On the one hand, we’re not talking Grand Central Station here. But when you walk into a Rockland Road basement that contains a microcosm of our nation’s railroads set out with locomotives, passenger and freight cars, stations, water towers, and so on, you can only gasp – particularly when a train siren sounds and the whole thing starts to move like in real life.
Bruce Benzie’s fascination with, then miniaturization of, the entire gamut of railroading began 59 years ago when, as an 11-year-old, he received, as a Christmas gift from his parents, a railroad set featuring a Union Pacific locomotive. For Bruce, the fascination continues, as does his work on perfecting his working models. There was a waning public interest in model trains lasting several decades, Bruce said, but it picked up again in 1985, and he has been riding the rails since.
Having reached the digital age, Bruce brings the entire basement scene to life with a touch on a key pad that looks a lot like the one you use with your television set. Lights flash, trains start to move, sirens sound, the model locomotives chug and whistle and an apparent sound track gives you all the sounds of real trains in motion.
Bruce’s version of the so-called “man cave” is lined with more than 350 models of North American locomotives that have plied the rails since the West opened to railroad traffic a century or more ago. They are displayed floor to ceiling, the oldest dating back to 1923, part of a three-car set. There’s even a locomotive honoring veterans. Bruce is one, serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and the Air Guard before arriving in Front Royal for a job at Avtex in 1972. He’s also a car buff, but that’s a story for another time.
The walls of his basement hideaway – I’m not sure that even wife Judith is allowed unaccompanied into in this labyrinth – are decorated with posters and pictures and old railroad related invoices, one dated in 1795, another 1884. Prominent among the display is a photograph of the late fantasy visionary Walt Disney who, not surprisingly, was a railway enthusiast and model collector.
Then, voila! We were invited into an adjoining workshop where Benzie takes on another personality – that of the professional model railroad certified technician. Almost everything on his work bench is miniaturized to the extent that he regularly uses an industrial magnifying glass to help complete his tasks. This closet-sized room is, in fact, an MTH Authorized Service Center for model train enthusiasts.
MTH is headquartered in Columbia, Md., where Bruce recently completed a three-day program, an intensive, 10-hours a day, refresher course in techniques to keep the trains running smoothly for enthusiasts around the country.
In the immediate area, model trains are on exhibit in communities as close as Strasburg, the Round House museum in Hagerstown, Md., which does an annual Christmas layout, and York, Pa.
While one of Bruce’s pleasures in life is showing off his own railway set to kids, he’s off to Ranson, W. Va., this weekend where he’ll be helping stage model train exhibits on public display Saturday, Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.