Imagine climbing aboard a train during the early 1950s: coal smoke plumes filling the air, the piercing whistle signaling departure, families milling around the station in their Sunday best waving goodbye to their loved ones.
The Chi-Town Union Station in Commerce Township recalls just such a time when journeying by train was the luxurious way to travel across the country, prior to the emergence of air travel.
The Chi-Town Union Station and its associated non-profit West Oakland Railroad Museum provide a glimpse into that past. The 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 being one inch representing 48 inches.
The track is approximately 8,850-feet-long and the plan is to add track up to 10,000 feet over the next few years.
Owner Paul Gribbell has made model trains a serious hobby for decades and pursued his dream of owning his own “O” scale exhibit in 1999. It took about six years to annex the privately owned 30-year-old collection into the current 10,000-square-foot building.
“I always wanted to build a model railroad of my own,” Gribbell said. “I got involved in the Detroit Model Railroad Club and then switched over to ‘O’ scale, but my house wasn’t big enough.
“The building used to be an old Food Town Grocery before it was a Perry’s drug store. Once a craft shop moved in and closed up shop, it became vacant and I bought it,” he said.
Currently there are 200 locomotives in the stockyard and typically 30 are running simultaneously, operated by a network of 250 computers.
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.
Picture the Morning Hiawatha that ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, the Los Angeles Union Pacific, or Santa Fe Super Chief that traveled from Chicago to the City of Angels.
Other famous train models at the Chi-Town Union Station range from the Orange Blossom Special from New York to Miami, or the Olympia Hiawatha that chugged from Chicago to Seattle, to the Empire State Express, which would wind its way from New York to Seattle.
“Some of the trains had very unique turbines,” Gribbell said. “Chicago Pacific experimented with very powerful turbines, but they weren’t fuel efficient and didn’t last long.”
One of the Chicago Pacific’s powerful engines can be seen on the “Big Boy” steam engine, another collectible at Chi-Town Station.
Luxury trains, such as the 20th Century Limited and Super Chief, transported the movie stars and elite.
“These were the top trains and only had first-class,” said Chi-Town Union Station volunteer and train enthusiast Seth Lampe.
There are also long pull trains in the exhibit with over 200 cars that historically hauled coal.
The station’s layout itself is akin to Chicago’s Union Station in its heyday of the 1950s.
“The station models Chicago in the 1950s and a touch of the 1960s because Chicago has the biggest and busiest railhead and focused on passenger trains since the zenith of luxury travel was by rail,” Lampe said. “More than 250 trains arrived every day to carry a half-million people in, and at the same time 250 trains were departing with the same amount.”
Lampe added that trains conveyed more passengers on a single day than airlines do today.
He also noted that the first streamline passenger train started in the 1920s with the Reading Railroad Crusader. The largest manufacturer was the Pullman Company that built and operated most of the passenger trains. The company also employed those who worked on the trains, including the concierges of trains, the porters.
“The main guy was the porter, whose role was to accommodate customers,” Lampe said. “He would wear a Navy blue wool uniform — always immaculate with a white, clean, starched shirt. They were all named George, after George Pullman, and customers could ask George for anything, like opera tickets that may be sold out and the like. That’s where the phrase ‘Ask George’ comes from.”
Steam locomotives disappeared in the late 1950s and diesels took precedence until the train industry took a dive when WWII ended and veterans flooded the country with pilot licenses in tow.
“The boom in the train era ended with the New York Central Night Mail in October 1968 after the mail contracts ended,” Lampe said. “By that time, most of the passenger trains already quit.”
But at Chi-Union Station, the exhibit is flourishing and growing every year.
“Every year we’ve added 10 percent more track to the place,” Lampe said. “Now we are adding new buildings. We have put up the plaster for the mountains — that’s detailing, but the towns are reaching the point of super-detailing.”
Authenticity is paramount. According to Lampe, the model trains were built from blueprints of the original trains as they were in December 1955.
“We put a call out for photo archives,” Lampe said. “So car for car, rivet for rivet, they are replicas like the trains going down the tracks in 1955, including the people sitting in the seats and how they are dressed. Most of them are handmade.”
The authenticity can also be seen in the small details, such as the paint used.
“On the Norfolk and Western, car No. 512 was in a train wreck back when, and so we repainted that car to reflect the time,” Lampe said.
Even the scene through which the trains travel emulates past reality, complete with stone
architecture and miniature towns, and the sounds of each train are specific to that locomotive.
“Each sound is computer-controlled. If it’s accelerating, or braking, the train knows what the railroad rules are for that locomotive,” Lampe said.
Future plans include knocking out a wall to not only accommodate more track, but luxury dining car service.
“We want to show what it was like to have the ultimate luxury dining car service with an off-site kitchen and organize it with caterers,” Lampe said. “Dining cars were like palaces, so why not show what the dining car experience looked like?”
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 is now open for its eighth season. Hours are Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children 5- to 17-years-old. Kids under 5 get in free.
The exhibit is one for people of all ages to enjoy, but mainly people come in for their kids, many of whom perch on their parent’s shoulders, peering out into the scores of trains chugging along the tracks.
“It’s all about the kids,” 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.