Paul Gribbell has been interested in trains since he was a child — an interest that continues to this day. With a collection spanning over three decades, Gribbell has built the world’s largest O-scale model railroad in Commerce Township. The exhibit features approximately 9,000 feet of track and somewhere between 60 and 80 trains. Gribbell, a former quality control manager at Ford Motor Co. for over 30 years, has opened his collection to the public as he and volunteers continue to expand the track and add scenic details. The exhibit is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located at 8275 Cooley Lake Road in Commerce Township.
Please explain what first inspired your interest in trains. When did you start collecting O-scale model trains? How does O-scale model differ from other scale models? Why did you choose O-scale?
PG: My interest in trains started when I was a kid. Back in the 1940s, my dad built the Lionel layout in my bedroom. My sister and I shared a bedroom. We had about a 4-by-8 Lionel layout right in our bedroom. And of course back in those days, trains were adventurous. It was how you traveled. They didn’t have commercial airplanes. My grandfather would come visit once or twice a year from California, and he would take me for a ride, and we’d go watch trains somewhere, see trains in the local area. And I rode them of course when we traveled. We went out to California a couple times. We always enjoyed them, and it has always been a part of my life, the trains and model trains.
O-scale model trains I started collecting in 1978 when I joined the Detroit Model Railroad Club up in Holly. Prior to that when I was young, I had Lionel trains and then I went to HO (scale trains) for 20 or 25 years. And then I switched to O-scale in 1978. So I’ve been collecting O-scale for 33 years now.
Basically, O-scale is one of the original ones, and Lionel started out in 1903 or 1901 — back around in the 1900s. And that was a pretty — “standard” is not the right word. They had a standard gauge that was bigger, but a lot of things were made in O-scale, which is one-quarter inch equals a foot. And then a lot of people didn’t like the three-rail look of the Lionel because it didn’t look realistic. So they had models built with two-rail O, but they had an outside third rail to pick up the other polarity of the electricity rather than the center rail. Now that made it look more realistic because many subways and electric kinds of elevated trains do use an outside third rail for power to this day. So that looked more realistic.
That was way back in the 1930s and the 1940s. And then after the war, people started going to two rail without the third outside rail and wired it more like HO, which one rail is a plus and the other a minus and a DC power rather than an AC power like the previous train. That was a major conversion factor for even the Detroit Model Railroad Club. You have to insulate all the wheels on one side, otherwise it will short across the track. And so that is when two-rail O really started developing as it is today and after World War II.
Chi-Town Union Station is the world’s largest O-scale layout in the world. Please tell us a bit about Chi-Town Union Station and why you decided to exhibit your collection publicly.
PG: I was actually going to have a private railroad at home. And my second wife died of cancer. Instead of building a big house, I decided to keep the house I have on Union Lake, but it was too small for a railroad. Then I decided I needed to find a place to build my railroad. I looked around for some houses that might have a big basement or might have a pole barn or I could build a pole barn to put the trains in. I worked with a real estate lady for a year and looked at lots of places. And we found this old grocery store that was vacant here in Commerce Township. We made an offer, and it was actually a little more reasonable than some other things I was looking at. So we bought it.
At that point, I figured I had such a big place that I should open it to the public because it can help pay for it and, you know, maybe even make a business out of it and make some money. That’s how we did that. Once we got this large building, we chose the name Chi-Town because Chicago is the hub and still is the biggest hub in the country for trains. All the top name passenger trains, or most of them, came to Chicago, so that’s why we chose Chi-Town. In the old days, we have the rich and famous and movie stars that would ride the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago and then transfer to the Super Chief to go to Los Angeles. I have both of those trains running right now as we speak.
You and a group of volunteers have been working on the exhibit for the past 12 years and have placed around 9,000 feet of track already. Yet, the exhibit still has many years until it’s completed. What else do you hope to add to the exhibit and when do you think it will be fully completed?
PG: You are never fully done with a layout this size. The first three years I was basically working by myself. I had one friend that would come over from Mount Clemens once or twice a month as long as it wasn’t deer season or fishing season. But after three years it started to look a little more like a model railroad and we had a couple more guys that started helping. It kept growing. And over the years, I’ve probably had about 30 guys help me over time. But you know, a lot of them moved away. But we still have about a dozen guys that come, most on a pretty regular basis.
And we continue to build right now. We are almost to 9,000 feet (of track). And in the next couple years, I expect to be up to 10,000 feet, which will be basically all the track work, but there’s still more detail work that we will be adding to the scenery. Right now, it’s mostly scenics (left) — about 25 percent needs scenery, and more needs extra detail on the scenery we do have. I figure in probably 6 or 8 years it will be 85 or 90 percent done. But we never want to get done because then we have to tear down and start over.
The trains and tracks in your collection are exquisitely detailed while remaining as accurate as possible. Please tell us why you chose the 1950s and 1960s trains for your collection, and why attention to detail and accuracy has been so important.
PG: The collection of trains that I have are some of the best that are available because that’s really the only way you can get the actual trains that you want. Like the Super Chief, all the cars on that train are correct, as are the engines for that train. Why we picked the Super Chief — well, that era we like. The 1950s and the 1960s to me was the ultimate in passenger train service in the United States — a lot of famous trains and very colorful trains. Even in the 1955-56, there were still new train sets they were coming out with. They ran until May 1, 1971. That was when Amtrak came in. And when Amtrak came in, all the good trains went away. Nothing on our display is going to be newer than 1971. Right now, we’re primarily the 1950s and 1960s, and the trains that were evolving into steam engines and diesel. By the 1960s all the steam engines were gone, but we use a little poetic license to keep them to the 1970 era. That is how we chose the equipment and how we chose the time frame.
Chi-Town Union Station is also the home to the world’s longest model train. Last year, you and your team assembled a train that consisted of 1,205 cars and 26 locomotives and weighed almost 1,400 pounds. Why did you guys decide to do that? How did it feel to accomplish that goal?
PG: We tried to break the Guinness (Book of World Records) record because we could. The record when we started was 361 feet on a model railroad in Germany. The one track we chose to run it on was 573 feet long. And we said, “Well, we can do that to go into Guinness. We can do 500 feet.” Meanwhile, we are getting ready to set a date, and they went and built a temporary layout outside in a soccer stadium, which is nice and level and almost straight. They ran a train 891 feet long. I said, “Well, we can do that. But we will have to go around twice.” And we were able to take a diverting route through the passenger station to run almost two laps around, which was 1,112.06 feet.
We had a surveyor measure it. So we beat the old record by 220 feet. To do that, it took 1,203 cars, two cabooses, and 26 engines. And then we said it was almost 1,400 pounds because to go up the hills and around all the curves on our layout, we had to add weight to the cars so that they wouldn’t fall over on the curves — they call it string lining, where a whole bunch just fell over on their side at once. And we still had that problem. We had to balance it with engines spread throughout the train in strategic locations to keep that from happening, but it was a great stress. I mean, we broke probably 15 or 20 cars, we broke four engines and at least 50 couplers. It was a big problem with the grades and curves we have here. But we did run the longest model train, so we’re happy about that.
There was a little problem. We didn’t break the Guinness world record because they wanted the longest scale train. So we just set the longest actual model train. We were happy that we ran the longest train, but we were not happy that we didn’t run the longest scale train. So it was a mixed feeling. We were glad it’s over with because we aren’t going to try to compete with temporary layouts. Anybody can set up a temporary layout. The (Pontiac) Silverdome is empty most of the time, and you can put tracks around the Silverdome in the parking lot and run any length train you want. But that doesn’t mean anything to us. We did it on a real model railroad, and we are happy about that. And I don’t think anybody else in the world could come close because they don’t have a big enough model railroad to do it. There are bigger model railroads in HO (scale), but there are a lot of small loops. Some of them are five times as big as us, but they’re not integrated, fully interconnected as ours is. Nobody else can run trains as big as we can. So we are happy about that.
The main thing is that we just like to put on a show. The trains are running as you can hear in the background. We got some 20 trains running right now. And the people enjoy it and little kids and big kids leave here with a smile because they enjoy seeing our display.
If you could travel on any train from the height of luxury train travel era, which train would it be and why?
PG: That would’ve been the Super Chief because that was from Chicago to Los Angeles. It was the top train. It was all first class. All Pullman. In fact, I did ride the El Capitan, which was the second section of the Super Chief. It was an extra fare coach train, but when I was young, we couldn’t afford a Pullman. So the Super Chief would be the primary train for me to ride. The second one would probably have been the 20th Century Limited. That was a real luxury train, too.
How can people support the exhibit and museum?
PG: The museum will always welcome donations and contributions to help support our activities. As far as the model railroad is concerned, people who have experience in model railroading and some of the required skills to do that, we are always looking for qualified volunteers to help us. They just have to enjoy doing it.