YOUNTVILLE — All aboard the “Polar Express.”
A holiday model train exhibit at Napa Valley Museum, which runs through Dec. 16, is bound to stir the imagination with painstakingly authentic scenes from yesteryear.
More than 1,500 square feet of model railroad layout blankets the top floor of Napa Valley Museum, with set up by Sonoma County's modular railroad group, Coastal Valley Lines (CVL).
If you use your imaginations, Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific and Western Pacific engines pulling box cars and freight cars can be heard thundering along miniature tracks.
Railroad memorabilia and scenery feature Sonoma County landmarks such as Round Barn and G&G Market. Humorous details include an elephant, kangaroo and gorilla as well as a couple enjoying themselves in the back seat of a red convertible.
Drama emerges at Calamity Junction where a Corvette hits a windmill. The injured people on the ground will be OK, CVL member Steve Lewis said, assuringly. A group of Model A cars on tour is stalled behind the accident, making it difficult for a police car, ambulance and tow truck to reach the scene.
CVL club members have been preparing for the Napa show, their first here, since April. Crews of four train-savvy people (including Napa railroaders), led by a CVL members, will be at the museum each day to run a variety of trains, according to Lewis.
Railroad enthusiasts of all ages can see trains chug through mountains and passes, shunt freight cars and use branch lines to hook up with specialized cars for industries and stations along the way. The displays use HO scale trains, now the most popular, Lewis explained. HO trains are about half the size of O scale used in Lionel train sets.
“We prefer HO to O scale because of the more extensive availability of locomotives, rolling stock, buildings and scenery,” Lewis said.
“HO is a bit harder to work with than O because of the smaller size,” he said. “When working with HO, a great deal of attention must be paid to wheel spacing, coupler height and weight.”
Most of the modules in the exhibit are owned by CVL members and many are more than 20 years old. Members of model railroad clubs agree to a set of detailed standards for the construction of their layouts. Every module has an outside and inside main line. Trains run counterclockwise on the outside main and clockwise on the inside, according to Lewis.
Modules are designed so that any one of them can be connected to any other.
Club members bring a wide range of skills to their hobby. Some build cars and locomotives from kits. Some build structures and design elaborate scenery. Others prefer the challenge of electricity and electronics. They all love running trains and sharing their hobby with others.
“An added benefit is the interaction with people who come to our shows. Everyone has a train story to share,” Lewis said.
Older people tend to recall the sound and size of locomotives whizzing through their towns, briefly connecting them to the larger outside world. Younger folk, whose teachers have recreated the “Polar Express” train with chairs in the classroom, imagine themselves to be the lucky child receiving the first gift of Christmas from Santa.
Age is no barrier to a fascination with trains. CVL members range in age from 7 to 70-plus, Lewis said.
Like many in his generation, Lewis found a train under the Christmas tree when he was 5 years old. At age 11, Santa gave him a Lionel train that he still runs around his family Christmas tree.
Recently, younger people are becoming train hobbyists. Allie Foster, 12, has built 12-foot modules under the guidance of adult CVL member Joan Fleck.
A few years ago, a 6-year-old girl named Anna and her dad came to one of their shows, Lewis said. Afterward, the girl asked why they didn't have a model railroad at home. The family — Mark and Jamie Poggendorf and their daughter — have since opened their own model railroad store in Santa Rosa: Poggies Trains Ltd.
“People are fascinated by the important role railroads have played in history and advancement of society. Not only is model railroading educational, it's a fun hobby,” said Renay Conlin, NVM president and CEO.