The members of a Hicksville hobbyist club are looking for a few good men, women and teenagers who are at ease fiddling with train controls and know how to keep things chugging along.
For the past six years, members of the West Island Model Railroad Club have been designing and building an HO scale model railroad — the fictitious Allegheny & Western Railroad — to re-create scenes along the route of the once real but now defunct Jersey Central and Lehigh Valley lines that operated in the 1950s and ’60s.
Miniature steam locomotives billowing puffs of smoke haul passenger and freight cars through picturesque scenery, chugging over bridges and viaducts, through tunnels, alongside canals and fields dotted with cattle and past cornfields. Painted backdrops depicting actual locations along the route, which ran between Jersey City, New Jersey, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, give the backdrop a realistic setting.
This small but true-to-life world is in 5,600 square feet of space in the basement of a building at the Broadway Business Center on Route 107.
“It’s a nice bunch of guys. We have a great time,” said Al Kaiser, 73, of Wantagh, a retired Long Island Rail Road electrician and conductor.
The club’s Allegheny & Western Railroad is 1/87th the size of a regular railroad. It runs on an 87-by-64-foot dual-level layout, and replicates the sights and sounds of a working railroad, from flashing lights to train horns. An electronic control system drives the entire layout, which contains more than 50 engines and 400 freight cars at any one time.
Kaiser, the club’s president, said he believes the Allegheny & Western is one of the biggest model railroads on Long Island and getting bigger. “Building the layout is an ongoing process,” he said. “It will never stop.”
For the club’s 50 members — several of whom are retired railroad engineers, electricians and conductors and range in age from 15 to 94 — it’s an educational pastime but is also about enjoyment.
“It’s something you enjoy doing. You can literally build your own world,” said Rick Lederer, 62, of Brentwood, a former volunteer firefighter who joined the club two years ago. The youngest of his four sons, Benjamin, 16, is also a member.
Member Ron Weismann, 67, of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, said he does “a little bit of everything.”
“The opportunity to come here and work on something this large is exciting,” he said. “The joy of building something or seeing something that you worked on actually run is much better than any video game.”
Jim Sztabnik, 63, of Islip, a former trackman and machine operator for the LIRR, is the trackman for the model. “It’s second nature to me,” he said of his model train work with the club.
Some of that work involves a multiyear project to build Allentown, a historic village on the route. It will be the focal point of the railroad layout.
Meticulously detailed in the 30-square-foot Allentown section are a large freight yard, roundhouse, turntable, signal lights, a staging yard where trains are dispatched in different directions, the former Bethlehem steel mill, and hopper cars carrying coal and iron ore.
Club’s long track run
The West Island Model Railroad Club was founded in 1947 and has been based in Westbury, Farmingdale and twice in Hicksville, where it relocated from Farmingdale in 2008. Its oldest member is Harald Pietschman, 94, of Carle Place. He joined the group 20 years ago and has been a model train hobbyist since he was 4.
“The club has a good layout, and I like the guys,” Pietschman said.
The youngest member, Michael Norton, 15, a 10th-grader at Herricks High School, joined three years ago after learning about the club at a hobby store.
“I’ve been interested in trains since I was little,” said Norton. “I run trains for the joy of it. It’s really cool. I learn from all these older members. I recommend it to anyone.”
The club will mark its 70th anniversary in 2017. Commemorative box cars will carry the slogan: “Allegheny and Western for 70 years. Always Working for You.”
Visitors can see the entire layout at the club’s annual Open House fundraiser, scheduled for Nov. 25-27, Dec. 2-4 and Dec. 9-11. They will have a chance to see and discuss all aspects of constructing and operating model railroads, and they don’t have to settle for being bystanders. Unlike other model-train layouts on Long Island, visiting children are invited to run trains. Visitors may also see the layout operating at full throttle.
“Once a month we run this layout like a real railroad,” said Vic Grappone, 60, of Hicksville. “If we’re running at a realistic speed, it takes 20 minutes to go the whole layout.”
Grappone, a former engineer for the LIRR, did most of the signal work.
The club is proud of its work and is seeking new members to extend its longevity.
“We try and recruit, but it’s very difficult,” Lederer said. “We’re trying to get a younger membership to keep it going. Anybody interested in model railroading is welcome. They don’t have to have special skills; we’ll find something for them to do.”