by Erik Gunn, photos by Carl Corey The clock says 1:45 a.m. In the Ottawa freight yard, locomotive engineer Bob Zoeller backs the hulking, black Pennsylvania Railroad engine No. 8569 toward his five-car, unscheduled local freight train. It will be a short run tonight, through the grain-belt town of Altoona and on to Belle Plain, […]

by Erik Gunn, photos by Carl Corey

The clock says 1:45 a.m. In the Ottawa freight yard, locomotive engineer Bob Zoeller backs the hulking, black Pennsylvania Railroad engine No. 8569 toward his five-car, unscheduled local freight train. It will be a short run tonight, through the grain-belt town of Altoona and on to Belle Plain, then back home at dawn.

Locomotive horns whine. Bells clang. The throaty chuffing of diesel engines fills the night air, and a walkie-talkie’s chirp pierces the cacophony like some robot bird as Ottawa yardmaster Dave Karkoski talks to the dispatcher on duty to clear Zoeller’s train.

Zoeller sighs. “I’m not a scheduled train and I’m out here on a single track.” Without a clearance, he risks a head-on collision with the many big freights that will barrel through this line in the coming hours.

At last it comes. “You’ve got clearance,” Karkoski shouts to Zoeller. A thought occurs to him: “You got a timetable?”

“That would be nice,” says Zoeller, a half-smile slipping across his face. “It would be crucial,” Karkoski shoots back.

Timetable in hand, Zoeller engages the throttle. His engine picks up speed coming out of the railroad yard. Soon the city is behind him, the train groaning around a sweeping curve in the track. He passes a farm on the outskirts of Altoona. Ahead are towering grain elevators, his first drop-off and pick-up point.

But the timetable says a through freight is due. Zoeller has to ease the train into a siding to wait. Worse, to avoid blocking traffic on streets that cross the tracks, he must cut the train in two to leave the street clear.

So Zoeller reaches across three other tracks, grasps the boxcars like some god of railroad land, lifts them and gives a gentle twist to separate them. At times like this, it’s a tad easier running model trains than the real ones they are simulating.

It’s Saturday night in the basement of the old Robert Hall retail store behind a Greek restaurant on the city’s South Side, operating night for what is officially known as the North American Prototype Modelers HO-scale model railroad club.

That clock? It might say1:45 a.m., but it’s running at twice the real speed: lapping two hours for every hour of real time – one of the conventions the club uses to simulate the everyday railroad experience. In the real world, it’s just after 8 p.m.

Founded in the late 1970s, the NAPM is possibly the largest model railroad club in the metro area, with some 70 members. Tonight’s meeting will last some three and a half hours, as long as a Bruce Springsteen concert. And baby, these guys were born to run. Trains anyway.

They’re part of a world of obsessive hobbyists who live to build and run model railroads and to research the history and practices of trains. And they pursue their pastime in Milwaukee, a town that is to model railroading what Broadway is to musicals, Omaha to steaks, Hollywood to movies.

Model railroading wasn’t invented here, but it’s as much a part of this city’s fabric as beer, brats, motorcycles and machine tools. Rich in real railroad history, this city helped nurture what was once a tinkerer’s do-it-yourself craft into an organized hobby with an industry to support it. Milwaukee is home for the biggest model railroading magazine and one of the largest distributors of model railroad products. Together, their founders launched the National Model Railroad Association 75 years ago. And just as Harley-Davidson draws bikers here for anniversary homecomings, this July, upward of a thousand or more of the NMRA’s 19,000-plus members are descending on Milwaukee for an anniversary convention.

What is it about trains?
George Edward thinks he knows: “They’re big, smelly, they make noise, they’re powerful, there’s things to watch on them…” Edward grew up in Denver loving trains, large and small, and moved to Milwaukee in 1969 with his wife. He soon joined the Model Railroad Club of Milwaukee, the city’s oldest such club that’s still active. Edward has held about every club office, including president; currently, he’s secretary and unofficial archivist, historian and cheerleader.

The club’s layout, the Milwaukee Union Terminal Railroad, is an oddity, tucked away under railroad tracks on East National Avenue inside the old, abandoned Allis Station – a building stuffed into a bridge abutment. No passengers have used it since the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad – The Milwaukee Road – abandoned it well before World War II.

Today, Amtrak and freight trains still cross the bridge with a heavy rumble that reverberates in the clubhouse, where O-scale trains built to just 1/48th of actual size chug around huge loops of track through simulated cityscapes and plaster rural hills.

For 73 years, Allis Station has been home to the Model Railroad Club of Milwaukee. The current layout was built in the 1950s; the first was created in 1937. “It is a living museum,” says Edward.

The model railroad sprawls over two rooms and then some. Edward shows off the tracks that carry trains through the bathroom. “Not everybody has a track in their bathroom!” he chuckles.

The layout has a city scene where a stone retaining wall is simulated using linoleum tile with a pebble pattern. A rural scene evokes the striated bluffs of the Wisconsin Dells. A miniature billboard alongside trolley tracks hints at the club’s age: “Carl Zeidler for Mayor.” (Zeidler was elected in 1940.)

Kneepads would seem essential. You can reach some parts of the train scenes only by crawling on pieces of old, faded carpet until you get to openings that let you pop up your head and torso, like some giant prairie dog, to view the action.

The club uses the building in return for simply paying utilities and property taxes. The railroad still owns the building but doesn’t bother with maintenance, so that’s improvised. A patched-together network of troughs and hoses – daffily Rube Goldberg – diverts water dripping from the leaky tin ceiling away from the train tables and into a floor drain. A tarp lies ready for full protection. The station’s former ticket office, now the club’s meeting room, is heated with a potbelly stove from an old caboose and fueled with scrap lumber.

Ten men started all this in the depths of the Great Depression, two of them with entrepreneurial instincts that would transform model railroading.


William K. Walthers got his first model train, a wind-up toy, in 1899, a Christmas present when he was 7 years old. Walthers grew up to be an electrical engineer. In the 1920s, he acquired Findex, a manufacturer of a file indexing system, but during the Depression, it went bankrupt.

“So he started doing his passion,” says his great-granddaughter, Stacey Walthers Naffah. “He started offering tips to model railroaders, he developed some products, and over time, he started to get a customer base. It just grew out of his love for model railroading.”

The hobby then was in its infancy, an offshoot of the toy trains made by companies like Lionel. Lionel’s 1/48th-size O-scale trains were bulky, unrealistic in looks or proportions. A growing group of enthusiasts – adults and teens, rather than children – wanted more accurately scaled models that looked and performed not like toys, but realistic replicas.

In May 1932, a model-making magazine carried an ad from W.K. Walthers for a 24-page catalog of rails, electrical equipment and other supplies to “improve your toy railroad.” In Depression terms, he had a winner. “In his first year he made about $500,” says Naffah.

Nine months later, in February 1933, Walthers was among the men gathered in a Wauwatosa home to start the Model Railroad Club of Milwaukee. Also there that evening: a printer named Albert C. Kalmbach and his lifelong friend Frank Zeidler, future mayor (1948-1960) of Milwaukee.

A Kalmbach Publishing promotional video tells the story of 5-year-old Al Kalmbach, back in 1915, drawing a picture of a railroad locomotive for a school assignment with such fidelity, he was sent to the principal’s office, his parents falsely accused of doing the work for him. Jim King, a Green Bay native who starting working for Kalmbach in the 1950s, says the publisher would reminisce about building a model railroad in the attic of Frank Zeidler’s home when the two were teens.

But Kalmbach was even more passionate about printing: He bought his first printing press when just 12 years old and started a neighborhood paper, the Milwaukee Sun. At 23, after graduating from Marquette University, he started his own company printing church newsletters. Amid the Depression, business was slow.

One year later, Kalmbach decided to start something new: a magazine for train hobbyists like himself. “He figured he might as well do something he enjoyed if he wasn’t going to make any money anyway,” says Andy Sperandeo, executive editor of what is now Model Railroader.

Kalmbach’s banker turned down his loan request; friends called him crazy. The first 12-page issue looked more like a newsletter and sold 272 copies at 10 cents apiece (annual subscriptions were $1). Kalmbach rode a streetcar to the post office to mail it. In three years, though, the magazine turned a profit; in seven, he paid back his private lenders.

Walthers was one of Kalmbach’s first advertisers in The Model Railroader(Thewas later dropped from the name). In Kalmbach’s opening editorial, he credited the Model Railroad Club of Milwaukee, which “helped with ideas and material and encouragement.” On the next page he urged the adoption of national standards for the hobby. Toward that end, Kalmbach, Walthers and Zeidler teamed up again in 1935, launching the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA).

RELATED  Your Milwaukee Summer Bucket List

Through the ’30s, O-scale equipment dominated the hobby. Commercial models existed, but many preferred to “scratch-build” their own cars, buildings and even locomotives. Then kits that model-makers could assemble at home became part of the product lines of Walthers and other companies. Next came new, smaller HO-scale models and kits: at 1/87th actual size, a little larger than half-O-scale, but with more detail, more realistic and less toy-like.

With the end of World War II, pent-up consumer demand for hobbies like model railroading exploded. MR’s circulation mushroomed from 20,000 in 1945 to 100,000 by 1950. The newer HO-scale models – and build-your-own kits in that scale – soared in popularity and came to dominate the marketplace.

The market’s shift to HO blindsided Walthers at first. He had banked on expanding his O-scale offerings, and the company struggled. But Walthers got a reprieve when a rival kit manufacturer introduced “undecorated” railroad cars and locomotives – and unwittingly created a boom market for Walthers decals.

Since then, the hobby has continued to evolve. In the early 1960s came 1/160th-size N-scale trains, roughly half the size of HO and increasingly popular as well. Toy trains from Lionel and others have made a comeback, as have larger scales for outdoor garden railroads; Kalmbach has launched niche magazines in both of those segments. The Milwaukee-based publisher moved out to Waukesha two decades ago and has continued to expand, adding a wide range of other hobby-related magazines.

Model Railroader Editor Neil Besougloff, a New Jersey native, was working as a newspaperman in Florida (and building an O-scale train layout in his spare time) when Kalmbach hired him in the 1990s. “I told people, ‘I’m getting a job that is my hobby, so either this is going to be the best thing in the world, or I will have ruined my career and hobby at the same time,” Besougloff says. “Fortunately that didn’t happen.”

An industry survey several years ago calculated there were more than a quarter-million serious model railroading enthusiasts nationally.

“The hobby is still strong,” says Naffah, who came back to Milwaukee to become manager of consumer marketing and the first fourth-generation family member to join the firm. Wm. K Walthers Inc. is now based on West Florist Avenue near Silver Spring. The company has expanded product lines, both for equipment it manufactures (using mainly offshore factories) and the hundreds of other suppliers whose products it distributes. Its annual catalogs cover nearly every model railroading scale; the HO book alone runs more than 1,000 pages.

What is it about model trains?
Maybe it’s the nostalgia: re-creating a past that never quite was. Maybe it’s sheer geeky pride: mastering arcane skills like designing and building the wooden benchwork that supports a layout, or wiring a model railroad so you can run several trains at once (something that new, expensive technology has made a lot easier to do).

Maybe it comes from the sense of control. The first big surge in model railroading came during the Depression. “When things are in unrest, you tend to gravitate to things that make you feel good, that make you feel more in control,” Naffah theorizes. Model railroaders, she adds, have total control over the world they create.

Model railroading offers a tasting menu of virtually every other craft or interest: There’s construction and woodwork. Craftsmanship and design. Art and sculpture. Engineering and electronics. History and creative writing. Hobbyists can construct an entire world. Yet they can also delve into highly specialized crafts and the most idiosyncratic specialties.

Take trees. West Allis resident Jim Lorbiecki, who has been building a logging industry layout since the early 1970s, hand-builds tall northwestern evergreens using dowels and the tiny leaves of weeds – it can take him up to eight hours for just one tree. Milwaukee resident LaRoye Chisley builds background trees for his Colorado-based layout with wire trunks and sisal twine branches painted green. Milwaukeean Wendy Mollenhauer – one of the few women in the hobby – makes N-scale deciduous trees by harvesting thistles with an oval seedball at the top, dipping them in glue and then in different shades of ground foam to evoke fall colors.

“If somebody’s building a layout, their journey may take much of their adult life,” Besougloff says.

As you question model railroaders, you begin to sense it isn’t just a hobby, but almost a longing – even a compulsion. “We have lives and other interests,” more than one model railroader will carefully note. Yet they also poke fun at “our idiosyncrasies and our phobias,” as a hobbyist puts it. One declined to be interviewed; he wasn’t willing to be publicly identified as “playing with trains” at his age.

It would be easy to stereotype them all as railroad nerds, but among their number is flashy rock singer Rod Stewart. MR published a cover story on Stewart’s model railroad, with towering urban skyscrapers he’s built in his hotel room during concert tours.

There’s more than one way to run a model railroad. Some hobbyists just build scenery and let the trains run in circles. For others, the end goal is operation:creating printed schedules for the model railroad and handwritten train orders, and assigning roles to participants from dispatcher to engineer to yard boss.

“It’s making the model railroad work like the real thing,” says MR’s Sperandeo. “Kind of role-playing. One of my friends says it’s an elaborate board game – and you have to build the board first.”

For some, it looks an awful lot like their real work. Craig Willett, 61, is a locomotive engineer for Amtrak. But he also participates in operating sessions of the HO-scale North American Prototype Modelers group. Why? “It’s kind of like therapy,” Willett says. “Things run the way you want ’em to run, instead of someone else. And if something derails here, you just pick it up and put it back on the track. You’re not going to kill anybody, maim anybody. Nobody’s going to get fired.”

John Tews, 67, owns a 950-square-foot HO layout at his Sussex home patterned after ore-hauling railroads in northwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota in the 1970s. “It takes a crew of about 10 to 12 to operate it,” says Tews. The person assigned as dispatcher sits at a 7-foot-long control panel – and can’t even see the train from there. “It’s sort of like an airline traffic controller.”

Tews designed a train signaling system that is run by a computer program he wrote. The computer code runs to 128 pages.

His layout seeks to create the atmosphere of real railroads in a particular part of the country, but it’s still “freelance” – a fictionalized model. Others embrace realism.

In his Wauwatosa basement, Jim Kelly, 70, a retired Model Railroader managing editor, is building an N-scale layout centered on a replica of the Tehachapi Loop – an iconic stretch of the Southern Pacific railroad in California, where the track loops over itself amid rolling hills.

Kelly first set eyes on Tehachapi in the late 1970s. It was love at first sight. “I’ve been back to the loop and its environs eight or nine times,” he says. “I’ve tramped all around and made sketches and notes about the topography.” U.S. topographical books on the Tehachapi area have helped, too. In recent years he’s gotten new aids: photos from the Internet, from spy satellites, from Google Earth.

Even so, he’s had to compromise to bring the scene down to a workable size. If built to full N-scale proportions, “it would be a circle 7 feet in diameter,” he explains. “Mine is 3 feet in diameter.”

There’s no limit to the quest for precision. Keith Kohlmann, 45, a tech-ed teacher in the Racine schools, is part of a group of people building – to exact scale – scenes from the 1930s to 1950s along the old Milwaukee Road from Chicago to New Lisbon, Wis., running through Racine and Kenosha counties into Milwaukee. They’re doing it in segments: 5-foot-long, N-scale modules built to precise standards so they can be hooked together at train shows and exhibitions.

Kohlmann has constructed modules that replicate an industrial scene off Oklahoma Avenue, where the old Heil Co. factory stood, and the old passenger station in Sturtevant, west of Racine: “My grandfather used to ride his Harley over there to watch the Hiawatha go through at 100 miles an hour.”

Another of his modules is set in Berryville in rural Kenosha County, once the site of a farm, an onion warehouse and a side track for loading refrigerator cars with freshly harvested cabbage. The scene is rooted in family memories. “My uncle grew up in the house on that farm,” Kohlmann says.

Kohlmann made slides from old aerial photos of the spot, then projected the image onto a board to trace the outlines of the area he was modeling. To get the field just right, he drove to a real Kenosha cabbage field and took photos of the harvest. He also dug up some dirt and took it to a paint store, where he asked the astonished clerk to match the color. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve been asked to cover up dirt. But never for paint that looked like dirt.’ ”

On the real farm, Kohlmann had measured the distance between cabbage rows. He took those measurements and his N-scale ruler to a Goodwill store, hoping to find an old corduroy garment that could replicate the furrows of earth. Corduroy ridges were too close, but he found an old disco shirt with ridges a little farther apart. “It was the perfect distance.”

RELATED  Can We Fight Milwaukee's Gun Violence Epidemic by Treating it Like a Public Health Crisis?

Now Kohlmann is working on a module twice as big – a replica of the famed Chicago and North Western Railroad station that once stood at the east end of Wisconsin Avenue.

Some model railroaders develop cottage industries – creating and selling kits for buildings or rolling stock, or custom-building equipment or even whole layouts for customers. Scattered about the Greendale basement of model railroader George Nefstead is a collection of buildings he’s creating for others from wood using his laser cutting machine.

South Side resident John Dornfeld supplies plastic and wood kits and custom models for customers. He also heads a team of model builders assembling an N-scale replica of the 18 businesses and 22 residences in the railroad village of Zachow, Wis., which will be displayed by the Shawano Area Community Foundation.

Then there is the extraordinary layout of Marcel Trautwein; painstakingly detailed, yet completely fanciful. A Swiss native whose family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in this area when he was 7, Trautwein has built in his Wind Lake basement a breathtaking railroad straddling “Great Canyon.” Sheer mountains descend to a floor painted to mimic a river and dividing the scene into two halves. To the right is a crowded community of European-style buildings nestled amid rocky clefts; to the left, an elaborate Western setting with forests, mines and a sprawling sawmill. “I like creating things,” he says. “Anything you want, I can build.”

He says it as simple fact – and the mountains and circling trains in his basement prove it. Above, a painted blue-sky backdrop curves seamlessly to the ceiling; no sharp corners break the illusion.

Trautwein has crafted a preposterously compelling story to explain the seeming split personality of his HO railroad. On the left half are the mines and timber that generated the wealth of the European settlers and their descendants living in this fictional pocket of the Pacific Northwest; on the right half, they have built a tourist magnet – Little Switzerland – that draws hundreds of visitors (by train, of course) daily to its quaint architecture and amenities. A trolley, a tram, cable cars and even a mountainside funicular railway provide local transportation.

No detail is too small. Tunnels have sculpted rockwork interiors and his railroad cars are lighted inside. “So I can see the light bouncing off the granite rock as they come through,” he explains. Under the archway of one of the nearly two dozen bridges, a welder repairs a broken-down truck; a tiny flickering light bulb simulates the welder’s arc.

And no detail is too large. Midway through a visit, Trautwein flips some switches. The room darkens, thunder rumbles and lightning flashes across sky. When the storm passes, hidden lights project a rainbow over the mountains. Small wonder Trautwein calls his railroad “The Grand D’Elusion.”

What is it about Milwaukee?
Certainly other places were home to model train manufacturers, including New York, Baltimore, New Jersey. One of the first sizeable scale model railroads to get national attention was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. It would be a wild overstatement to say that without Milwaukee, the hobby wouldn’t exist.

Yet the interaction of Kalmbach’s magazine and Walthers’ model train company was crucial. “It made Milwaukee a nucleus of the hobby, particularly in its formative years,” says Tony Koester, a New Jersey writer who in the 1970s edited Model Railroader’s principal competitor. Koester now serves as a contributing editor and columnist for MRand a board member of the NMRA, and is considered a leading exponent of the hobby.

Without Model Railroader, Koester says, “yeah, the hobby would have grown. But Al Kalmbach was a very ethical individual. He stood strongly on principles that set the tone for the hobby in general: That it was a good family thing, a good adult hobby. And we came to associate Milwaukee with that.”

An Indiana native, Koester met both Walthers and Kalmbach when he was a student at Purdue University in the early 1960s and active with a campus model railroad club. “Bill Walthers was another one of these individuals that had the interest of the hobby at heart,” he continues.

The hobby’s growth here may owe something to Milwaukee’s status as a center of real-life railroading. The Milwaukee Road was based in Chicago, but had its primary repair shops in Milwaukee – enhancing its cultural and economic presence here.

It also built a local fan base. The railroad, along with the Milwaukee Road Historical Society, arranged for the Milwaukee Public Library to house the railroad’s archives, 1,000 boxes in all, including 20,000 photographs. “We get hundreds of letters and e-mails every year asking for the data,” says Virginia Schwartz, the library’s coordinator of humanities and archives – whose department just happens to be named after Frank Zeidler. “We also help the manufacturers of model trains, because they want accuracy. They come to us for all the details.”

Milwaukee also produces TV’s only program with twin themes of railroading and model railroading, Milwaukee Public Television’s “Tracks Ahead.” Launched in 1990, “Tracks Ahead” is underwritten by Kalmbach and Walthers.

Then there’s Trainfest – the annual two-day model railroad show held at the Wisconsin Expo Center at State Fair Park in early November. Tews, Trainfest’s executive director, says about 22,000 people attend it, making it one of the largest such programs in the country.

“I think it has something to do with the nature of Milwaukee as an engineering and manufacturing center,” says Jim Kelly. “There’s a lot of invention that went on here, a lot of people have a kind of tinkerer’s mentality.”

Milwaukee’s smaller-city ethos may have also played a role in shaping the hobby’s clubby culture nationally. “Milwaukee is big enough to count, but it’s not an intimidating city. It’s got a lot of that German, oompah-band friendliness,” Koester says.

When MRturned 75 last year, it celebrated with a Milwaukee-themed layout. Every year, the magazine publishes a series of step-by-step railroad construction projects. For 2009, staff put together a 4-by-12-foot depiction of the Beer Line, set in the postwar heyday of the Milwaukee breweries it served.

In some ways, the future of the hobby looks bright. There’s never been a more varied supply of products available. Technological advances have made it easier than ever to operate many trains on a single layout. Scenery products and supplies for track and buildings abound. And with low-cost manufacturing in China, it is easier than ever for companies to have short production runs so they can customize model railroad locomotives and rolling stock to accurately represent the differences from one real railroad to the next.

Yet some longtime hobbyists grouse that more expensive, and unchallenging, “ready-to-run” models are elbowing out the older kits – and that younger generations are less patient today for the hobby. Railroads, meanwhile, are no longer part of the cultural and economic fabric as they were when the hobby was growing in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Inside the NMRA, a debate simmers about whether the organization should target teenagers or go after retiring baby boomers with money to spend – and thereby, perhaps, engage their grandchildren as well.

Various companies in the industry, led by Kalmbach and Walthers, have teamed up to promote model railroading as “The World’s Greatest Hobby,” with shows all over the country. And Kalmbach has tapped one if its youngest staffers to help it explore the new world of Web multimedia and video.

Soft-spoken, clean-cut and anything but anchorman-slick, associate editor Cody Grivno, 30, hosts a weekly video segment on the MR website, giving quick descriptions of new products, dispensing modeling tips (such as how to put scale ballast – that’s the gravel in which railroad tracks rest – on your layout without jamming up the switches), and bantering with readers who e-mail questions.

Grivno learned the hobby from his grandfather and his father, who gave him his old HO models when Grivno was a child. Ironically, his father and grandfather ran an auto body repair shop, but Grivno says that helped foster his interests in painting and detailing model railroad scenery and equipment as realistically as possible. “Dad and grandpa one time had to fix something for the Burlington Northern Railroad,” Grivno recalls with a fond grin.

He and his brother, five years older, gave up separate bedrooms in their family home so they could use one room for a train layout. As Grivno was finishing college with a journalism major, his brother tipped him off to an MR help-wanted ad. He applied and got it. “He’s been wide-eyed since the first day he came in,” says Kalmbach President Gerald Boettcher.

Grivno doesn’t dispute that. “This is my dream job,” he says.

“He’s become the face of Model Railroader,” says Editor Besougloff. “We didn’t pick him just because of his age. But it shows that everybody’s not just an old fart.”

Besougloff has perused the archives of his magazine and listened to old recordings of interviews with one of his longtime predecessors, Linn Westcott. What he learned surprised him. “Nobody ever thought things were going to be going 75 years later,” he says. “Linn Westcott said that in the early 1960s, ‘We thought slot cars would be the death of model railroading. We were just counting the days, and it didn’t happen.’ ”

It still hasn’t. And 25 years from now, who knows? Maybe Cody Grivno will have ascended to editor, planning the centennial of the leading model railroad magazine in America.

Milwaukee Magazine contributing editor Erik Gunn, a model railroading wannabe since high school, may get around to building one now. Write to him at