All Aboard

In Do, March 2019 by Megan DohmLeave a Comment

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Vice President Mike Johns and President Clif Kelly

Sunshine warms members of the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club as they migrate from breakfast in City Market to their almost-downtown clubhouse for a couple hours of building. The club is roughly 2,000 square feet, and features a common area, a library with model railroad resources dating to the 1930s and work rooms marked by the scale of their railroads. The miniature locomotives emit a quiet, mechanical buzz as a backdrop to their conversations—plans being made, tasks being divvied up, puzzling through technical issues with relish.

In a circle of chairs, members gather to discuss the history of the club. There is a common propensity to lean back, hands folded over bellies full of Big Ed’s. Club president Clif Kelly says that the members in the circle and beyond come from “all around the Triangle. North, west, east and south.” A broad swath of experience is also represented, ranging from civil service and time in the Pentagon to handymen, time in the medical field, a Boy Scouts executive and a stained-glass maker. They’re not all grey hair and suspenders; in their club of roughly 40, there are some youth members, an under-40 crew and some women members, all brought together by a fascination with trains, model or otherwise. They know which trains run across the state and when, where they used to run and where to get a good hot dog close to the Burlington station. The curiosity extends to everything train-related; if it has wheels and ran on a track, someone has a general knowledge about it.

In new members, all that’s required is a discernible pulse and, “an interest in a flanged wheel on steel,” according to the club’s last remaining charter member, George Lasley. The others have a reverence for Lasley, for his wealth of knowledge and stories. They have bestowed upon him the official title of “Grand Poobah” (which they pronounce “poppha”); it’s fitting for the mustached man in charge of the club train shows at the fairgrounds (running this year in May and November). After 50 years of helping others with designing their layouts, Lasley is beginning one of his own, all built around a model of the Virginian Railway train EL-2B. All of the members listen to his plans with curiosity, leaning in to hear an expert’s plot before dispersing to their own work.

In the biggest room, the club’s vice president, Mike Johns, is finessing a digital command center on the HO (1:87) scale layout. Measuring at least 25 feet long, it’s filled with neighborhoods you would swear you’ve walked past somewhere. In the library, a member fiddles with the wiring beneath a square of layout, while two others putter in the common room. At the back of the building in the O (1:48) scale room, a fictitious mountain scene is beginning to unfold, complete with scrubby trees, pools of water, and a fossil in the side of a rock. Floating from the corner, a bass voice sings short ditties narrating the work going on in between drilling. Club member Shelton Bass is shaping the landscape, and is excited about discovering the perfect pig for the corner farm scene. Although the layout’s location is fictitious, he says he has seen each piece somewhere. He employs whatever manages to make the scene look realistic—sawdust mixed with food coloring, dollar store moss, small branches with sealer, painted styrofoam, Elmer’s glue for water—he has a bag of tried-and-true tricks to pull from.

As members bustle around the club, they’re solving problems with work they generally enjoy, with people they generally enjoy. Although every bit of a layout is a labor of love, they each have their preferences and specialties, along with a space to flesh their visions out.

“As a friend of mine used to say, at the end of the day, it’s still playing with toy trains,” says Lasley. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“It’s also, there’s a human aspect about us that is really magnificent and wonderful, and that is that we’ve made friends,” says Johns. “We can count on each other, we can discuss things; it’s a school here.”

For more information, visit the club’s website at or stop in at its upcoming open house on March 23. Doors open from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

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