UNION, NJ — When the late Paul Mallery sparked life back into model railroading, establishing The Model Railroad Club in 1949 after World War II had put the production of model trains on hiatus, he couldn’t have foreseen what it would become: The modest group of hobbyists, which Mallery organized in his basement, has given way to an organization which entertains thousands of visitors each weekend.
Now located in an 11,000-square-foot building in Union’s Lenape Park, the club is currently working on a sprawling, densely detailed layout for its Holiday Sound and Light Show, which will run for three weekends, starting Friday Nov. 27.
But the club also opens its doors for the public every Saturday, when a solid crowd is about 3,000 people, said club president Bob Nalbone.
“It’s an informal open house, a self-guided walk-around tour. You can actually go down and see a little bit of the underneath area, and the work itself,” said Nalbone. “We get people from, obviously, the New York metropolitan area, but model raildroaders come from around the country and the world. If they have business trips, a lot of people will find a way to come here, if they can swing it. We’re quite well known, it’s quite a project.”
The club’s enormous layout holds multiple railroad tracks that can hold hundreds of train cars at one time, which evoke an earlier era in American railroad history. Some of the members bring in their own, distinct trains and cars designed in the 21st century, but the models that visitors will see on the tracks mostly pre-date Amtrack by decades.
“The setting of the layout is the mid-1950s. We call that the steam-diesel transition era,” said Nalbone. The unique setting, he added, offers teaching opportunities for those not old enough to remember these trains.
“We do our teaching around that. Most of the country was born after the 1970s. Nobody really remembers the steam locomotives, so now we show people ‘here’s the servicing facility, this is how they prepare the steam locomotive. This is what freight cars used to look like.’”
Many of the locations will be familiar, though, to residents familiar with parts of Union County and beyond. The layout includes parts of Springfield, Union, Kenilworth, Summit — including a look at a 1950s-era model of the Summit Train Station — as well as other local landmarks, like Newark and Hoboken. These sections aren’t replicas, but they imitate “the feeling of the short-line and the communities and the industries that are served by them,” said Nalbone.
Hundreds of trains can run through these locations at the same time, on the club’s HO-sized tracks, as will be the case during the Holiday Sound and Light Show. At one point, the club’s members set a now-defunct world record for the most train cars running on a set of tracks simultaneously, with 501. The front train and the caboose, said Nalbone, were about a foot away from each other.
A variety of people provide the resources and expertise for such an intricate layout, including a hardcore base of the club’s 200 members. Included in that group is a Broadway lighting designer, who wrote a script for the Holiday Sound and Light Show, and some people who just like building things with their hands.
“There are different disciplines involved. You have carpeting, electrical, art for the scenery. For a place this big, a lot of scenes have a lot of detail to them,” said Balbone. “For example, the diesel-servicing area over here, which was made from scratch by one member.”
And the club’s location in Lenape Park, the result of a 40-year-old partnership with Union County, offers the club long-term stability and exposure that helps everyone. Without having to worry about footing the bill for rent, members can turn the attention to any of the characteristics in model railroading that have kept it in Union for 66 years.
“That’s what’s great about this hobby. There are so many facets of it, you can zero in on something and go with it,” said Nalbone. “It’s good for the town, it’s good for us. Everybody wins. There’s no taxpayer money involved, and the public gets this benefit.”
For a complete schedule and advance ticket information, including online ordering, visit The Model Railroad Club online at tmrci.org. Opening day is Friday Nov. 27, offering special extended hours for the day after Thanksgiving from noon to 10 p.m. Shows continue every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Dec. 13.