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Model Trains Help Columbus Man Realize Railroading Dream
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Howard Smith has had a life-long interest in railroading. His goal of working for a railroad did not materialize but another dream has. Smith is a model train enthusiast and is president of the Columbus Model Railroad Club.
A gleaming 1930s bullet-nosed Hudson locomotive pulls a long line of passenger cars toward a rail yard in Sandusky, Ohio.
“The north yard has receiving and departure tracks. We can build trains up to 35 cars long. Itâ€™s switched like a real railroad,” says Howard Smith.
Sandusky is the northern terminus of the fictional Scioto Valley Railroad Line. Howard Smith is waiting there. A mechanical engineer by profession, Smith is a railroad aficionado.
“We have two basic yards: one at Sandusky and one at Portsmouth. The trains are built up in those areas. And then locomotives are attached to the trains and the trains leave with an engineer and they travel the length of the railroad,” Smith says.
A lifelong dream
Smith is president of the Columbus Model Railroad Club which was founded in 1934. He was introduced to railroading more than 60 years ago.
“I had three brothers and my grandmother bought us all the same wind-up train one year for Christmas. My brothers lost interest fairly fast and before Christmas Day was over I had all of those trains combined into one set and it stayed that way for a very long time,” Smith says.
Smith says his interest in trains was piqued by frequent trips to Columbusâ€™ historic Union Station.
“When I was a boy I remember taking my bicycle and going downtown onto 4th Street and climbing up over the wall and watching trains all day long and my mother would pack my lunch for me â€“ she knew exactly where I was â€“ and I would go down and watch trains at Union Station all day long in the summertime,” Smith says.
Smith says he wanted a railroad job when he grew up. But he says he found that full-time railroad work was hard to come by.
“I thought when I was younger I would like to work for the railroad but I had friends who worked for the railroad and they didnâ€™t work all the time so I decided I wanted to do something else with my life and I became a mechanical engineer,” Smith says.
Smith leads a club of about 45 members. They gather every Tuesday night at the Columbus Castings company on South Parsons Avenue. Members bring their favorite locomotives which huff, puff and chug their way across the Ohio landscape. They travel on the Scioto Valley Railroad.
“Itâ€™s a mythical railroad. Itâ€™s not meant to mimic any particular railroad that was in existence but bits and pieces of it. So it starts at Sandusky and goes to Mansfield, to Mount Vernon, to Newark, to Lancaster, to Chillicothe, to Piketon and finally to Portsmouth,” Smith says.
Thatâ€™s a lot of territory to cover and itâ€™s done in a space of about 900 square feet. It might not be an accurate mile-by-mile recreation, but it is an amazingly magnificent scale model which club members have been working on for decades. Now model trains pass through bustling cities, quiet villages and the peaceful Ohio countryside.
For the past few years, members have been using whatâ€™s known as digital command controllers. Theyâ€™re wireless devices that activate functions on the locomotive.
“We can control them from the hand-held controller. We can blow the whistle, we can ring the bell, we can turn the lights on and off, and it adds a lot of realism to model railroading,” Smith says.
Howard Smith might be 73 years old but he sees no end in the pursuit of his favorite hobby.
“Itâ€™s like being married,” Smith says. “Youâ€™re married for life. Iâ€™m a model railroader for life. Until they bury me!”
Howard Smith, president of the Columbus Model Railroad Club. The club meets Tuesday evenings at 2211 Parsons Avenue. The meetings are open to the public.