Like many little boys growing up in the 1950s, Jim Roemer received a model train set as a gift from his parents—an American Flyer on a two-rail track with two loops. In those days, a child could be entranced for hours by this simple set-up.
Fast-forward to 2003 when Jim and his wife of 34 years, Elaine, moved into their current home in Voorheesville. Thinking it would be enjoyable for their five grandchildren, Jim had a carpenter-friend build a simple 11×7-foot table in the basement for his childhood train.
“It was entertaining at first, though as they got a little older, our grandchildren were getting bored after five minutes of watching it go around. But when we would take them to the Christmastime train shows around this area, we saw their eyes absolutely light up. That’s when I decided I would create a large model train layout for them, though I never envisioned it would turn into this!”
His grand plan was put into motion in March of 2012. Three and a half years later, Jim now has a sprawling museum-quality Lionel three-track train layout that fills a large portion of his basement, 23 locomotives (both steamies and diesel), and 100-plus rolling stock.
An homage to the Tri-Cities
Jim’s train layout has memorabilia of the Tri-Cities of Albany, Voorheesville, and Schenectady, with replicas of trains, villages, automobiles, farms, businesses, and other details from the 1950s and ’60s.
Jim points out the general store, a milk truck, and an OK Used Cars dealer. You’ll find the Agway mill, which was in the Voorheesville Army depot. There’s the Schenectady GE plant and Schaefer Brewery. There is even a WGY radio tower.
“In the ’50s and ’60s in Schenectady, American Locomotive, or Alco as it was called, made real versions of the locomotives that are modeled here,” Jim points out. “All of the engines are reproductions of either New York Central Rail Line or Delaware & Hudson trains, which operated in this area.”
A team with a dream
Indeed, it took a brigade of artisan-craftsmen to bring Jim’s idea to life, though Jim says most of their expert work was done at no cost, as a “labor of love.”
“My primary partner in bringing this vision to reality has been Lance Peck, who is a model train aficionado,” explains Jim. “I didn’t give Lance specific parameters, size- or budget-wise, and I didn’t realize at the time that Lance would live vicariously though my vision—and my checkbook!”
“Dick Lustenhouwer did all of the carpentry work, and Rich Guilz was the electrician who wired the layout. All of the lights in the buildings and lining the streets and tracks had to be individually wired, and there is more than 10,000 feet [that’s nearly two miles!] of wire under the layout to connect everything.”
“Every detail was completed in a well-thought out, high-end way,” says Jim. “The scenery on the walls was custom-printed, made specifically for this train layout. The arch bridge and the New York Central bridge were handmade too.”
Jim continues: “Juan Abadia had the artistic touch that turned this project into a true work of art. He handcrafted the mountains out of papier mâché; he built the waterfall, positioned every tree, and hand-placed all of the grass and gravel. The level of creativity and detail is astounding.”
While the layout is positively spectacular as-is, Jim and his design-build crew still have a few finishing touches in mind. “The team is looking forward to no more work and all play!”
A high-tech toy
The control sets of today’s model trains bear little resemblance to those of yesteryear. “The trains are no longer controlled by transformers, which would send the necessary power to the tracks to control the speed,” Jim points out. “Newer model trains have power packs where the amount of electricity on the tracks is constant. There are wireless remote controls that determine speed and direction, all through computer chips.”
But while Jim’s new train is as high-tech as any modern computer, at its heart, it is still very much a toy intended for the enjoyment of the young (and young-at-heart).
“All of the engines can produce steam from their funnels, which the children like, but we tried to take it to the next level with interactive elements so they can really feel like they are doing something. We have four separate remote controls, so older children can actually run the trains. And for younger children, there are buttons that can be pressed to create a variety of sounds, lights, and movements.”
Jim adds, “There are buttons that create a loon’s call or farm sounds. There is one that lights up the campfire by a group of rail-jumpers, and you can hear ‘Oh, Suzanna’ played on the harmonica. Another button makes smoke come out of the Schaefer Brewery smokestack. But one of the children’s favorites is the button that makes the fire alarm sound, the station lights flash, the fireman slide down the pole, and the fire engine pull out of the station.”
The wonder of a child
At 71, Jim still practices labor law full-time in Albany, as he has for 46 years, so his model train hobby has to fit into an already busy schedule. But he emphasizes that all of the time, work, and expense that has gone into this train layout was not done for him.
“My vision has always been that this train display would have a broader use and purpose. I want to use it to educate younger generations about trains–what they do, how they operate, how the signals communicate to the engineer. I wanted it to be very authentic.”
Not everyone was as sure about Jim’s vision-come-to-fruition. “We have two adult daughters who said, ‘Dad, what did you do?’ when they first saw the set-up, but my wife and I enjoy the fact that children’s eyes are as big as saucers when they see it. There is something about the mystique of a model train layout that makes every child smile.”
Groups of up to 18 from nursery schools, elementary schools, and children’s groups, and families in the area are invited to contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a time for children to enjoy the train layout.