The art of model trains

(First published in the January 10, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Miniature railroading is more than a hobby. It’s a deeply creative, socially bonding labor of love.


Pat Lyons with this two-room train layout he has created over several decades in his Stevens Point home.

Patrick Lyons, 79, remembers the days post-World War II when trains were one of the main ways to travel between cities. When a train stop would help put a city or town on a map, and commerce naturally coalesced around it.

Train travel has lost its top place in modern American transportation; but in Lyons’s basement, trains traverse two rooms and will run just like they did when he was a child in the Chicago area.

Scale model railroads, like the one Lyons created, are astonishing works of art—colorful landscapes and urbanscapes, tiny detailed signs, and sometimes even tiny people figurines in various attire. There’s a unique charm in viewing all the lovingly placed details, but also an obvious appreciation for the hundreds of hours required to create such scenes.

And this is more than just a hobby.

Lyons is one of roughly three dozen members of the Waupaca Area Model Railroaders club, one of at least four such groups in the area: There’s also the Central Wisconsin Model Railroaders based out of Stevens Point; and the Wausau-based Wisconsin Valley Model Railroad Club, which created the 1,000-square-foot model train deck in the basement of the Marathon County Historical Society’s Yawkey House; and the RSW Model Railroaders (Rothschild, Weston, Schofield), which tends to the elaborate layout at The Hobby Connection store.

Although not exclusive to seniors —there are younger club members in their 20s and 30s—the vast majority of model railroaders are people in retirement. Another thing that makes this hobby extraordinary: There’s a public following.

The annual Arctic Run Model Railroad Show this year happens Feb. 2-3 at the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point. Hosted by the Central Wisconsin Model Railroaders, but given to Lyons to promote, Arctic Run is one of the largest shows in Wisconsin for model railroading. The show will have demonstration layouts and vendors selling train cars and equipment. Clubs from around the state will bring their portable layouts, such as one owned by the Waupaca group.


Just one scene of the two-room layout at The Hobby Connection in Rothschild.

The Wausau-based club’s model railroad at the Yawkey House is open to the public 1–3 pm on the first and third Sunday of each month. The Hobby Connection’s model railroad is open to the public every Saturday.

Model railroading might seem like a solo activity, but involvement in the clubs means members like Lyons get plenty of time to socialize. His club meets once per week (as does the Wausau group), and members with train layouts host gatherings at their houses. There’s also a Tuesday morning group—composed of exclusively retired folks—that meets for breakfast and then spends a few hours working on one of the club members’ train layouts.

That generation remembers a time when important train lines played a vital role in transportation. For Lyons, who grew up in Chicago in the post World War II era, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy line heading north to La Crosse continues to hold his fascination and is the inspiration for his own layout. Featured in Model Railroader magazine (his layout was also an editor’s pick in a special issue devoted to layouts), his basement train layout mimics the line circa the 1950s.

A few things emerge as obvious after seeing some local layouts: One, there is a lot of time involved. Lyons has been working on his layout for decades, with club members making modifications over the years. Two, model railroading involves a number of skills: woodworking to build the platforms, electric wiring to run the trains, and an attention to period details to get the scenery just right.

Also obvious is the expense involved. Lyons estimates he has spent as much as $40,000 on his layout over the several decades he’s been building it. “It’s 99% complete now,” Lyons says. “The fun now is sharing it with other people.”


The two-level, two-room model train layout at The Hobby Connection is open to the public on Saturdays.

Train layouts are often cooperative efforts, says Tom Bullman, owner of The Hobby Connection in Rothschild. The stunning, two-room layout in the basement of the hobby store was built by multiple people over decades. The model is hyper local, mimicking a route through central Wisconsin including several Wausau locations that resident would be very familiar with. The Hobby Connection’s layout is on two levels, the second depicting a line going out west, hitting the Rockies and beyond.

The RSW club gets together on Mondays to work on it, Bullman says. The layout is open to the public every Saturday during business hours and people can run their own trains on the track — a way to experience the hobby less expensively than building an entire home layout.

Although he gets new train customers all the time, these days those customers are almost all children or seniors, he says. Hobby-minded people in their 20s and 30s age range tend toward radio-controlled vehicles and drones, Bullman says.

Jeff Hild of Stevens Point, a member of the Waupaca area club for five years, is in the process of developing his own track layout. His model layout is among those the breakfast club visits, helping with electrical wiring or the structures for the track. “It keeps me out of the tavern,” Hild, 67, jokes of the hobby.

The retired city surveyor says the hobby — particularly being part of the club — is a great way to socialize and stay part of a group. It also provides a creative outlet. All the painstaking details that go into these model train layouts look like they could come to life. One club member was so skilled at creating scenery that the club bought pieces of his train layout from his widow when he died. “There is a lot of artistry involved,” Hild says.

Hild says his model railroad layout will likely cost about half of what Lyons’s did, and be a work in progress for some time. The hobby will give him plenty to work on in retirement, and plenty of people to share in the creativity.