tires and a gas pump,” all in miniature of course, and to scale with the building.” Reed’s store specializes in the retailing of just such model railroad accoutrements. “I’d sell it for maybe $50, maybe $100 dollars.” Questions about the inclination to create a world in miniature don’t seem to register on Bovee’s radar; perhaps he’s been at it so long now that it simply makes more sense than the alternative.
In the open window space that overlooks the shop sits a large model of a Southern Pacific steam locomotive made entirely from wood, but detailed and painted to look like boiler iron. “Back during the 1940’s, when this was made, people had a lot of time on their hands.”
Bovee’s not sure, but he thinks Reed’s was actually first opened for business in the 1960s up in Oakland. He knows he bought it in 1997 while he was still working for the school district. For model trains, Reeds is one of two such shops remaining in San Diego. There used to be many more. Business is not the best, he says, but says that the shop’s sales are up 10 percent over last year.
“When I was a kid, my dad worked for the railroad. This was before the war. And after that, he started modeling.” Bovee thinks around 1947. “We always seemed to live next to railroad tracks.” Bovee himself has likewise worked with actual trains on a real railroad. When he was still in the Navy, he operated the Fallbrook branch of the Santa Fe railroad that ran throughout Camp Pendleton. “I’m probably the only person who ever got a Navy Commendation for playing with trains,” he grins.
He agrees that model railroading belongs to an older generation. “The average modeler is 45 to 75 years old. We have a few younger guys come in, but they don’t represent the majority.” Why no kids in the hobby, in his opinion? “TV and computers,” is the short answer. “I don’t know why, but I think a love for model trains starts early in your life. I know people who get into it in their 40’s and their 60’s, but most kids,” he stops, and then he says, “well, TV has killed a lot of society.”
Bovee claims that there is one distinct population of youth that still loves model railroading: “kids with autism. Possibly it’s the organization. People with Asperger’s are wonderful model makers, and some of them, they tend to know everything about trains. A lot of these guys are smart as a whip.” He screws a panel into the bottom of the Santa Fe engine.
“Albert Einstein,” he says, “had Asperger’s.”
“I suppose it may get smaller,” Le Roy Athey says during a telephone conversation about the end of the line, meaning the foreseeable end of model railroading as a hobby. “It’s coming to where only those people who can afford it participate.” Athey warns me not to become addicted to model railroading myself. “It happened to me. I started out with Lionel toy trains when I was a boy.” 25 years ago, he graduated to a two-foot gage — tracks two feet apart — system that he pilots around his Alpine land on a system of tracks he laid himself. He takes visitors for rides on the weekends and claims that 13,000 people so far have enjoyed the Descanso-Alpine-Pacific Railway experience. Imagine the little railroad in Balboa Park, and you’ve got the idea.
“What happens to this when I’m no longer able to operate it? Is that what you’re asking?” The retired correctional officer is 84. “I hope the Campo train museum will be interested.” Museums sound like a good option to Athey. “The California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento comes close to the Smithsonian.” He says model railroad layouts that once belonged to a local banker named Thomas Sefton are in the museum. He knows that some model train layouts otherwise end up getting sold or parted out or put into storage or the landfill by heirs when owners pass away. He accepts that the interest in the hobby has grown stale for lack of new blood.
“No, I don’t have many young men pounding at my door,” he says, “wanting to help out.”