A Love for Locomotives

South Shore locals form lifelong community connections powered by a passion for model trains.

by Scott Kearnan | Photography by Jack Foley

Every day, the familiar purple and silver trains of the MBTA commuter rail chug toward West Hingham station. Commuters wait for the large metal coaches to arrive before climbing aboard for rides to and from Boston.

Across the street from the West Hingham platform, a quiet lane leads to a very different train station—the South Shore Model Railway. Inside a former navy ammunitions facility, much smaller trains—no more than a few inches tall—snake their way through miniature New England villages. Each handmade car is a replica of a real model from the heyday of train travel, and the imaginative settings are inspired by the bucolic beauty of our region: forests, mountains, bridge tunnels and tiny midcentury gas stations and mom-and-pop soda fountains.

Leaning over these miniaturized scenes are the members of the South Shore Model Railway Club, a group of men brought together by a common enthusiasm for trains, certainly, but also community and the opportunity to build something special with their own two hands.

“Model trains are much more of an adult hobby now,” explains John Sheridan, a New Bedford resident and 28-year member of the club. “People get interested as kids, but come back to it as adults when they have the time and money for the hobby.”

On the day I visit, the club is hosting an open house for the public. There are typically four such events per year,  so the building is filled with most of its 65 members who hail from throughout the South Shore. Many of them share a similar story as Sheridan’s: They first discovered model railways as a child, through gifts of toy trains and whatnot, and either kept up with the hobby or, just as frequently, lost interest for awhile and returned to it many years later with renewed passion.

The members are middle-aged, a few younger ones are in their 30s, but they come from all walks of life. Some have worked in transportation professionally: former employees of Amtrak, the MBTA and the Providence and Worcester Railroad. Others have talents in totally different areas. But they all bring their respective skills to the table—or, as the village-topped pine and plywood platforms are called, the “benchwork.”

“What’s great about this hobby is that there’s so much to it,” says Jack Foley, the club’s president and a

member for 25 years. “There’s the artistic side, the woodworking side, the electrical engineering side—the list goes on.”

The South Shore Railway Club, one of the oldest clubs of its kind in the country, was founded in Quincy in 1938 by a group of five and, aside from dormancy during WWII, has been active ever since. It has moved several times, but landed in its current space in Bare Cove Park in 1998. At the time, the circa 1917 warehouse was dilapidated and without any utilities. Members sunk thousands of dollars and countless grunt work into rehabbing the space, installing electricity, septic systems, a 15-ton HVAC unit for model-friendly climate control and more.

And then, of course, there are the layouts of trains and terrains that take up about half the 6,300-square feet reserved for models. (Plans are in progress to build benchwork for the rest of the space soon.) About 2,000 train cars are registered to run on the tracks (like real trains, they must meet certain specifications), some of them owned by individual members and others by the club collectively. This imaginary railroad system is dubbed the East Coast Line, and the tracks are imaginatively scaled-down spins on some real regional rails.

Even the club itself is a model of train business. Elected and appointed members inhabit different roles—like chief engineer, layout design chairman and scenery chairman—to make important decisions.

And the East Coast Line runs like a real railway: On the day of the open house, a few club members cluster behind a glass partition in a second-floor control room, observing the models as they chug along. Paul Cutler III, a second-generation member who joined 24 years ago at age 18, also watches the action unfold as a series of blinking lights on a series of computer screens. This is called CTC, or centralized traffic control. He’s using JMRI, a software program designed for model railroad enthusiasts, to make sure all the trains (up to 14, depending on the day) are moving on the proper routes and schedules. With the click of a mouse, he can throw one of the 300-plus switches that will alter directions below.

“It’s like a 3D board game where the rules are reality,” says Cutler.

Unlike the nearby commuter rail, these trains run almost nonstop and the club building is almost always occupied. It’s a hangout for members from morning to midnight. The club hosts tours for everyone from Boy Scouts to senior citizen groups, and shares information on the model railway hobby and real train history. But most of all, the club is a place where members form lifelong community connections—links powered by passion.

Full steam ahead, boys.

South Shore Model Railway Club and Museum
Bare Cove Park – Building 51
19 Fort Hill St., Hingham
781-740-2000

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