Picture a time when travel was considered luxurious, when people wore suits and dresses, ties and high heels to travel across the country.
Before 1968, when airplanes rendered passenger trains nearly obsolete, it was standard to see people dressed in their finest as they boarded a train from Chicago to New York or Louisiana or California.
“People traveling by trains in the 1950s dressed very nice — dress, suit, tie,” said Seth Lampe, a volunteer at the Chi-Town Union Station in Commerce Township. “Even people just meeting people at the station were dressed up. Things are different today.”
And, of course, he’s right. Today, you are more likely to see people dressed in sweats and Ugg boots as they travel to their various destinations.
However, for those who yearn to relive the luxury of train travel in its hey day, the Chi-Town Union Station and the associated non-profit West Oakland Railroad Museum provide an impressive venue to do so.
The Chi-Town Union Station — located at 8275 Cooley Lake Road in Commerce Township — is the world’s largest O-scale model railroad exhibit.
O-scale is classified as 1:48, or an inch representing 48 inches.
“An 88-foot luxury domed observation car scales down to 22 inches on the layout; and a three-quarter mile long, 100-car freight train in O-scale is about 84 feet,” according to Paul Gribbell, president of the O-scale model exhibit at Chi-Town Union Station.
Twelve years ago, after the privately owned 30-year-old collection outgrew its storage space, the exhibit’s current 10,000-square-foot building was purchased and the complex layout planning and construction began.
However, it was five years of construction and planning before the exhibit was far along enough for the public to view it. And yet, while still nowhere near completion, the exhibit has grown exponentially over the years.
“Chi-Town’s show has grown over the years to the point where nearly all the open spaces in the 10,000-square-foot building are covered by rail five to seven layers deep or scenery plaster,” Gribbell said. “While still seven or eight years from completion, it’s a lot easier to see where it’s going than where it came from.”
The exhibit is only open to the public for the winter season, from November to March; the summer months are used to maintain and continue construction of the exhibit.
The exhibit opened up for its seventh season on Friday, Nov. 4 and is open Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children 5 to 17. Kids under 5 get in free.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone of every age to enjoy — whether it’s the history, the computer software running the trains, or just the sheer enjoyment of trying to figure out where the trains will head next.
There are about 75 model trains in the exhibit and as many as 25 trains may be operated by computer at any given time, with other trains being operated manually as they traverse “across country” by track and through tunnels.
The layout models five major railroads: the New York Central; Baltimore and Ohio; Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe; Denver and Rio Grande Western; and Southern Pacific.
And it’s a grand site, especially for train enthusiasts.
“When I came into the building in 2003, my chin was on my chest,” said computer software volunteer Don Sutherland. “When I die and go to Heaven, this is what I want it to be like.”
Each train pays exquisite attention to detail. According to Lampe, the model trains were built from blueprints of the original trains as they were in December 1955.
And the model trains are authentic as can be — right down to who may have been sitting in a given seat.
“We looked at old photographs of people sitting in the trains in 1955, and we try to be as authentic as possible,” Lampe said. “So, if there is a lady in a red dress in seat 13 in the photo, then you will see a lady in a red dress in seat 13 in the model train.”
The scenery through which the trains travel includes the river known to volunteers as the “Mid-Continent River,” mountains, towns, and Union Station. A replica model of the station, complete with stone architecture and miniature chalkboards in the building, is being built this winter by one of the exhibit’s volunteers.
There is approximately 9,000 feet of track laid throughout the building — the majority of which remains unseen.
“About 70 percent of the track is out of sight,” Lampe said.
The exhibit is comprised of enough lumber to have built six houses.
And on any given day, guests can look to a scoreboard to see how many cars the coal train is pulling that day.
Last year, it read 1,205. At over 1,000 feet long and weighing 1,400 pounds, the model train was the longest in the world and needed 26 locomotives.
“We did it just because we could do it,” Lampe said.
To learn more about Chi-Town Union Station and the West Oakland Railroad Museum, call 248-613-9471, or visit chi-townunionstation.org.