TOPSHAM — More than 30 years ago, Paul Lodge was shopping at a store for model railroaders in Auburn when he realized it was the only place people like him could gather and talk about model trains. Soon, the Freight Station hobby shop had 20-30 people gathering to talk about model trains; but they weren’t buying anything.

“I was teaching at Edward Little High School and had access to a building and a room, so I said let’s start a club,” said Lodge last week during an interview at the Great Falls Railroad Club’s headquarters in Auburn. “It snowballed from there.”

There were about 20 members when the club began in 1986 — there are about 125 members today — and they used to just take modular layouts to local shows and venues. About 15 years ago, the club began renting a space in a cellar in Lewiston that had a large layout, and the club purchased its clubhouse, at 144 Mill Street, for almost $140,000 in 2007.

One of its major events of the year is the upcoming model train show on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham. Admission to the show is $5 or free for children under 12, and refreshments will be available for purchase.

Other clubs from around Maine, including the Maine 3 Railers O-Gauge Model Railroad Club, will have layouts, and there will be around 50 dealers from around New England selling everything from vintage model train cars to books and magazines and scenery.

“If you don’t have happy dealers, you don’t have a good show, so you have to get people in who are going to buy stuff,” said Terry King, the club’s librarian.

It’s shows like the one at Mt. Ararat and the annual holiday train show at the Maine State Museum in Augusta — set for Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 — that keeps Mainers interested in model railroading, which is a hobby someone can pick up at a young age and spend time with for their entire lives.

“There’s not too many hobbies that can say that,” Lodge said.

‘Just running trains on a busy Saturday’

When you walk into the Great Falls clubhouse, the first thing you see is a large G-scale layout and a Thomas the Train layout that is surely popular among youngsters. G-scale layouts include larger trains and scenery that are usually run outside because of their size and durability; they are called garden layouts. There is a smaller room with a smaller N-gauge layout and a library with more nearly 2,000 books, 8,000 magazines, 3,000 photos and albums, 14,000 slides and about 400 DVDs. Downstairs is a massive HO scale layout and teaching area/workspace.

On alternating Saturdays, club members are either teaching classes and working on the layouts or operating the layouts, also known as running trains. The layouts have cards that instruct operators where certain trains need to be at specific times to pick up additional freight cars for delivery to places throughout the layout. There is a dispatcher who has a big board behind the scenes that makes sure each car is where it is supposed to be. There are phones that operators use to call for permission to move their trains throughout the layout, just like in real life.

“It’s definitely not like the trains under your Christmas tree,” Lodge said with a smile.

Later this month, the Great Falls club will host its 9th annual ExTRAINaganiza with games, crafts and cookies, multiple layouts and instruction for young guest engineers on how to operate model railroads. Lodge said it’s a great way for the older generation of model railroaders to entice young people to be interested in the hobby.

“Young kids are usually here with their parents or grandparents, and I always get a kick out of that,” he said.

The Maine 3 Railers

This nonprofit organization with members from across Maine doesn’t have its own dedicated clubhouse, but their activities take them all over the state, and the club sets up layouts in many different venues, including public libraries, retirement homes, agricultural fairs, veterans facilities and hospitals.

“We try to expose persons of all ages to the joys of model railroading,” Thorson said by email. “Visitors to our operating layout can imagine themselves back aboard the trains as they move swiftly across the tracks.”

Thorson said that while the era of steam trains is long gone except for excursion railroads that have restored old steam engines, like at the Boothbay Railway Village, the magic of the steam whistle echoing through the land still has a lot of romance and nostalgia. The club’s model steam engines bring back those same feelings and many smiles show approval, he said.

“For many of our club members, this is merely a continuation or resurrection of a hobby that began in childhood, and the same is true for many of our visitors. Little kids are happiest seeing the trains from the Thomas the Train TV program, and the big kids — adults — prefer trains true to the prototypes running on our national rail network today. There are trains for everyone,” Thorson said.

The hobby of model railroading

In addition to Great Falls club members running trains and going to shows around New England, the club teaches a model railroading class for students ranging from children to people in their 70s. Lodge said students learn about track design, building layouts, including buildings and scenery, operating the trains and the electronics involved. He said the goal is to teach someone everything they’d need to know to have their own home layout.

“People have a variety of reasons for getting into model railroading,” Lodge said. “Some are really into the electronics, while others are into history, art and creativity in building scenes and layouts. Others just like trains.”

Thorson said for many of the 3 Railers’ 130 members never left the hobby after childhood. For newcomers to the hobby, the allure of creating a railroad empire in small scale brings a lot of pleasure and satisfaction to the modeler as they operate and control what they have created, Thorson said.

“Some model railroaders are very interested in achieving the appearance of reality in miniature to a fine degree of detail,” he said. “Others are more interested in simply running trains rather than being wedded to or feeling obliged to have everything on their layout look like the genuine article. In both cases, the hobby produces a like amount of excitement.”

Lodge said model railroaders can start from a blank slate when creating their layouts, and people can spend a lot of money or very little money at all.

“It’s about creativity,” Lodge said. “You can do a lot with this stuff.”

Changes in model railroading

As technology has changed, model railroading has become much more than just pressing a button to get a freight train moving from one place on a layout to another. Thorson said technology is a key factor in keeping the hobby alive.

Model railroaders control trains with big power transformers, but control is primarily conducted via handheld remotes.

“More amazing is that one person can control 99 trains using a smartphone or tablet,” Thorson said. “The realism and ability to control the engine in so many different aspects of railroad operations makes the experience both attractive and entertaining.”

Advancements in realism extend to accessories, buildings, scenery, lighting and sound, all of which contribute to the sensory draw of the lobby.

Harris Foster, of central Maine, has visited the holiday train show at the Maine State Museum with his grandson, Theodore, for the last few years. He said he used to work on a layout at their home in Pennsylvania with his son when they were younger, and he cannot believe how real everything looks now.

The Fosters made a lot of the scenery on their at-home layout themselves, but now, he said, you can buy buildings that look just like ones you’ve seen in old photos or that look like local downtowns across America. And the train cars with company logos like Moxie, Renys and other Maine-based brands are always fun to see.

“I get a kick out of sharing this stuff with Teddy, and it’s a special thing when generations can take part in the same activity,” Foster said. “And now with smartphones and tablets, it’s easier than ever to run your own trains and build your own layouts. It’s a great time to be a model railroader.”

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