As a way to deflect the youthful exuberance that Paul Fritz was displaying in a random store decades ago, his father took the six-year-old outside and asked him what he wanted for Christmas. “A train!” Fritz answered. Message heard. On Christmas morning, Fritz found a small-ish train set under the tree that his father helped him set up on a play table.
“This grew into a hobby my father and I could share,” says Fritz, now a father of two boys – Xander, thirteen, and Gideon, ten.
His father, a pastor, also passed on an enthusiasm for real trains. He would pick up Fritz from school and the duo would “watch trains while [the pastor] worked on sermons or planned services,” Fritz says.
But it was the model train hobby that really gained momentum for the two of them. “My interest went from running trains in circles to making precise models and learning how to make the models behave like the real thing,” says Fritz, who lives in Louisa County with his family.
His father enjoyed building layouts that included complicated track plans with trains wistfully coming and going along the track. “As a child, [my dad] would work late into the night making some new arrangement and joyfully have me test it the next day,” Fritz says.
Fritz was very involved in the hobby until his senior year of high school when his interest turned to working on cars. Time passed – college, then marriage, graduate school, and work – and he didn’t go back to model railroading until his kids were old enough to play with trains.
“I didn’t really learn how to lay track or build a layout until I restarted the hobby with my sons very recently,” he says. “At first I set up a small work bench and scratch-built some small narrow gauge train cars to see if I still had the skills. I realized the boys might enjoy running trains, so I set up a small layout in a spare room and let the boys pick out a locomotive each that would be theirs to run.”
That setup has grown into a large, complicated layout that has “completely consumed the spare room – which we now refer to as the train room,” he says.
One of his favorite trains is a model locomotive given to him as a child by his father. “My father had saved up to surprise me with it, as it was like the ones we would see on the mainline that ran through town,” he says, noting that he recently recovered the locomotive from a box of childhood memories at his father’s house, took it to his own home, and restored it.
On one of his father’s visits from his home in North Carolina (where he still has a layout in his garage), the train lovers attended a model railroading operating session together. “We had three generations running model trains. It was great fun for us,” he says.
So what’s the allure of model railroading for Fritz? “Part of it is the time spent with my father and now my sons. Part of it is the sense of accomplishment at making things,” he says, noting that working with models helps you learn a variety of skills, such as carpentry, electronics, and fabrication.
“It changes how you look at the world,” he adds. “You notice more details and how things look, since you want to recreate them in miniature. It’s really enjoyable… everywhere you go, you see new things.”
History of Model Railroading
The hobby of model train railroading has been around for more than a century. Märklin, a German company, started making and selling model train kits in the late 1800s. If you want to find the oldest model train set, Guinness World Records steers you to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in Durham, England.
William Robertson, who has been a train enthusiast since he received his first Lionel train as a child, is one of more than forty members of the River City 3 Railers (RC3R). He grew up in the Bronx and was fascinated by subway trains. One afternoon when he was three years old and shopping with his mom, he embarked on his first train adventure.
“I left her while she wasn’t looking, crossed a major street holding onto the coat of an older lady, climbed the stairs to the Pelham Bay elevated track, and sat on the bench and watched trains,” he says. “The police found me three hours later.”
His paternal grandparents lived along New Haven Railroad’s four-track mainline, where Robertson watched trains speed by on their way into Grand Central and Penn stations. “I was hooked early,” he says of his love of trains. “I got my first Lionel set from Santa in 1958.”
Robertson says trains teach about American history of the 19th and 20th centuries.“They were the ticket to travel before interstates and cars were common,” he says.
He shares his love of trains with his fellow RC3R members, which contribute to about ten model train exhibits a year in places such as The Great Big Greenhouse and Nursery and the Science Museum of Virginia.
Spend the Holidays with Trains
This will be RC3R’s tenth year of setting up the model train railroad display at Great Big Greenhouse. “It’s such a kid- and family-oriented addition to what we offer during the holidays,” says Doug Hensel, assistant general manager of the garden center. “It’s been gaining popularity each year. People can’t wait for it. They ask us about it all year long.”
The Science Museum of Virginia has hosted its model railroad show for forty-six years. It’s the perfect fit based on the museum’s history. For decades, beginning in January 1919, Broad Street Station, now the Science Museum, moved passengers across the country. Passenger service to the station ceased in 1975. By 1976, Broad Street Station became the new home of the Science Museum.
“We still do interpret the history of Broad Street Station in the museum,” says Jennifer Guild, the museum’s communication director. “The model train event serves as a reminder to learn the history of the building.”
The museum has five different train cars outside, some built as early as 1919. Its steam locomotive, a C&O Kanawha Steam Engine, pulled freight through the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, racking up 300,000 miles before its retirement.
The model train show, which runs Thanksgiving weekend, has been hugely successful for the museum. “It’s a holiday tradition,” says Guild. “I see the same people year after year. It’s so much fun to watch the ones who have been here before. I remember that one family brought foldable stools so the kids could stand on them to enhance the experience.”
An entire room in the Dewey Gottwald Center is dedicated to the model trains. “We supplement with additional programming, such as steam engine demos,” Guild says. “We bring in a blacksmith who talks about the history of the period. He’s very good about letting people hammer the metal.”
The model train event provides the opportunity to talk to the people who created the scenes. “That is appealing,” Guild says, noting the museum’s regular programing is also available, which this holiday includes the touring exhibition Wild Kratts: Creature Power!
Last year was the highest-attended Model Railroad Show in the museum’s history. The museum had 12,790 guests during the three-day event. The pandemic impacted numbers 2020-2021, but from 2015 to 2019, the show had averaged more than 11,000 guests per year.
It takes RC3R’s club between four and fives hours to set up its 21-foot by 34-foot layout at the museum. The layout has two mainline tracks going around the perimeter with a huge staging yard in the center.
“The yard helps us keep trains running continually by pulling the trains out onto the mainline and bringing them in. We also can run more than one train on each mainline,” says Robertson, adding they use the same layout at the Great Big Greenhouse.
Learning Fun for Everyone!
The model railroading events highlight several aspects of STEM learning, and that’s not a surprise to Suzanne Hemingway, owner of Tiny Tim’s Trains and Toys in Ashland.
“Trains have always taught aspects of geometry, architecture, earth science, electricity, mechanics, and for the past twenty-five years, programming,” she says, noting that technology and computers have added another dimension for train enthusiasts.
Hemingway was introduced to model trains through her son, Ian, who enjoyed doing train layouts. “Ian, his brother Colin, and I started in 2007, [installing] our trains at six to eight train shows a year. We spend hundreds of hours a year cleaning, building, and fixing our trains to run again,” says Hemingway.
Trains are memories, “impressive, intricate, massive, and messy,” she says. “They are even more interesting when a modeler reproduces them in miniature. Some are small enough to run on a track in the palm of your hand.”
As a board member of the Virginia Train Collectors Association, Hemingway encourages more kids and families to pursue the hobby. “Older modelers are realizing that they have to reach out across the generations. The Virginia Train Collectors Association now offers free youth membership. I am excited to say we have eighteen active youth members. At shows you see many more youth members,” says Hemingway.
Virginia Train Collectors Association members present three shows a year in Virginia as well as the indoor layout at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s Kelly Education Center during Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights.
“Model trains have a tradition of being associated with the holidays and their appeal has become a part of popular culture,” says Beth Monroe, the garden’s chief marketing officer. “They present an opportunity for multi-generational connections… grandparents seem to particularly enjoy showing the trains to their grandchildren.”
Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights drew more than 135,000 guests to Lewis Ginter last year. “The model trains are one of the most popular features of the show,” Monroe says.
People find the displays mesmerizing, she adds. “It’s like its own miniature world. People also love it when the volunteers running the trains blow the whistle or make the steam come out of the trains. There’s also a Thomas the Train section of the exhibit, and our younger guests enjoy seeing that familiar set of trains.”
Train Lovers’ Paradise
Trains are hugely popular in Ashland, where train tracks run through the historic downtown sector bringing approximately forty Amtrak and CSX trains through town. “It’s Christmas every day in Ashland,” says Lou Keeton, marketing director for Downtown Ashland Association. “Trains are part of our downtown history.”
The historic section of Ashland was built around the tracks in the mid-1800s, and trains are still central to the town that is often referred to as the Center of the Universe. “We create events like Ashland Train Day [in the spring] around the tracks,” Keeton says. “We have 20,000 people come into a town with a population of 7,000 every year.”
The town also has the seasonal Light Up the Tracks event in mid-November when Dominion Energy helps Ashland light all the buildings around the track. “It’s a living holiday card in a picturesque Victorian setting,” Keeton says.
Monroe at Lewis Ginter is pleased there are plenty of train-themed events in the region during the holidays. “No two displays are exactly the same, so there’s plenty of room to enjoy them all,” she says. “Incorporating trains into events is a good way to keep the wonder of model trains alive.”
For Paul Fritz and his family, enthusiasm for trains is a year-round thing, and the holidays are the perfect time to not only explore the region, but also honor traditions. “The holidays go hand in hand with the love of model trains. Every Christmas we unpack an antique O-scale toy train and set it up under the tree,” Fritz says, explaining that the set was gifted to him by his wife on their first Christmas together. “My two boys know that the tree is not complete until we run the first train under it.”