Miniature train collectors and enthusiasts from throughout the Chicago area crowded into the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club open house in New Lenox on Saturday.
The 5,000-square-foot club facility was decked out for Christmas, with plenty of miniature trains circling Christmas trees and looping their way through a complicated system of modular layouts. The Polar Express huffed its way along tracks right along with Thomas the Train and authentic-looking Santa Fe freight trains, Alco chuggers and passenger trains out of the yards of New York Central and Penn Central stations.
Club President Herb Koch said he is as excited today as he was when he first laid eyes on a miniature train. "I got my first train when I was 6 years old," Koch said.
With a wide smile and a sparkle in his blue eyes, he related the memory of a Christmas morning he shared with his brother more than 50 years ago.
The two arose from bed and scurried toward the place where Santa was sure to have left them toys of all kinds. The Christmas tree was lit and presents were piled around, but this time, something was different. As the two pajama-clad boys bound into the living room, their dad flipped an out-of-sight switch.
"When we walked into the living room, a train started moving around the tree. We were just amazed," he said with a smile and a sense of enthusiasm. "From that moment, we were hooked."
As a child, Koch said, "trains were the biggest toy you could get. It always fascinated me to see them move."
Koch, 62, ofPalos Heights, is not alone in his attraction to Lionel trains. It's a hobby that crosses generations. The club house, opened in 2008, was filled this time with families and just plain train buffs. The club was established in 1994, and it opened its doors in New Lenox in 2008. Currently it boasts of an 800-plus membership roster that draws Lionel buffs from Bloomington-Normal to Chicago and from Batavia to Palos Heights.
The train club appeals to collectors as well as those who find the challenge of delving into the tedious task of interconnecting tracks and electric circuitry something that whets their whistle. Others enjoy the set design. Selecting the right kind of Birkshire sleeper, such as a copy of the famous animated Polar Express that blew a whistle as it rounded the tracks and sent a puff of smoke in the air at various intervals was the main event within the maze of tracks.
No train show is complete without a version of the hearty coal-tuggers that moved in the 1930s through the mountains or the intricate scenic pieces along the route, including crossing gates, station houses, trees and sagebrush.
The trains run on reconfigured modular layouts, explained Chicago's Irwin Bross, a founding member of the club. "Over 30 Lionel operating accessories using push button operations," keep the intricate system chugging along. Bross boasts of trains running 142 cars long with up curves and around loops.
For Gary Aldridge of New Lenox, the afternoon at the train clu b was the perfect way pass the time with the grandchildren. "The kids love it," he said. It's a place to spark the kids' interest in something an activity that the whole family can enjoy.