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Choo-choo exhibit has kept hobbyists on track for 25 years

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

STRASBURG, Pa. -- Three-year-old Ryan Coyle could barely contain himself as he stared wide-eyed at the toy trains gleaming in their display cases at the exhibit hall entrance. His grandfather was pretty impressed, too.

As they turned a corner, hand-in-hand, they hit paydirt: a fully landscaped and accessorized train layout ready to be set in motion at the push of a button. To his delight, Ryan discovered that one button illuminated a green light atop an aircraft beacon, and another triggered the alarm and opened the garage door of a fire house along the tracks.

''Seeing this gives me ideas for my own train layouts at home,'' says 57-year-old Norm Davis, who lives near Cherry Hill, N.J. ''This year, for Christmas, I'm doing a 'Jurassic Park' theme with dinosaurs and volcanoes.''

With its five running layouts and seemingly endless shelves of boxcars, cabooses and locomotives, the National Toy Train Museum has spent the past 25 years educating the public about a childhood pastime that some adults never grow too old to enjoy.

''This goes across all age groups, national origin, any type of demographic you can think of. People will stand for hours and watch trains run,'' said John Luppino, the museum's operations manager.

Housed in a building that resembles a Victorian-era train station, the 13,000 square foot museum is the educational arm and headquarters of the Train Collectors Association, an international nonprofit group dedicated to collecting and preserving toy trains. It hosts about 55,000 visitors annually.

Organized in 1954 in the Philadelphia suburb of Yardley, the association opened the museum in the rural Lancaster County community of Strasburg in 1975. The town was chosen because it was already home to two other railroading attractions: The Strasburg Railroad, a passenger steam train, and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

''The collectors began a museum to allow the people of America to see the trains, to enjoy them, and see the progress and the evolution of the technology,'' said Newton Derby, the association's president.

The exhibits date from the mid-1800s, when the first toy trains were made of wood and pulled by a string, to present-day electric trains powered by computerized motors. Some of the older and rarer toys include a World War I-era Lionel military train, and a wooden pull-toy train whose cars contain wooden puzzles and alphabet blocks.

Another exhibit suggests that even in earlier times, model railroading could be an expensive hobby. The museum sought to recreate a train display from 1928 featuring a Lionel ''Bild-A-Loco'' train with a motor that can be taken apart with thumbscrews and a screwdriver.

The display shelves, about 3 feet high, were built in the style of a steel railroad trestle. The train's retail price was $27.50.

''Some people think that's cheap, but you have to understand that back in 1928, most people weren't making $27.50 a week, let alone $27.50 to spend on a train,'' Luppino said.

Most of the collection is made possible by donations from association members, plus contributions from nonmembers. Others prefer to lend their collections to the museum for a limited time, Luppino said.

And then there are the five layouts, which range in size from ''G'' scale, or garden scale, so named because they are built for use outdoors, to the tiny ''Z'' scale, whose cars are about the size of a lipstick case. The trains are programmed to make two or three complete trips around their respective tracks before stopping.

Volunteers on the association's museum education committee are responsible for maintaining the exhibits. The museum even has a ''rail shop'' with a test track to ensure the cars and locomotives are running smoothly.

''We experience the same problems in miniature that a real railroad experiences,'' Luppino said. ''Locomotives break down, wheels wear out, the track goes bad. Real railroads have things that wind up on the track that shouldn't be there, and sometimes that happens to us, too,'' such as dropped cameras.

The museum also features a reference library added two years ago to give collectors access to books, catalogs, repair manuals and any other information they might find useful in building and maintaining collections. The library is open to Train Collectors Association members and nonmembers.

Association president Derby, who lives in Willis, Texas, said the intergenerational appeal of toy trains has enabled them to endure for well over a century.

''I think it's probably something that has been transferred from father to son to grandson that allows parents to interact with their children, which doesn't seem to happen much anymore,'' he said.

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If you go ...

GETTING THERE: The National Toy Train Museum is at 300 Paradise Lane, east of Strasburg in Lancaster County. Parking is free.

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HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open weekends in April, November and December. Open daily, May 1 through Oct. 31. Also open Good Friday, Easter Monday and Thanksgiving Friday, and Dec. 26-31, weather permitting.

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ADMISSION: $3 for adults 13-64; $2.75 for senior citizens; $9 for families; $6 season passes. Groups rates for 20 or more people available upon request. Members of the Train Collectors Association and children under 5 are admitted free.

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INFORMATION: Call (717) 687-8976. or visit http://www.traincollectors.org/toytrain.html.



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