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Little train plays big part in putting Union Mills man's hobby on track CENTRAL -- Union Mills * Westminster * Sandymount * Finksburg


Train enthusiasts have traditionally quenched their collecting thirsts by gathering Lionel "O" gauge, Bachman or HO model trains to run and admire.

But for hobbyist Robert Wilderson, his 48-year love affair with trains has changed tracks.

Now, instead of watching the model trains go round and round, the 54-year-old Union Mills resident can ride his trains around a real track right in his own backyard.

Mr. Wilderson is the proud owner of an amusement park train, and his engine and three passenger cars are most definitely the pride of his collection in terms of size.

"I still have a certain amount of HO trains, but this [the amusement park train] is different. It allows me to get out there and actually work on something," Mr. Wilderson said. "I can tune it up, make it run and then get in and go for a ride."

Stretched out over nearly 2 acres, about 1,200 pieces of track form an oval path for the yellow and green train, which can carry as many as 30 passengers.

Leading the three open passenger cars is a gasoline-powered engine modeled after the F7 General Motors diesel locomotive.

"The engine originally came out of an amusement park in Chicago," Mr. Wilderson said. "I located it in 1981, and my one son and I rebuilt the motor and painted it. It looks just like the real thing."

Mr. Wilderson, whose father got him started collecting model trains at the age of 6, said his interest in the larger trains was piqued about 15 years ago while he was on a trip to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"A friend of mine and I went down to Harpers Ferry, and there was a man there who had an amusement park train," Mr. Wilderson recalled. "I got interested in them, and I thought that was something that I wanted for myself."

After the trip, he began his search for amusement park trains and track.

His first acquisition came about as a result of many phone calls and inquiries to people familiar with amusement park trains.

"Most of these trains were built in the early 1950s, so they are hard to find, but we searched around and finally, in the late 1970s, we found our three passenger cars down in Southern Maryland," Mr. Wilderson said. "We worked on them doing body work and putting on brake shoes, and then we bought some track from the man in Harpers Ferry."

Mr. Wilderson, who was a mechanic and tow truck driver for years, said working on his larger train has been a challenge.

"We have had the train running for eight years, and we are still at it," he said. "It's hard trying to find parts. We have bought used parts from people all over the country to make it run. We have probably spent between $8,000 and $9,000 on this train so far."

In many respects, the backyard train has served as more than a hobby to Mr. Wilderson over the past few years.

As a result of knee-replacement surgery, he has been unemployed since November 1990.

But working on the train and his studies at Catonsville Community College have kept him busy and motivated.

"The train gives me my mechanical outlet, and I am taking courses in computer-aided drafting and computer graphics full time in the evenings," Mr. Wilderson said. "I really enjoy computers and drafting. When I finish school, I would like to start my own business."

For now, the father of three grown children and grandfather of five will continue to enjoy the simple pleasures that only his amusement park train can give.

"I love to see the smiles on my grandkids' faces when they ride this train," he said. "Besides, it looks a little silly to ride around by yourself when you get to be my age."

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