Train display on track to open for the holidays

'If you volunteer your time, you get to play with the exhibit'

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Along with decorated trees, Santa Claus, nutcrackers and manger scenes, another image associated with Christmas is that of a model train display. And if one local enthusiast has his way, the icon will continue to dominant holiday decorating.

"After World War II, when people once again had sufficient disposable income, model train sets were on most every kids' Christmas wish lists," said Joe Jack, 68, of Washington, Pa., who has been putting together model train displays for more years than he can remember.

The train enthusiast has been collecting an assortment of engines and freight and passenger cars since boyhood. In addition, he worked in a railroad freight yard for 34 years before retiring in 2002.

For six years, he and friends assembled a model train display near his home in Beaver County. After he moved to Canonsburg in 2005, he set up a display in the council chambers of Canonsburg municipal building. When he relocated to Washington in 2006, he began looking for an appropriate place to install the display in his new hometown.

What he found was a 100-foot-long, 40-foot-wide, L-shaped room on the first floor of Freedom Center, formerly known as the Weber furniture store, one block east of Main Street at 31 E. Chestnut St. It proved spacious enough to house his 800 feet of track in four displays over which more than 20 trains of various gauges run simultaneously. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

The upper level of the display shows a Pittsburgh trolley that starts in a country town, travels over a model of New York's Hell Gate Bridge, goes past a Polar Express area, crosses three more bridges, passes through a replica of a portion of Pittsburgh, ending near a working space shuttle launch.

One level down, a P&LE Railroad commuter train, two freight trains and a circus train chug past a Steelers football game, a working drive-in theater where videos are projected, a Washington Wild Things baseball game and a canyon out of a Wild West film. On one side, a cityscape includes an industrial area and a burning building with a collection of fire trucks tending to it.

"In the display, we try to transform some of our buildings to landmarks our visitors will recognize, such as Curtis Pharmacy in Canonsburg, the Washington County Courthouse and Popcorn Willy's in Washington," Mr. Jack said.

A separate display of an 8-foot-by-8-foot village is connected to a 4-foot-by-8-foot circus display. Nearby, a third display holds a collection of G-gauge trains.

"It's a magical kingdom that the kids really seem to enjoy," Mr. Jack said. "You have to see it yourself to appreciate it."

The entire display took eight people more than two months and 250 hours to complete. Volunteers come from as far as Pittsburgh, and Mr. Jack is looking for more volunteers to operate the trains.

"The deal is if you volunteer your time, you get to play with the exhibit," he said.

Last year, the model rail extravaganza drew more than 1,500 visitors and donations, which benefited the Citizens Library of Washington, totaled $1,200. This year, beneficiaries include Pet Search and Renovation Station and the library.

To raise additional funds, a ticket auction will be held.

"Santa will also be on hand from time to time, as will our volunteer members looking to buy and repair model trains," Mr. Jack said. "If there's enough interest, we'd also like to start a train club and find a permanent place in the area to install the exhibit."

A preview opening of the display will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with the exhibit's official opening scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 3 in conjunction with the annual Washington Holiday Parade. After that, the exhibit will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. Fridays and 2 to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec.19. It will be closed Friday, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Details: 724-229-0745.


Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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