Feeling a little bit like Gulliver the other day, I traveled past towering mountains, steep craggy cliffs, deep canyons, perilous gorges, countless lakes, broad rivers and half a million trees.
I saw long winding country roads, slick highways and 400 bridges. I peered into 700 tunnels and saw awesome timber trestles reaching high into the sky, their framework symmetrical and lace-like in design.
What I was seeing was the colossal model train setup of Bruce Williams of Three Bridges, N.J. It is so large that he has added on to his basement three times; the fourth part is the size of the second and third additions combined. The entire space measures 270 feet by 45 feet.
"I must have a quarter million dollars invested," Williams said, proudly showing a visitor what he has wrought. "I built it all, over 13,000 feet of track. The mountains are 12 feet high. I guess I used about 50,000 pounds of plaster. I put in a lot of man-hours."
His HO gauge layout features about 50 locomotives and 500 freight cars. There are 19 miniature railroad yards, the largest with space for 2,000 more cars. Much of the scene is industrial -- sort of the Great Northeast in replica.
Williams has even formed a club of model railroad enthusiasts with a limited membership of 25. They meet twice a month. There are two requirements for membership: liking model trains and not missing more than two meetings a year. Dues are $1 a meeting to help pay for running the railroad. Williams figures the setup triples his electricity bill. He explained why he had settled on a membership of 25: "Our dining room will only hold 25 for our coffee breaks. We run only two wings of the railroad during meeting nights. If we ran the whole thing it would take 55 people to do it right."
Williams' fascination with model railroading did not begin with a childhood longing. His first love was jazz. He taught himself the accordian before switching to jazz organ. Born in Egg Harbor, N.J., near Atlantic City, he became a professional musician after briefly attending college. He still plays professionally part time.
When he started his model railroad nine years ago, he had no idea what it would lead to. "I just did it in a large way," he said matter-of-factly. Then 4 1/2 years ago he opened a model shop called "The Little Hobbies Store," next to a real railroad siding at Turntable Junction in Flemington, N.J. The store is in a small, warm, cluttered little bungalow which was once someone's home.
"Building the model railroad came to me and it just sort of grew and is still growing and it should take me about 25 years before my plans are completed," he said, pausing between customers. On completion, he estimates, for example, that he will have set up between 20,000 and 30,000 little telephone poles.
According to Model Railroad magazine, there are 220,000 active model railroaders in the country. Most layouts built by individuals are about 10 by 15 feet, and extensive layouts are usually constructed by large railroad clubs, according to an editor with the magazine. A male-oriented hobby, model railroading often begins to take hold between the ages of 30 and 40 and grows from there. But rarely do hobbyists build layouts as extensive as Williams'.
The black-bearded Williams, who was wearing an engineer's cap when interviewed, runs his hobby shop with his wife, Jean. Their friendliness comes through immediately. They know many of the customers by their first names and introduce them to strangers and to one another. The store is like a living room. There is hot soup, coffee, tea, cheese and crackers and cookies which Williams offers to shoppers.
His home is about five miles away, down a long dirt country road. The wooden structures that cover his additional basements, which rise a few feet above the ground, could be an eyesore to a fastidious neighbor -- but there are no neighbors around to complain.
"Maybe it has destroyed the value of the house, and people keep asking why I do it and I can only say why not do it, I enjoy it," Williams said. He built his red-shingled, seven-room ranch-style house nine years ago on seven acres of land.
"If I knew I had the energy and talent to build all this," he said of all his protruding basements, "I would have built it somewhere near the highway so people could come in and look around. We open to the public two weekends in a row in October, and sometimes we open for a school group to come through, but we don't have much time to do it correctly."
Williams led the way down a short flight of stairs from the living room to the original basement. He reached for a light switch and, on the cold, gray day, the warm magic of an immense miniature railroad came alive.
"I built it all," he said softly. "The basements, the platforms. I did all the carpentry." He also built all the small but extremely detailed factories and buildings.
Aisles are arranged so visitors can walk among the tracks and scenery. Stairs along the way lead to raised platforms that allow one to view the panorama of busy industry and occasionally sleepy little towns. At some points the layout is waist-level, and 10 to 12 feet high at others as the trains climb mountains and descend into valleys.
Sand and gravel sites cling to the sides of steep rock formations while hungry open gondolas are lined up along the track beneath. Huge gray foundries dwarf the coal cars, and dump trucks sit along nearby streets. The landscape periodically changes into countryside and small grain elevators feature tiny workmen bent to their tasks.
"There are a couple of new cities going in next year," Williams said.
Reaching out, he touched a strong-looking rock quarry on the side of a mountain. "Papier-ma che' over wood, then plaster. I hand-carved all the rocks and painted them that rusty brown amber with touches of orange, and the dark areas to show shadows.
"It's funny, I've never traveled anywhere, never traveled more than a 200-mile radius from the area in my whole life. We never take vacations and have never closed the store since we opened it, except for holidays.
"I think of myself as more of a builder. When someone says 'playing with trains,' it gripes me. Those are not the right words. I consider myself an artist," Williams said.
He and his wife have three sons and a daughter, and three grandchildren from her first marriage, and Williams' two children from his first mariage. Jean Williams has her own hobby: raising animals.
She has a fine-looking horse, two donkeys, two goats, 11 cats, three dogs, three ducks and eight chickens.
"That's a wonderful lady," Williams said after she had walked away. "If it weren't for her, we wouldn't be able to run the shop and I wouldn't have my railroad."
Upstairs in the living room, beneath a heavily decorated Christmas tree, a small locomotive pulled five passenger cars along a simple circular track surrounding a manger scene. One felt that this is where Williams' hobby began.
"Why does somebody do something?" he said. "You do it because you like it.
"Right now we're on poverty row because of this hobby -- but I'm living a real life for a change."