Model railroading crosses generations

headquarters of the Treasure Coast Model Railroad Club

Visitors can see recreated towns, rail yards and scenic railroad routes on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the headquarters of the Treasure Coast Model Railroad Club on Becker Road. PHOTO BY CHRISTINA TASCON

Club members come from all walks of life


Why are generations ranging from the tiniest tots to senior citizens so enthralled by scaled-down villages and cities with tiny trains chugging around miniature railroad tracks?

For 40 years, the Treasure Coast Model Railroad Club has worked to satisfy the creativity of members while providing fascinating displays to the public. The club’s headquarters in a former fire station on Becker Road in Port St. Lucie showcases a 2,000-square-foot area in which members have painstakingly recreated small towns, industrial back lots, friendly neighborhoods and even attractions like the Hoover Dam from the era between 1945 and 1975.

The club invites the public in twice a week to tour the facility. As guests tentatively enter for the first time they remark on the grand scope of the display and are drawn in by the individual dioramas, exclaiming over favorite railroad lines and groupings of people, animals and decor.

These hobbyists have not only incorporated new technology but have embraced it wholeheartedly with LED billboards, movable screens on the sides of their rail cars and even lights on each café table. The track acts like a network cable with a controller in each locomotive and a computer working on the layout with throttles and specific cabs that are assigned to the locomotives.

Trains have always been a huge segment of the model world, but today’s engines have kept up with technology as it manages to retain the original charm. These trains feature incredibly realistic sound and work in tandem with the lighting and scenery around them. The TCMRRC track even has a massive thundercloud that flashes lightning and cracks thunder over one segment.

On “run nights” when members work their individual trains, there are even near collisions as fast-moving trains bear down on slower models. That makes for more fun than the old trains, which simply circled a big track and chugged out an occasional tiny puff of smoke.

“Even Lionel trains are all controlled digitally now, and Bachman has Bluetooth so you can control the trains from your smartphones,” says member John Bond.

It is the technology that members hope will attract young hobbyists to the club.

“Technology is amazing,” says Kevin Shoop. “LED and digital technology has advanced model railroading by light years.”

“Kevin is a master at LEDs,” Bond says. “There are three lines all interconnected by a panel for switching. The sound is also controlled digitally.”

“That’s what really sells these locomotives: the sound,” says John Scesny, an 11-year member and former president. “They can run six to eight trains at the same time because the track itself is hot so anyone can set up their locomotive to operate on the whole section of track.”

“That’s the beauty of the computer control,” says Bond. “In the old days you would have to have an isolated electrical section so that one train could operate in that one section and you would have to do a lot of switches and transfers to get to another section.”

The club’s back room is a place where members exchange ideas. It contains some of the most important elements to keep the track up to par.

Big jars of scenery material with different grades and colors for each landscape fill a rack; a workshop table has a variety of tools for maintaining the locomotives and miles of wire cables are hung on spools to connect the tracks. There is also a test bed that checks all the trains before they’re placed on the tracks.

Visitors rarely see what happens behind the scene to keep the trains running. They are impressed when they learn that each vignette may cost upwards of $2,000 to build.

What they do see are multiple railroad lines from Long Island to Santa Fe with a nod locally to the Tri-Rail. They also tour intricate dioramas with people farming vegetables, partiers mingling in the dance hall and workers sweeping up a machine shop.

Many adults bring their children or grandchildren. The youngsters really seem to connect with the tiny scale and are delighted by the train whistles.

“We call that exit sign the wailing wall because once they get in they do not want to leave, and so they scream when their parents try and take them out,” says new president Mark Davia. “The kids grab the top of the sign and say ‘I don’t want to go!’ ”

Coralie Reich, 4, came to the open house with her grandparents, Linda and Joe Ameen. She stayed mostly in her Grandpa Joe’s arms but was occasionally lifted onto a stepladder so she could peer over the edge to see the little people in the villages. When asked what she liked best she excitedly says “When they go really fast!”

“This is the first time we are visiting and we were so surprised to see how big it was,” says Linda Ameen.

“We have the whole gene pool here,” says Bob Gastaldi, a 12-year member. “We have wonderful guys here, all nice people.”

Six members worked six months to make a Christmas module for the Port St. Lucie Civic Center, but some club displays take more than a year to complete.

“It is a lifetime of effort and expense to build something like this, and a lot of guys cannot do it,” says Bond. “Many love the trains, but every person has a different talent. Some is technical. For others it is the creative artistic side of getting the landscape just right.”

“I am a retired mechanical engineer,” says Gastaldi, who likes to work with the locomotives. “Some are artists; others like to do the technical work. Everybody has a niche, whatever background they came from or are in now they bring to the club.”

“I think if the younger ones are exposed to this they will get enchanted,” says Bob Wiseman. “If we don’t have the youngsters get in here and become enamored of trains this is going to go by the wayside. That is why we have open houses and displayed at the civic center to draw in visitors to see the trains.”

The members hope that by introducing youngsters to the hobby, they can fill them with the same passion that fired their own imaginations.

If you go

Open houses at the Treasure Coast Model Railroad Club, 273 SW Becker Road, Port St. Lucie, are Tuesday evenings from 7 to 9 and every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. To see videos and photos, visit www.tcmrr.org.