Famous model train exhibit to debut at LI Railroad Museum

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO| Lionelville Town, Sawmill and Leigh Valley PA train.
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO| Lionelville Town, Sawmill and Leigh Valley PA train.

A historic Lionel model train exhibit will be unveiled April 9 at the Railroad Museum of Long Island’s Riverhead site.

The 7,000-pound train layout was on display for nearly two decades at Lionel’s Chesterfield, Mich., visitor’s center. Lionel is one of the world’s largest model train manufacturers, and before the center closed in 2008, the display attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

After Lionel officials agreed to donate the layout to the Railroad Museum of Long Island, museum vice president George Faeth and museum volunteers trekked up north. Using a Sawzall, they sliced the sprawling layout into 15 pieces, each weighing 300 pounds, so they could remove and fit them through the doors of their new home, the Freeman Building, a restored potato barn on Griffing Avenue.

“This is going to help put Riverhead on the map,” said museum president Don Fisher.

The display is modeled after a layout built in 1949 for Lionel’s headquarters on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, where train lovers flocked for decades. When Lionel shuttered its New York offices and moved to Michigan in the early 1960s, the original layout was moved to a New Jersey warehouse. The building later collapsed, crushing the layout and destroying a gem of the toy train community.

Mr. Fisher said the Riverhead museum’s model train layout holds special significance for those who remember the first Lionel layout.

“If you came to New York from California or Texas on business and you had any interest in trains, you would go to Lionel’s office and you would see this layout,” Mr. Fisher said. “[The replica] is important to New York City and Long Island. It’s important to us here in Riverhead as a historic piece.”

Seven trains, smoking and whistling, can run simultaneously on the 14-by-40-foot layout, which has four different levels. Push buttons for 37 interactive stations line the layout’s perimeter, powering electricity-driven miniature wind turbines, elevating bridges and airplanes that hover over an airport.
A cleaning facility washes the rail cars, and oil rigs with derricks move up and down. Push one of the buttons and a little outhouse door opens, revealing a man sitting on a tiny toilet reading an even tinier newspaper.

Museum volunteers added two stations to the layout to represent locations in Greenport and Riverhead and built a trolley that runs back and forth past a make-believe Mitchell Park.

The nonprofit Railroad Museum of Long Island is funded partly through admissions and partly through the sale of collectors’ model rail cars designed by the museum’s Collectors Club Car committee and manufactured by Lionel. Starting in 2005, one car has been released each year. Each design features the logo and graphics of a local or international business, such as Riverhead Building Supply, Entenmanns, North Fork Bank and Atlantis Marine World.

This year’s model, featuring King Kullen supermarkets and scheduled for release in early December, can be ordered until May 12th.

Remy Convery of Lionel said his company was happy to give the layout to the museum, as he believes the Riverhead area to be “a stronghold for Lionel fans.

“There’s a strong fascination with railroads and the toy railroad hobby in Riverhead,” he said.

Museum volunteers worked to renovate the Freeman Building, a potato barn formerly used as the museum’s warehouse, to suitably house the exhibit. A number of local businesses helped out with preparing the site, and Shoreham-Wading River High School shop students helped wire the building.

Shoreham-Wading River technology teacher Dave Driscoll said his students have done a number a projects with the museum. They’ve built model trains for display there, and middle school students will be helping restore a Fairmont Speeder train this fall. Mr. Driscoll said the museum has been valuable in providing hands-on projects for his students outside the classroom.

“The train is a vehicle to teach mechanics,” he said.

And Mr. Fisher is sure the new exhibit will be an educational tool for visitors young and old.

“We want to use that layout to help teach young people about railroading,” he said. Older folks, he said, “can have a little fantasy and step back and remember their childhood.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held Saturday, April 9, at 10 a.m. at the museum’s Riverhead location. The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day and free to the public. Ordinarily, museum admission is $7 for adults age 13 and over, $4 for children ages 5 to 12 and free for children under age 5.
The museum will be open Saturdays until May 30, and Saturdays and Sundays during the summer.

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