There’s something special about trains. For many, the sound of a train whistle in the distance tugs at something deep inside us. It could be the romance of simpler times past or the thought of the freedom of hopping on a train and getting away from the workaday world. Whatever it is, for those who hear the call of the rails, one way to answer that call is through model railroading. That’s what the Mid-Ohio Valley Model Railroad Club is all about.
According to the club’s website, movmrc.org, it all began simply enough in 1980, when Dave Stout hung a flyer on the bulletin board in Wilson’s Hobby Shop asking if anyone was interested in getting together to build a model train layout. To his surprise, several people responded enthusiastically, which led to a beautiful module that was quite well received when they displayed it at the Grand Central Mall. It grew from there until the MOVMRC was founded in 1981. Starting in Stout’s parents’ basement, the club has occupied several spaces over the years, including the Elks Club. When the Elks needed the space back, the club disbanded briefly, but their love of all things train-related was just too strong, leading the members to find other facilities. The club continued its nomadic ways until finding its permanent home in the basement of the Noe Office Equipment building in 2000.
Joe Stephens (no relation) has been a member since 1989 and has served in several capacities, including club president. As he wanders among the layouts, Stephens talks about why he thinks so many people enjoy model railroading. “It’s a real nice thing to take the mind off everything going on at home.” As he moves from display to display, pointing out a house here and a historic business there and design feature there, it’s obvious he loves everything about this pastime. And, it’s easy to understand why.
The spectacular scenes contain trains of many sizes and configurations, from tiny Z scale to the mammoth, relatively speaking, G scale. Scale, according to myhobbymodels.com, refers to how large a model is compared to the real object. A train that is in Z scale works on a ratio of 1 to 220, which means that an inch in the model represents 220 inches, or just over 18 feet on a real train, so a full-size train car that is, for instance, twelve feet tall, would be only two-thirds of an inch tall in a Z-scale model. The much larger G is on a scale of 1 to 24, which means one inch in the model represents two feet on the real-life train. But by far the most popular size is HO scale, which uses a 1:87 scale.
“HO is the most popular,” Stephens said. “You can get a lot more into a smaller space.” It’s large enough, however, to still be highly detailed. “And there are lots of options in the marketplace.” Because of its popularity, it is also more affordable. “Most, even those in other scales, start in HO. It’s a balance between space and affordability.” In addition to the variety of trains and other scenery, such as trees, buildings, and other visual elements, there are lots of sounds and electronics available in the scale.
But the layouts consist of much more than trains. To look at a model railroad layout is to step into a whole world, complete with beautifully rendered natural landscapes, country scenes dotted with homes and other buildings, small towns, and even large cities. Sometimes the scenery is animated with blinking lights, moving objects, and even elaborate sound effects. One of the most complex scenes, built by Stephens, depicts a circus with real working rides. It is surrounded by tracks containing a G-scale train pulled by a model of a gargantuan steam engine well known among rail aficionados, the Union Pacific Big Boy. Stephens hit a button sending the train into action. An elaborate series of radio calls between the engineer of the train and the personnel in the station end confirm ample coal and water for the journey. Eventually, the train pulls away, bells clanging and whistle blaring. It is nothing short of magical.
Acting president Chris Reynolds, one of the HO representatives in the club, explained that he, like many of his compatriots, began his love of model trains at an early age. “I got a model train when I was four or five from my dad.” It grew from there. He added to the set, eventually building a layout in his bedroom. As he got older, his interest faded until, that is, he had a son of his own. “We got back into it full-steam and now we’re part of the club.” Reynolds and Lee, along with several other members who prefer HO, have completely dismantled their display and are rebuilding from the ground up. It’s a good chance, Reynolds said, to get new members involved and teach them many aspects of modeling, such as determining how much curve the trains can safely negotiate and the amount of grade the engines can pull without damaging their gears.
Stephens and Reynolds both talked of how members of the club don’t just join for the modeling. Most enjoy trains in general from riding to simply travelling to watch trains. But the opposite is true as well. Some folks in the club don’t even own model trains. They are more drawn to other elements of the hobby, such as model building, scenery building and painting, design, and even wiring, electronics, and special effects.
One of the reasons people are drawn to model railroading that some may not have considered is the historical aspect. The layouts in the club are filled with historical buildings and settings that tell the story of the Mid-Ohio Valley over the past century and beyond. Even a brief hunt will reveal the Blennerhassett Hotel, the American Viscose plant, the Ames fire, Stadium Field, several historic area businesses, and the area’s connection to rivers and the oil and gas industries. And those displays are highly detailed and historically accurate. Stephens joked that some club members are known as “rivet counters”, meaning they are painstakingly meticulous about crafting the replicas so they as close as possible to exactly reproducing the original, overlooking not even the smallest detail.
Unfortunately, like many organizations, the club’s activities have essentially ground to a halt due to COVID-19. They hope to get back to their normal schedule sometime in 2021. This year, they’ve had to cancel all their open houses, their expansive show at WVU-P, and their slate of workshops that are open to the public. The workshops are for anyone interested in any aspect of model train collecting and layout building. These activities are the lifeblood of the club, bringing in money from admissions as well as attracting new members.
Speaking of new members, anyone interested in joining the MOVMRC can do so by going to their website. Who might want to join? The obvious answer is anyone interested in model trains in any way. Do you like to collect trains? This is the club for you. But, according to Stephens, some of their members don’t own even a single train. Some join for the joy of having access to the layouts in the club. Others join because they are attracted to certain aspects of the hobby, such as model building, landscaping, painting, layout design, wiring, or special effects.
To walk around the Mid-Ohio Valley Model Railroad Club’s headquarters is to step into a world that is equal parts history, fantasy, and just plain fun. For children, it’s a place to let their imaginations run wild. And for adults, it’s a place to, even if just for a little while, step back into the carefree, jubilant, days of childhood, when magic was still real and anything was possible.