For Love of Trains – How It All Began

Santa Fe Railway no more.
This past fall boarding the California Zephyr in Chicago, bound for Sacramento and a visit to the California State Railway Museum.


Girls aren’t supposed to like trains.  But there are exceptions.

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with trains.  From electric model train sets to cross-country train trips, each experience has reinforced my love of trains.  And now I know, I’ve finally realized, it’s okay. I’m okay.

My parents once told me that the first stair steps I ever walked up alone were at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  Every visit as a toddler, I was out of my buggy and on my dad’s shoulders for a bird’s eye view of the sprawling Santa Fe Railway model train exhibit. I’m convinced that, as soon as I could make it up those stairs, I was determined to reach the train viewing area under my own foot power.

Once I was tall enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the little boys, I stood as close as possible to the smudgy glass.  I wanted to be as close as I could get to this miniature Utopia. There they were, dozens of O scale train cars – freight trains and passenger trains – crisscrossing the country en route from Chicago, west to Los Angeles on the path of the Santa Fe Railroad.

Santa Fe Railway model train exhibit
Photo credit: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.

You could press buttons to make train cars inch forward towards the diesel shop.  Other buttons elicited sounds like train whistles.  You could even slow down a freight train to cross a bridge and load or empty lumber.  It was so exciting to press button after button and witness the trains’ reactions.  The words “interactive” or “hands-on experience” weren’t yet coined.

Shiny Santa Fe freight engines bore through green mountain passes and across narrow trestle bridges.  The Santa Fe Super Chief passenger train with its miniature dome car made its way past towering grain silos and rural railroad crossings highlighted with little blinking red lights.

Photo credit: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago.

I waved every time the Warbonnet Red and yellow Santa Fe engine and passenger train passed by as if passengers inside could see me.  They were on their way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Someday, I’d travel aboard the real Santa Fe Super Chief on my own cross-country adventure.

Santa Fe Railways Super Chief

It was somewhere around my eighth or ninth birthday when my parents, well aware of my love of trains, took me to see a model train set at someone’s home. For years I pleaded and begged for a Lionel train set as a present for any holiday.  No luck.  So when I heard that an acquaintance of my parents, affectionately known as “Mr. Baer who had no hair” had built an elaborate train set in his basement, my parents made arrangements for a visit.

It was only a short drive from our home on Chicago’s South Side to Mr. Baer’s small bungalow-style home. After perfunctory chit-chat, he led us down the stairs to his “train room”.  When I was told, “Stand back”, I watched in awe as he slowly turned a crank.  There, suspended by cables attached to where the acoustic-tiled ceiling met the pine-paneled walls, he lowered the largest train set platform I had ever seen, except for of course, at the museum.  Somehow he built it to store vertically without so much as a thumb-sized shrub falling off.

Of course the trains themselves were not on the tracks.  One by one, this basement engineer assembled his Lionel trains in perfect sequence, one long train at a time.  When at least two dozen cars and their engines were in place, Mr. Baer uttered the magic words, “Would you like to start the trains”?

So as not to send the cars flying off the tracks, I carefully held the black control box and slowly moved the small dial switch.  With my eyes never blinking, I cautiously observed as each train’s engine engaged and made a tiny lurch forward.  Their journeys had begun.

Around and around went the trains.  Tiny townsfolk with folded newspapers sat on little benches and watched as the trains rolled past.  Crossing lights dinged and blinked as cars that would never actually move, stopped to let the trains roar past.

As basement lights were methodically dimmed, day faded into night over this handmade masterpiece mosaic of town and landscape.  Window panes of houses, store fronts and old-fashioned street lamps were illuminated in a warm glow.  You could almost sense that the toy people inside these tiny buildings took notice as the trains’ whistles blew and freight cars rumbled along the tracks.  It seemed to take hours for each train to make the circuitous route though in reality it was probably less than a minute.

It was pure magic.

Welcome to the new Millennium

Sadly, in 2002, the original, loved-by-generations Santa Fe Railway model at the museum was dismantled and train parts sold on eBay.  There’s now a new and 50% larger railroad exhibit.  I haven’t ventured over to see it yet, but from the photos and videos I’ve seen, it looks pretty good and up-to-date.  Instead of the Santa Fe Super Chief traveling between Chicago and Los Angeles, it’s now the Empire Builder that transports its “passengers” between Chicago and Seattle.  Freight trains rumble past a new generation of kids and parents, who also line up against the glass to get as close as possible to their beloved trains.

My fascination with trains has stuck with me for over a half-century.  I just booked another cross-country trip on Amtrak for early next year.  In late winter, snow will surely cap the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.  Our train, traveling along the same Super Chief route of old, will gingerly negotiate switchbacks up and down the mountains.  Snowflakes the size of dinner plates will fall, careen and collide against my train window.  You can bet that my glass window will be dotted with similar smudges to that of the museum’s original Pullman-built glass panel that surrounded the model train exhibit.  Some things never change.

Take a ride on the miniature Empire Builder:

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6 thoughts on “For Love of Trains – How It All Began”

  • Hi Sharon,

    No worries. Sorry for the confusion, I meant Havre, Montana. Going west, you’ll get there around 2:30-ish. Here’s their info for Havre, Montana: 330 W 1st St., Havre, MT 59501 (406) 265-6747. Have fun!


  • Sherry,
    Thank you for those tips about Whitefish and letting us know about the Havre Dominoes not making train deliveries anymore. I had previously told my son about the pizza delivery and it was on his list of must-do’s. 🙂 Sorry to bother but I can’t seem to locate a Papa John’s in Havre. Is it in ND or MT? Pizza Hut perhaps? Thanks again.

  • Hi Sharon,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful note back to me. I forgot to mention earier, everything should be in full bloom by the time you and your son begin your trip. Please remember to step off the train in Whitefish, MT. The air smells amazing and the train station is a step back in time. You should have about 20 minutes to walk around. Also, if you’re craving pizza, you can order from Papa John in Havre, ND (Dominoes doesn’t do train deliveries anymore) and they’ll bring your pizza to the train! Have fun, enjoy the ride and thanks again for the walk down memory lane.

  • I have spent countless hours over the years in the same model train area at MSI you did as a child. My now 12 year old still adores this (newer) layout. When he was little, he loved to point to where our Metra train would arrive from the suburbs in the layout if it were real. In two weeks, we will take the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle as depicted in the model layout. This is a dream come true for him! Thank you for all of the wonderful train travel tips.

  • Hi Mark,
    Your memory of former train travel is equally great! I had a chance, at least once that I remember, to ride the Twentieth Century LTD and also the Broadway LTD. back and forth between New York City and Chicago. Even further back was the really old City of Miami. I loved that train with mainly photos that my mom took along the way.

    For a short time we were graced with Pullman Rail Journeys but alas, that’s been relinquished solely to charters now, unless you’ve heard different. Plus, lunch at the Pump Room in-between trains! That’s a riot!

    Thanks for your email and walk down memory lane, too. Happy ‘Rails!


  • Wow; a great memory from the past!

    I lived at that Santa Fe model railroad exhibit at the Museum of Science & Industry. For me, as a committed railfan practically from birth, it was a toss between the Museum train layout and riding the CTA Jackson Park “B” all the way from Howard Street-Evanston thru the State Street subway to the end of its line by the Museum.

    It took me until 1962 to ride the real “Super Chief” when my teacher mum and I were on a Cartan tour of the West; but in the coach section recently added to this train. We did manage to sneak back to the Pleasure Dome Lounge in the Pullman section. However, in 1966, I finally rode the Pullman section of the “Super Chief” in one of their newly refurbished 11 Double Bedroom cars. Every meal was outrageously terrific in the preparation on-board in that small galley of the diner; served with panache by the experienced waiters. The steward in charge of the diner was appropriately attired in morning and evening suits. The Pleasure Dome continued the tradition of crafting individual cocktails served in chilled glassware.

    To have that lifetime experience will always be cherished. The Santa Fe insisted on running a first class operation until the end, when its trains were consumed by Amtrak. Sadly, today domestic air and train first class is but a “race to the bottom,” with little interest in learning from history. Indeed, people look at me with bewilderment when I inform them how natural it was to travel from New York City on the All Pullman “Twentieth Century Limited” of the New York Central; where the “red carpet treatment” was invented when boarding at Grand Central Terminal for a fast 15-hour overnight run to Chicago’s La Salle Street Station. Then a quick taxi over to the Ambassador East to lunch at the Pump Room; taxi back to Dearborn Street Station to catch the equally elegant All Pullman “Super Chief” departing for LA at twilight.

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