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Dreaming big with model trains

Rob Smith makes a childhood hobby reality with his model railroad built on his 16-acre space in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Rob and his model train

Rob Smith is in a festive mood on this warm, sunny day in East Haddam, Connecticut. “I’ve been working on the railroad . . . “ he sings out, voice loud and clear. It is more than a song; Rob, whose first model train was an American Flyer when he was around seven years old, is building a longtime dream, an elaborate model railroad.

A fit-looking man with a quick wit and an engaging smile, Rob has done a lot over the years; he’s been an Emergency Medical Technician, he’s supervised Connecticut’s Parks and Recreation system, and he’s chaired the board of the local Land Trust.

But, he’s never built a model railroad that incorporates plantings, reflecting two of his loves, trains and gardening.

Until now.

Retired from his job with the parks system since 2007, Rob’s dream is no longer deferred. “I’ve been thinking a long time about it,” he says. “Years, in fact. The time was right. I had a vision of what I wanted to do, so I did it.”

In some ways, building a model railroad in his backyard seems a natural thing to do. Rob’s little trains winding their way around his little tracks evoke images of a time when big trains were plentiful and travel could be a thing of luxury or leisure or both, taking us past country scenes much like those near East Haddam.

This was a time when trains connected cities and smaller communities across the nation, before air travel and the Interstate highway system pushed rail travel aside.

Seeing Rob’s railroad recalls the huge role trains used to play in travel, yes, but also in popular culture. Train songs, for instance, climbed the charts, tunes like Midnight Train to Georgia, sung by Gladys Knight and the Pips. And, Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash. Too, there were movies in which trains played big roles, as in the 1950s films, 3:10 to Yuma, Strangers on a Train, and Union Station.

An Edna St. Millay poem, Travel, evokes the mystery-tinged pull of trains in its last lines:

''My heart is warm with the friends I make,

And better friends I'll not be knowing,

Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,

No matter where it's going.''

Such connections are inevitable as Rob, a lifelong lover of the big trains, works to produce his small piece of American scenery that many people rarely see in larger form.

Then, there's that train sound.

“Amazing and inspiring” is how Rob describes the singular excitement of a train whistle or horn from far away, a sound symbolizing America’s network of rail lines that did so much to build this country and link its far-flung parts.

Before breaking ground in 2010, Rob had to find the right location on his 16-acre property, land rich with mature oaks, sugar maples, black birch, hickory, ash. He needed a location that would allow changes in elevation from one point to another.  The spot had to accommodate boulders and a water feature. And, plantings, including mosses and dwarf conifers, which provide year-round greenery. He chose an area right next to the house, which allows his train garden to be seen from inside – and as anyone approaches the house. Moreover, the close proximity to the house makes it convenient to hook up power to the electric trains.

Early on, Rob had created a stream, which, ironically, recalls his water adventure during the summer of 2011 – paddling his kayak the length of the Connecticut River, some 380 miles, starting near the Canadian border and ending at Long Island Sound, about 15 miles downriver of East Haddam.

After completing that trip, Rob got back to working on the railroad, laying more track (350-400 feet will be its length), constructing piers by making the forms and pouring his own concrete with a mixer handed down from his father. Then, he began transplanting mosses for nice swaths of green.

He gets his supplies, equipment, cars, engines, planting material from      varied sources, including local vendors, and mail-order and online suppliers. He cites Garden Railways magazine (grw.trains.com) as an excellent resource.

Working on the railroad with Rob are three friends from nearby Middletown, Connecticut. They are part of a modelers group that meets weekly to work on one another’s railroads. After working on their own indoor layouts, Rob says, “working outdoors, moving real earth and stones and building things with concrete is a real hoot for them. And a lot more strenuous.”

But, oh, so satisfying.

Calling himself “a frustrated engineer,” Rob says, “I like puzzles and challenges and solving issues. That’s what I did at the Park Service.”

Variety abounds in this world of model railroading. Many hobbyists, says Rob, get pleasure from “creating a miniature world” with landscaping. “Others enjoy building the models or operating the trains, or aspects involving electronics. I enjoy the creation of landscapes, whether in the home or in the garden.”

Rob embraces the model-train passion with this understanding: Some elements of this complex venture will always be changing, even though the basic structure may be finished and put in place. In other words, this work, this pleasure, is never done. Anyone who’s ever built a garden will understand how that works.

Says Rob: “I am experimenting with plantings now. As some grow, they may become too large or might be a favorite of our ubiquitous white-tailed deer. Other plants will thrive while some will sulk. So, the garden will be modified – and change every year.”

Which ensures that he’ll keep on singing that song about working on the railroad.

(See more garden stories by Lee May at http://www.leemaysgardeninglife.com/)

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