Railroad museum marks 20th holiday display

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Mike Gornick remembers the sights and sounds of steam and diesel locomotives pulling passenger and freight trains near his home in Trafford.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's main line ran close to his childhood home. Now living in Greensburg, he sought to share some of those childhood memories with his 18-month-old granddaughter, Lily Funari, of Penn Hills, during their recent visit to the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum.

"Toot-toot," Lily said, pointing toward the wooden Brio trains she had played with earlier.

"There is something for everyone here," Lily's grandmother, Michele Gornick, said of the model railroad museum. "We'll be back soon."

That's the kind of reaction from visitors that Bill Humphrey likes to hear. He is a 20-year member of the all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that operates the museum just north of Route 910 in Richland.

This year marks the museum's 20th annual holiday train display.

The focus of the museum is a 4,000-square-foot HO-scale model railroad that re-creates scenes from a 1952 train journey between Downtown Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.

Still under construction after two decades, the display contains hundreds of buildings, thousands of figures and tens of thousands of miniature trees. Enough work remains, however, to keep the club members busy for another 20 years.

"We just don't go into a hobby shop and buy buildings," Mr. Humphrey said. "We'll visit Confluence or Meyersdale, and we'll take pictures and take measurements of the structures we want to model."

To create models of buildings that are no longer there, designers search libraries for old photos.

People such as Harry Bartlebaugh, a retired engineer from Richland, then prepare mechanical drawings to guide the makers of the detailed models.

"We know we are doing something right because we've had visitors look at some of our scenes and say, 'Hey, that's my old house,' " said Mr. Humphrey, of Penn Hills, who retired after a 41-year career in research and development with PPG Industries.

The roots of the museum go back to 1938 and the creation of the Pittsburgh Model Railroad Club. The organization, later known as the Pittsburgh Model Railroad Historical Society, presented displays in several locations over the decades, including the Pennsylvania Railroad's Shadyside Station in Pittsburgh's East End and at the former Eberhardt & Ober Brewery on the North Side.

The organization was down to a half dozen active members when it relocated in 1984-85 and built its new two-story museum in Richland. It now has a roster of about 80. About 35 active members get together regularly to prepare for the annual holiday shows.

Think of the railroad display as offering a three-dimensional version of a Rick Sebak Pittsburgh documentary on "Things That Aren't There Anymore."

"We're the only place where you can still see trolleys on the Smithfield Street Bridge," Mr. Humphrey said, pointing to a model of the 19th century span that crosses the Monongahela River at Station Square. Visitors also can observe the workings of the long-demolished Jones & Laughlin steel plant and catch a glimpse of construction under way for what would become the Parkway East.

The entire display serves as a memorial to the businesses that made Pittsburgh an industrial center. "We want to keep alive the story of steam, steel and coal," Mr. Humphrey said.

The museum's Mon Valley Railroad is an amalgam of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, Wabash, B&O and Western Maryland lines. Much of its actual route between Pittsburgh and Cumberland has been converted into a hiking-biking trail known as the Great Allegheny Passage.

Museum model makers strive for accuracy, Mr. Humphrey said.

He pointed to a row of hopper cars partially filled with what looked like orange sand. "That's iron ore," he said. "People ask why we don't fill them up. Well, they'd be too heavy for the engines to haul."

Sometimes, however, club members do take artistic license.

On the hill above Ohiopyle is a model of what appears to be a familiar structure designed by a famous architect.

"Falling Water is on the other side of the mountain," Mr. Humphrey said. "So we call that building Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Train Watch.' "

Much of the display's overall design was done by member Chuck Rakiecz, of Wilkinsburg. Adding to the realism of the scenes are painted backdrops. Many were done by the late Bob Smith, a former president of the organization.

Although the club has lost many members over the years, their work remains. Mr. Humphrey lifted up one of the building models from the Cumberland scene and pointed to the names: "Designed by Bob Smith; Built by Stan Rosskamp, Sept. '97"

"Stan is still active, although he lives in North Carolina," he said. "He builds houses down there and sends them up."

Dennis Lippert, of Economy, has been involved with the museum under its various names for more than 30 years.

"I like mechanical things, and trains are about the largest mechanical things you can find," he said. His special interest in is building, painting and weathering -- reproducing the effects of age and climate -- on locomotives and cars.

During the annual show, as many as two dozen trains can be running at one time. While the scenes they pass are a half-century old, the technology that keeps them from colliding is 21st century. Trains are monitored through two desktop computers. Features include a train-mounted camera that provides a track-side view of the layout as one of the locomotives chugs its way around the display.

The museum's rolling stock includes about 1,500 cars and 225 locomotives or trolleys.

Over the past 20 years, about 180,000 people have toured the museum's attractions.

They include an interactive O-gauge layout, a Thomas the Tank Engine HO display and a play area for toddlers featuring wooden trains.

While the main display seeks to re-create a time gone by, the emphasis is more on fun with the other layouts. "We try to keep this more whimsical," modeler Dan Devic said of the museum's 14-foot-by-20-foot O-gauge platform. The Saxonburg resident pointed to a chicken sitting on a radar tower and Martians gathered around a model of the Mars, Pa., train station.

"And on a game day, we'll have a Steelers train," Mr. Devic said.

While club members have strived to be realistic in their depiction of southwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1950s, there is one aspect of life back then they have not tried to model.

"We can't re-create the smoky skies," Mr. Humphrey said.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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