Miniature train collectors and enthusiast from throughout the Chicago area crowded Saturday into the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club open house in New Lenox.
The 5,000-square-foot club facility was certainly decked out for Christmas, meaning plenty of miniature trains were 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." With a wide smile and a sparkle in his blue eyes, he related the memory he shared with his brother of that Christmas morning 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, Palos 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. 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.
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" keeps the intricate system chugging along. He boasts of trains running 142 cars long moving up curves and around loops.
For Gary Aldridge, New Lenox, the afternoon at the train club was the perfect way to pass the time with the grandchildren. "The kids love it," he said. It's a place to spark the kids' interest in something. It's an activity that the whole family can enjoy.