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The sign reads "Children are welcome and encouraged to operate the Thomas Trains," with the small disclaimer "under adult supervision." Toddlers to 10-year-olds are taking full advantage of the offer.
The Twin City Model Railroad Museum in St. Paul's Bandana Square is chugging and whistling into the holidays with its Christmas-themed "Night Trains" exhibit and its Toy Train Division.
The electricity of the trains crackling through the rooms is reinforced by the raw energy and euphoria of youth.
Nowhere is that combination more evident than in salt-and-pepper-bearded and bespectacled Peter Southard, whose boyish enthusiasm and Santa hat put to rest any staid mental image of the university professor he is.
The animated Southard keeps Thomas the Tank Engine and his railcar friends "on task," and on track, in addition to filling out "I Ran Thomas the Tank Engine" certificates for the newly minted mini-engineers.
"I saw a fellow in here earlier who was yelling excitedly in his cell phone, 'Pack the kids up and get over here right now -- you wouldn't believe what they've got here!'" Southard said with a laugh.
The museum and its displays have been growing, and moving, since 1934, when it was housed in the old Union Depot in St. Paul.
Since 1984 the Bandana Square facility has provided room to expand, as well as an appropriate history -- the buildings originally housed a train repair depot and its accompanying blacksmith shops. As you step outside, you can still hear the rumble and roar from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad on the other side of an earthen berm.
The model railroad's 1,642 feet of track winds through scale models of Minneapolis' Milling District and St. Paul's Midway area, then south to Red Wing along the Mississippi River, among the many sights re-created in meticulous period detail.
"Night Trains" provides the viewer with the beauty of the illuminated city, countryside and trains, including a breathtaking 14-car "Christmas Train" with hundreds of tiny, twinkling lights and animated images.
(The adjacent Toy Train Division has 13 toy train layouts and dioramas, all invoking the feel of holiday displays in department-store windows from bygone eras.)
A toddler in his father's arms waves at the "Christmas Train" caboose, happily chirping, "G'bye, Santa train!" as it slides into a tunnel.
To everyone's delight, the train soon reappears around the corner of the Gold Medal Mill. And it will continue its festive loops around mid-20th-century Minneapolis and St. Paul through Feb. 27.
It's a ride you won't want to miss.
Brian Leehan • 612-673-4583