The Model Railroad Club Is As Timely As It Is Relevant For The Christmas Season
By Danny Garrett
Model trains and Christmas are complements. They’re aesthetically pleasing in sound and in sight. A model train’s whistle soothes like a yuletide carol. Smoke emitting from the train’s chimney, as it makes its circular or elliptical dance around a Christmas tree, comforts like red-white candy canes and the deep green of a Noble Fir.
The connection between model trains and Christmas go deeper. The further connection has roots within metaphor and history. Trains and their platforms represent “comings and goings.” The frenetic hustle-and-bustle are most apparent at New York’s Penn Station and D.C.’s Union station — to name only two. Their electrically charged nature resembles busy Christmas shoppers in search of the right gift and out-of-state family members rushing home to make it in time for Christmas day. In fact, travel is the fulcrum on which a historical interpretation of the association between trains and Christmas pivots. Before the supremacy of the airplane or Eisenhower’s Interstate system, trains got travelers from point A to point B, especially if those locations were characterized by their long distances. Thus, the railroad had to play an essential role in uniting families during Christmas time in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
Therefore, it’s supremely fitting that the Southwest Louisiana O Gauge Model Railroad Club has gained considerable steam during the holiday season. Their display — “a 34 by 10 foot layout based upon the TNO RR’s Dallas to Houston
mainline in Central Texas” – ran at the Christmas at the Oaks Festival, Dec. 1-2, and Sulphur’s Brimstone Museum, Dec. 9, 16 and 23. The club’s leaders are Dr. Andy Buckley (historian and engineer), Ed Sherwood (MSU/Sowela history instructor) and Barry McCall (Firestone electrician). It’s a lot of expertise, and for good reason. The SWLA O Gauge Model Railroad Club strives for historical and technical precision for their trains and tracks. For example, if there’s a railroad bridge that extends above the Navasota River in Texas, it will be within the model represented. If the original Sunbeam passenger train, which ran between Houston and Dallas, was primarily colored orange and black, those details will be incorporated. No historical information will suffer from an inattention to detail and thus undergo elision. The same goes for technology. O gauge trains, along with their tracks, are technical endeavors, which explains why there’s an electrician on staff and an inclusion of more engineers during the holiday season: Tommy Stutes (retired Conoco Phillips instrumentation), Paul Carson (retired Union Pacific RR conductor) and Kerry Ellender (retired Cameron LNG engineer).
Seeing SWLA’s O Gauge setup for oneself evinces the need for this type of expertise. The models are a beautiful and complex mix of circuitry, voltage, diodes and capacitors. In addition, the setup’s transformer is the Lionel ZW Controller and PowerHouse Power Supply Set, which “are made to operate a 120-volt 60-cycle alternating current.” According to the Lionel company, “with four 180-watt PowerHouse Power supplies, the maximum wattage rating of the ZW controller is reached — 760 watts.” That’s a lot of power, which is needed for SWLA O Gauge’s extensive modular layout that contains two mainlines and switching tracks, passenger stations, industries, freight cars and urban as well as rural landscapes.
It’s been intriguing to witness Christmas traditions from the past remain strong into the present. Nativity scenes and miniature Christmas villages, like model trains, are still among the popular Christmas staples that appear every year in or
outside people’s homes and department stores. Nostalgia is the wrong word to fully describe this phenomenon, as it assumes a longing and a return to the past, a long-ago time that’s extricated from the present. SWLA O Gauge model trains and tracks, along with cultural items like them, assert something different — that history, untethered from past, is ongoing, and therein lies the comfort. Trains are not a thing of the past. Amtrak still connects families during Christmas time. There still are snowy, scenic rail lines, for touring purposes, within Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Contemporary and popular movies like the Polar Express and Harry Potter have rejuvenated the magical and functional nature of trains. Therefore, enjoying the sight of a model train making a ring around a Blue Spruce, alongside crimson-wrapped and golden-bowed presents, and, of course, visiting a SWLA O Gauge exhibit in Lake Charles in December, is an exemplification that O Gauge model trains during Christmas time, like similar holiday traditions, are alive and an inextricable part of our present.
In December, SWLA O Gauge Model Railroad Club also runs exhibits at Old Muller’s Department Store and First Baptist Church, both of which are in downtown Lake Charles. If interested in joining the club, contact Dr. Buckley at 274-6206 or at Andybuckley1224@gmail.com.