Two friends and business associates of mine, Robert and Wally, recently invited me to pay a leisurely visit with my son to the Neenah-Menasha Model Railroad Club. They wanted to show me what it was they’ve been working on, pointing out that we would be seeing a work in progress, and learning a few things about what model railroad enthusiasts really do. And so, aside from it being a pleasant walk of only a few blocks from my home, I decided my four-year-old son would probably appreciate a dose of the excitement he had reveled in just two years ago at the Train Museum in Green Bay when Thomas the Tank Engine was in town.
The directions could not have been easier. The meeting place for the model railroad club was not only just a few blocks away, but on my same street – in a building I have passed on numerous occasions while bicycling Doty Island, a building which I had assumed stood empty and abandoned for decades, or at most was probably just used for storage.
Located alongside the tracks intersecting with Forest Avenue and River Street, the Former Milwaukee & Northern Railway Depot stands quaintly reminiscent of bygone days, built circa 1880. Passing by, one would not expect to find an interior quite like what we enjoyed.
Inside, we found a veritable maze of over 600 feet of O Scale track built along the outside walls, two vertical levels deep. While many of them were already functional, most of the model was still being constructed. Robert introduced us to Stan, the rather stoic railroad enthusiast who began explaining the history of the Milwaukee and Northern Rail Road, and the Wisconsin towns they would be incorporating into the model as historical junctions, including Neenah, Hilbert, Chilton, Stockbridge and others. “We don’t know what this one will be just yet, but we’re thinking we’ll call it Lake Wobegon, since no one can seem to find Lake Wobegon in Minnesota,” Stan explained while pointing to the structural foundations of a junction surrounded by tools and blueprints.
My son was ecstatic. Robert placed his own steam engine on one of the tracks with a train of boxcars and sent it chugging around the corner and through a tunnel or two. He then invited my son to man the switchboard and control the speed, his face lighting up with a positively delighted smile.
It was astonishing to learn how much meticulous detail and time goes into creating these miniature worlds. And remarkably, the completed project – already years in the making – will eventually be dissembled, redesigned, and built again from scratch, as the one before it. There are blueprints detailing every track, switch, intersection, and junction, and all measured out to a tee. They were in the process of constructing the bridge that would connect the perimeter tracks with those running through the center island of the model space.
We were given the opportunity to examine the extraordinary detail of the engines and cars themselves, the meticulously laid track, and the scenery. We learned that the “aged” look of both freight cars and engines isn’t quite how they come – the hobbyist details them with his own vision of how rusted, greasy or worn he’d like the car to look.
The construction of the track itself was perhaps the most fascinating to me. These aren’t the kind of railroad tracks you pick up in the toy section of Wal-Mart of Fleet Farm. The railroad ties – every single one of them – is individually laid and fixed to the surface. The rail, too, is laid in sections, one side at a time, and actually nailed onto the railroad ties with miniature railroad spikes just like the real thing. Aside from being more realistic, I was informed that the handcrafted rail actually withstands the shifts of the building’s foundation better, resulting in fewer derailments once the model is completed.
All in all, it was a remarkably pleasant visit. Robert was keen on inviting us back for their regular monthly meetings on the first Wednesday of every month, hinting that they’re always on the lookout for new members. The Neenah-Menasha Model Rail Road Club was founded back in 1962 by Stan, who owns the majority of the models, but is intent on sharing them with anyone and everyone who might take in an interest in the hobby, the art, or the history. Membership is a mere $80 per year and a minimum attendance of six meetings annually. From there, you can spend as much or as little as you like. A few of the members only own one or two engines, but bring them along to hitch their choice of cars on their choice of track, meanwhile taking part in the creation of the fantastically detailed model, and learning about the history of the magnificent rail roads that changed the landscape – and the economy – of our country.
I’ll be looking forward to the open house the first weekend in December to see the finished product. And who knows, perhaps my son and I will have to drop in once or twice before then to refresh the enchanting awe that is O Scale model railroading.