How to run a railroad:
Getting there is most of the fun
We got a wonderful note from John Roberts last week, asking us to look into a very special enterprise being conducted under our very noses that we knew little about: The Providence Northern Model Railroad. The railroad boasts a virtual geographic territory that encompasses most of New England in the space of one large room on top of the Old Warwick Grange in Conimicut.
“The Providence Northern is a not-for-profit club and part of the charter is that we educate folks young and old about the hobby and railroading,” wrote John Roberts. “We have had the Boy Scouts in for demonstrations and just this past week a teacher brought one of her classes [came] down to see what we are all about. Obviously one of the reasons we do this is to attract younger members to help perpetuate not just our club but the hobby.”
Needless to say, Roberts’ enthusiasm for Providence Northern intrigued us. We have done stories on individual model railroaders before, most notably the one that the erstwhile Kent Hospital spokesman Brian Walling constructed in his North Kingstown home, for his children (at least that was his story and he’s sticking with it). But the truth was, the layout taught us more about Brian’s railroading fantasies than those of his kids and, even if the kids’ names appeared in the layout, the trains were really Brian babies. It turns out that Brian was not the only adult who never quite put away his model trains. John Roberts shows all the signs of the same nostalgic affliction and, just as shamelessly used his son to cover for his own passion for model trains.
“Folks of our generation (mostly men) often had the good fortune to receive a Lionel, Marx or American Flyer train for Christmas,” wrote Roberts. “Receiving a train set often led to the hobby of model railroading, which more often than not [became] a lifelong interest. I remember when my son, Daniel, was about six or seven I purchased an HO train set with some additional track and created a layout on the ubiquitous 4 x 8 sheet of plywood. Danny had a passing interest in it (maybe about six nanoseconds) but I retained this interest in model railroading that was spawned by that Lionel train set I received for Christmas many moons ago.”
Needless to say, we enjoy his candor and can identify with his passion. How many of the rest of us never really put the trains away?
Roberts said he was an “armchair” model railroader after he got his son’s trains, someone who didn’t pursue it completely but read the magazines and picked up a few models here and there.
That changed when he joined The Providence Northern.
The PNMR was founded in 1992 and had its original layout on Hathaway Street in Providence until 2006, when rising housing costs for the club led it to the Old Warwick Grange on West Shore Road. While the layout is far from finished, the new layout will include model villages from diverse locations like Providence, Framingham, St. Johnsbury and White River Junction in Vermont, Berlin in New Hampshire and Rumford, Maine. Realistic models of mills, factories, breweries and other New England structures and landscapes line the virtual miles of track that stretch around the whole upper room at the Grange. The club models in HO, which is the size that about 80 percent of railroad modelers use.
“We chose to model our railroad on passenger and freight service in New England around 1985,” said long-time member John Brietmaier, who should know a little about that. He actually is a conductor for Amtrak in New England and should be useful for “institutional memory” for the club after he retires from Amtrak in a few years. “People [clubs] are free to model their railroads on any era or any place they want to,” he said. “We chose to go with 1985.”
What concerns Roberts and Brietmaier and other members is the fact that the demographic of the hobby is getting older and there has not been any real influx of young people. Roberts credits, or blames, computers and video games as major distractions from the traditional pool of model railroaders but he is convinced there is a huge place for computers and programming in today’s model railroading and equally convinced that exposing young people to the hobby is a potent recruiting tool and Roberts is hoping that a recent recruitment effort will get kids to come in and look at their layout.
“The Providence Northern is a not-for-profit club and part of the charter is that we educate folks young and old about the hobby and railroading,” said Roberts. “We have had the Boy Scouts in for demonstrations and just this past week a teacher brought one of her classes down to see what we are all about. Obviously one of the reasons we do this is to attract younger members to help perpetuate not just our club but the hobby.”
He said the members meet on Tuesday and Saturday and said the Saturday meeting has morphed into a weekly open house after 1 p.m. when people can come in and view the layout and even operate the trains, with supervision. The club is having its annual Christmas Open House on Dec. 10 and he hopes to see a lot of people there between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The Providence Northern was the largest HO scale model railroad in southern New England on Hathaway Street in Providence. The PN moved to Warwick in 2006, where the layout was redesigned for the new space, incorporating lessons learned from the first location. In 2007, the Providence Northern Model Railroad Club incorporated and is an educational center for the hobby and will conduct periodic shows and seminars for the display of their applied skills. The layout at the grange is far from finished but Roberts is convinced there is enough there to impress visitors and he hopes they get lots of them on Dec. 10. It may even help some parents decide what they want to get their kids for Christmas.
“Again, going back to our youth,” said Roberts, “is there any better time than this time of year to have such an event?”
The Providence Northern is located at 1175 West Shore Road in Warwick. For more information about the club visit www.providencenorthern.org.