Historic Ellicott City on track for train event at Mount Ida

For The Baltimore Sun
Scale model trains coming to Ellicott City for railroading anniversary.

Railroad hobbyists say that when spectators see a detailed, large-scale replica of a locomotive in motion, they can get a thrill similar to watching an actual train chugging along the tracks.

To mark the 186th anniversary of railroading in America, Historic Ellicott City Inc. will offer the public a taste of that experience May 21.

Five models — including a boxcar and a caboose — that are one-eighth the size of their prototypes and a sixth that is one-third the size of the original will be on display at historic Mount Ida.

"There are a lot of train enthusiasts who really enjoy seeing these [operable] model trains," said Pat Frederick, who serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit that works to preserve buildings of historical significance throughout Howard County. "This is a unique opportunity."

The oldest surviving B&O Railroad station in the country is located in historic Ellicott City — an 1830 structure that Historic Ellicott City saved in 1976 and managed until B&O took the reins 30 years later.

Frederick said members of her group are betting train lovers throughout the area will travel to Howard County to attend the event and combine it with a stop at the Main Street railroad museum. A social media page has collected more than 70,000 "likes," and more than 1,000 people have indicated an interest in attending, she said.

Tours of Mount Ida — a mansion built in 1828 for William Ellicott, grandson of town founder Andrew Ellicott — will be available, as will a video highlighting the role Ellicott City played in railroading in the United States. The B&O Historical Society and Museum and the Western Maryland Historical Society will have displays and items for sale inside the mansion.

Five of the train pieces on exhibit will be 1.5-inch scale models, meaning they are built on a scale of 1.5 inches per foot. By contrast, trains used in holiday train gardens are often HO scale, which is 1:87.

A sixth model, a 3¾-inch scale Shay locomotive, will be the only one operating at the event, providing a real sense of what it was like to see the steam-powered prototype in operation in its heyday.

The trains are being supplied by the New Windsor 1.5" Scale Group, comprised of six hobbyists who meet informally in Carroll County.

The club's members also belong to the Chesapeake and Allegheny Steam Preservation Society, a 140-member group that offers free train rides on 3,200 feet of track in Leakin Park on the second Sunday of the month, from April through November.

Glenn Sharpe, a club member from New Windsor and retired mechanic, said these models cost between $5,000 and $10,000 used — though custom-made steam locomotives can fetch up to $250,000 — and are exact replicas down to the last detail.

Sharpe will bring a 1.5-inch scale SD35 locomotive that he described as a replica of one built by General Motors Electromotive Division in the 1960s when steam locomotives were being phased out.

"The SD35, which stands for Severe Duty, had a lot of horsepower and extra wheels for traction in order to haul heavy freight trains," he said of the model he built himself.

Sharpe will also display another 1.5-inch scale locomotive he restored and had originally been built by Railroad Supply Corp. of Burbank, Calif., which was known in decades past for building miniature trains for film and TV, he said.

Models of a Western Maryland Railway caboose, B&O Railroad wagon-top boxcar and a wrecking crane used to clean up train wrecks will also be exhibited.

Though most of these model train pieces can be ridden, rides will not be available at the event due to insurance liability, he said.

The Shay locomotive — which will be operated by owner John Frederick, Pat Frederick's browth and a resident of Forest Hill in Harford County. He'll operate the scale model via a hand held control box as he sits on a car behind the engine – which will travel on 100 feet of specially assembled track.

Named for inventor Ephraim Shay, it is a replica of one used by the Baltimore, Carroll and Frederick Railroad, the precursor to the Western Maryland Railway, Sharpe said.

"The Shay was a slow-but-powerful logging locomotive and could take sharp curves on uneven track, climbing up steep grades to get timber out of the hills," he said.

Displays of these larger model trains might be harder to come by in the future as the popularity of the hobby diminishes, Sharpe said.

"Young people in our club are interested in trains, but there aren't any shop classes in schools any more where they can learn the skills needed to build and work on these models.

"We are shifting to the next generation and the next big thing, which is 3D printers," he said. "They will be replacing machinists and pattern-makers, who are becoming a dying breed."

Joan Becker, president of Historic Ellicott City Inc., said the group hopes to make the train display an annual event.

Long known for its annual decorator show house — which will open in September at Avoca, an early 19th century stone manor house located off Montgomery Road in Ellicott City — the group has decided to add more frequent fundraising events that require less preparation and planning time, Becker said, noting it takes eight or nine months to get a show house ready.

"We're very excited about this new event," Becker said. "It's going to be really special."

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If you go

Historic Ellicott City Inc. will hold its Model Train Display from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 21, rain or shine, at Mount Ida, 3691 Sarahs Lane, Ellicott City. Cash-only admission tickets will be sold on the day of the event: adults, $5; children under 12, free. Engineers' hats will be available for sale. Parking is in the adjacent municipal lot. Information: historicec.com.

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