20 December 2013
“A Christmas tree isn’t complete without a train running beneath it,” said Len Bozza, classic toy train enthusiast, gesturing to his O gauge train running merrily around the presents. “When I was a kid, my father always put a train under the Christmas tree.”
Bozza and his wife, Pat, have a whole room in their Lake Monticello home dedicated to classic toy trains. Visitors enter through the waiting area, designed to look like an old-fashioned station, complete with bar and barstools. Encased in glass along an entire wall runs Bozza’s train collection, including his first train set: a 1948 model given to him and his brother by his aunt. But the main attraction is in the back, waist-high above display cases packed with train memorabilia: Bozza’s classic toy train railroad.
Neon signs glow in storefront windows, windmills stand behind snow-covered buildings, and best of all, trains run here and there, click-clacking on their tracks through the village. Some circle around the back while others climb up above the town on elevated tracks, but from them all comes a steady stream of whistles, radio chatter, and the unmistakable sound of wheels on rails.
Bozza, president of the Lake Monticello Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad, even included an emergency situation in his village. On the bottom floor of a town building, a fire rages; with the press of a button the people inside come rushing downstairs with buckets of water. Not far away, the fire department springs to life, with a fireman sliding down a pole and a vehicle pulling out of the station.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Bozza’s passion for trains began with his father, who was a conductor in the subway. His family always ran a train around the Christmas tree, so after his marriage to Pat, she bought him an HO gauge train to run around their tree. But when they had kids, Bozza explained, they packed away the smaller HO gauge in favor of the larger O gauge.
Classic train enthusiasts can choose from different gauges, or scales, depending on how detailed they wish to be. “If you put down a 4x8 board,” Bozza explained, “you could place about 10 O gauge cars. But if you use HO gauge you’d have 20 to 30 cars, and N gauge, in which cars are only a couple inches long, would give you a whole system.”
The different gauges are representative of different approaches people take to toy trains. Some, like Bozza, like to have fun. “My trains are perfect for kids of all ages – including me!” he joked. “I like to play with them.” So do his grandkids, and those of his friends, who sometimes bring them over to play. “I change what cars are on the track depending on who is coming over,” he said. “We set out the gondola cars and the little kids will have fun putting their dolls and GI Joes in the cars for a ride.”
But others, explained Bozza, are serious model railroaders. Model railroaders pour their attentions into details, with scale and accuracy paramount. Their systems reflect years of careful craftsmanship. Both kinds of enthusiasts, including Bozza, belong to the Monticello Model Railroad Club, a group that meets every Friday to exchange ideas and “enjoy the camaraderie of other model railroaders,” Bozza said. “We exchange stories and help each other figure out how to do our projects.”
Another member of the club, Broken Island resident George Gaige, is one of the serious model railroaders. After moving to Virginia, it took at least a year for him to rebuild the extensive model railroad he had in New York. Now, seven years later, it still isn’t, and never will be, completely finished. “My wife and I made a deal before I would tear up the layout I had in New York and move,” Gaige recalled. “When we were house hunting, if I didn’t like the basement, we weren’t buying the house. My wife picked this house based on the upstairs, but I picked it based on the basement.”
Looking around, it’s hard to believe that the entire basement, which is now filled with a bustling, fully-functional railroad, was once completely empty. But that was precisely why Gaige selected it. First he created the architectural plans, which laid out his vision for his railroad. Then he built walls in carefully considered places and installed lighting. After that, he used tape on the floor to mark the layout, then turned to scenery. “You paint the scenery before you build any track,” he explained. “You don’t want to be reaching behind cars to paint.”
Blue skies, fluffy clouds, snow-capped mountains, and tree-lined lakes took form around the walls of Gaige’s basement. Then he began to build his benchwork. Once it was functional, he invited his friends to come over and operate the railroad. “You have to test-run it at this point,” he said, explaining that he checked curves, track elevation, and all his systems to make sure they worked before he finalized his railroad.
Once he knew he had it right, Gaige began with scenic details, creating life-like hills covered with individual trees, rocky gorges, and sandy stretches. He test-fitted all his buildings, then laid out his houses. And when everything was complete, he put the finishing touches on his railroad: little cars with shining headlights, functional water towers, and one thousand little people.
Gaige’s railroad is a true railway system. With 300 pieces of rolling stock, including freight cars, passenger cars, and locomotives, his system genuinely functions. “The purpose of a railway is not to run around in circles,” Gaige remarked. “It’s to transport, to deliver, to carry.” With that in mind, Gaige designed his railroad to assist in 90 different industries, including logging, coal, gravel, and barrels. At his command, a log rolls neatly onto a train car and is carried around the room to a lumber mill. Once the log has been made into planks, the train carries the planks to another town for distribution.
There are several towns in Gaige’s system, all named after his family members. For example, he has Frankburgh, in honor of his son, and Virginia City, for his daughter. Most of the industries are named after his friends. “We like to have fun,” he smiled, noting that the names are often jokes of some kind.
With a railway this massive, much care must be taken to operate it. Gaige has drawn up a functional schedule with different trains departing on the half hour. Three or four times a year he invites friends from the club to participate in operating sessions. Ten guys will man their stations and operate the railroad with the help of a “fast clock” which counts the time at four-times speed. At that rate, they work through a complete 12-hour day on the railroad in a three-hour afternoon.
Whether train enthusiasts fall into intense model railroading or the more relaxed toy train collecting, they all do it for the sheer love of the trains. “I love the display,” Bozza said with a wide smile. “I enjoy bringing people down, having them get involved in the hobby. Many people remember having old train sets. In fact, when people want to sell me used trains, I talk them out of it, because those trains are worth more to them, sentimentally, than they are to anyone else. Even if they don’t want to run a track, they can mount a wall bracket with a track and display them.”
Gaige agreed. “I have always loved trains as long as I can remember. I feel it is challenging to build something with so many working parts created completely from my own imagination, and I enjoy sharing it with family, friends, and visitors. Building and operating the railroad satisfies my creative juices, has allowed me to meet many interesting people with similar interests, and has encouraged me to develop new skills, such as electrical and mechanical experimentation. It’s also just plain fun!”