Indulging their inner child, the State-Line S Gaugers, a group of train enthusiasts, enjoy remodeling and collecting trains. Find out how their elaborate models bring the railroad to life.
There’s just something compelling about trains. Not only do they hold a primary spot in American history, but they also engage the imagination. Books like Agatha Christie’s “Orient Express,” movies like “Silverstreak” and songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” express our fascination with trains even now, when cars and airplanes whisk us wherever we care to go.
Trains have captured the American public’s attention from the first section of rail laid to every little boy’s dream of finding a model train beneath the Christmas tree. A.C. Gilbert was the first to translate that desire into reality, in 1946, when he began manufacturing American Flyer S-gauge toy trains. By 1953, American Flyer offered new railcar trucks and knuckle couplers; by 1957, the toy train industry was making diverse product lines.
Toy trains were the high-tech toys of the day, comparable to Xbox and PlayStation today. Most boys wanted a train set; basic sets started at $23. By 1960, model train interest dwindled. Lionel purchased the A.C. Gilbert company and American Flyer became another part of America’s train history.
It was the big boys who brought the model train industry back into the spotlight. Model train clubs sprang up across America, with major clubs in Milwaukee and Chicago. However, there wasn’t an established club in this region until 1980.
“Nick Segalla and I started the State-Line S Gaugers Club,” says David Tanner. “Nick’s dad owned Westmor Bowl and I used to go bowling there. We knew each other long before we got involved in train modeling. We resumed our friendship at a garage sale he had that included American Flyer model trains.”
The two of them put their heads together and began collecting the names of people they knew who were interested in railroad modeling.
“We mailed out invitations and eight showed up at our first meeting,” Tanner recalls. “We worked on the details through the summer to see if it would fly, and in January 1981, we launched the State-Line S Gaugers.”
In its early years, the club didn’t have the large, modular layout they now display at shows. Instead, the members placed folding tables side by side and installed oval tracks. Because many of the members didn’t have layouts at home, they met in each others’ homes to share ideas, swap equipment and resolve challenges.
“Then we had this long discussion about designing a permanent modular layout for shows,” Tanner says. “We started calling ourselves the ‘Mod Squad,’ based on the word modular. We started working on the initial setup every Thursday. We called it our coffee club and there were always donuts.”
The Mod Squad leads the charge while setting up for shows. There’s a setup group and volunteers take shifts.
“It takes four to five members to run the layout at shows,” Tanner says. “I’m now a non-active charter member because I can no longer get down on my hands and knees to help set things up.”
That doesn’t mean Tanner has stopped modeling, by any means. The lure of the rails still takes up a lot of his imagination and living space.
“I probably have one of the biggest collections,” Tanner says. “We bought this home more than a year ago and I am installing showcases in my basement. I’m going to make new ones, too. I have a couple thousand pieces and 20 passenger train sets. Plus I do repair work for other modelers, supplying American Flyer parts and fixing things up. I help the members with their problems. That’s what this club is all about.”
But, he adds, the methods of modeling have evolved through the years. Today, not as many hobbyists build from scratch. The layouts for S gauge trains are built at a scale of 3/16th-inch scale to a foot, or a ratio of 1:64.
Model trains are designed in nine graded scales, starting with the smallest at Z to N, TT, HO, S, O, #1, G and Standard. The S gauge is small enough to be manageable in home-based layouts, but not so small that it’s difficult to handle.
The models may be collectibles – original American Flyer and Lionel. But today, American Flyer is made by Lionel. Electronic aspects of building layouts have advanced, too.
“Purists like me don’t get into building tunnels – no mountains or mole hills,” Tanner says with a chuckle. “Members work with kits a lot.”
Modeling isn’t the only allure of railroading. Some members enjoy actual rail travel and collect memorabilia. State-Line S Gaugers member Vera Geerts Flood is one of them.
“I guess you could say I married into it,” Flood says of her decades-long romance with railroading, both as traveler and modeler. “My late husband, Paul, was really into it. We rode the rails so many times I cannot even list all of the trips we took.”
Just the names of these rail routes are enough to trigger wanderlust. Royal Gorge, Mesa Verde, Durango Silverton Railroad, New River Train in West Virginia and Copper Canyon are just a few of the readily recognizable journeys.
“If there’s a train that passes through, we’ve ridden it,” Flood says. “The latest ride was incredible. We took a trip to China with retired Rev. Gene Van Galder, where we rode the new Shanghai Meglev, which doesn’t ride on actual rails but levitates over the track.”
China has two trains that run back and forth on parallel tracks, Flood says. Van Galder suggested to his tour group that, if they wanted a photo of the train, they try to catch the one passing, a neat trick as the Meglev travels in excess of 220 mph.
“I tried. All I felt was a rush and a huge sense of suction,” Flood says, laughing. “But I did manage to get a shot at it. It literally takes your breath away.”
When they weren’t traveling, the Floods spent their leisure time on train modeling with the State-Line S Gaugers.
“Paul always said railroading and modeling gets into your blood,” Flood says. “The more you see, the more you do, the more you ride.”
Flood explains that S gauge is popular because it’s not as small as HO gauge or some of the other model sizes, so it’s easier for older hobbyists to work with, and not as large as other types that take up more space. It also offers many style options. Flood believes it’s more realistic, running on two rails like traditional trains, while some model styles run on three, with the power rail in the middle.
“I always loved the American Flyer brand because it had more-realistic smoke,” she adds.
In the beginning, most modelers built their own buildings and accessories.
“We used to buy inexpensive little buildings, costing around $1.95 to $2.95 to use on the layouts,” Flood recalls. “Paul was more of a scratch person. He loved to build his own things. But one year, I found this little greenhouse for about $1.95 and gave it to him. Now that building is worth more than $50.”
Modelers find their layout materials at shows, swap meets and online.
“They all have their own personal layouts at home, and then there’s the club layout that we set up at shows,” Flood says. “I checked and we’ve had this one ongoing since 1997. The members are spending this summer updating and changing the layout. We want to make extra sections and increase our ability to swap out others. It’s a work in progress.”
But wait … there’s more to the romance. Flood is also an avid collector of anything connected with rail travel. She has an extensive and diverse collection that ranges from elegant china to boxes of tissues supplied to train passengers. Then there’s Flood’s date nail board.
“Paul used to walk down the tracks and find these nails,” she explains, displaying a wooden plank with lines of rusting nails, each with a number on its head. “You see this one, which has 33 on the head? That means the section of track was laid in 1933.”
Flood has her own extensive collection of American Flyer engines and cars, but at this time doesn’t have a permanent layout.
“Paul and I built an ambitious layout that included a 7-foot tall mountain with track running through it at different levels,” she says. “You could stand up inside it. We had seven full courses laid out in and around the mountain.”
The joy of modeling, Flood says, is that you can build any layout you can imagine. You can have track bridging a miniature Grand Canyon or winding through forests and rushing through towns and villages, alongside farms and circuses and just about any other kind of American landscape. And you can change the seasons.
“Some people build summer layouts, while others have winter ones,” she notes. “Some have all four seasons in different areas of their layouts. Then you can decorate for the holidays.”
While railroad modelers tend to be older, this family-friendly hobby can involve every member, regardless of age. There are also “armchair” railroad enthusiasts who show up at every show and share their fascination with their children and grandchildren.
Find more information about State-Line S Gaugers at state-linesgaugers.org.