RACINE, Wis. — A wooden door adorned with a yellow railroad crossing sign muffles the recognizable "chugga-chugga" of train wheels on a track, intermittently interrupted by an iconic "choo-choo." Inside, there are about a dozen men, many of them retired, playing with toys.
There's no way you could accidentally stumble upon a gathering of the Lionel Railroad Club of Southeastern Wisconsin. Their meeting-place is inside a rented room on the second floor of the American Coin & Jewelry building, with the only entrance being through an unassuming side entrance and up a green-carpeted set of stairs.
The club's members know that their train-loving hobby is slowly dying. And they know why, but it doesn't stop them from placing their miniature plastic and metal engines down on the track every Thursday night — and now the third Saturday of every month.
In an impassioned but older fraternity, club members watch their prized possessions spin around on looping tracks for hours (and eventually years) on end.
"Our goal is to get more young people into trains," Club President Dan Hechel told The Journal Times . "We have to keep the hobby alive."
Each of the local Lionel club chapter members has a similar story of how they came to love trains.
Don Nelson, 73, remembers watching full-scale North Shore locomotives roar by his house four times a day throughout his youth. He would sit in awe of the raw power of the machines, transporting hurried passengers between Chicago and Milwaukee.
That railroad moved its last passengers on Jan. 21, 1963, but the memories remain. For many baby boomers, trains were the most powerful machines they would ever witness in person in the 1940s and '50s.
"These were the trains that I grew up seeing four times a day when I was a kid in West Racine," Nelson said, sharing a photo taken on his smartphone that depicts a North Shore model he built by hand. "I guess they were the trains I grew to love."
"Most of us started with these trains when we were kids," Tim Deadrick, the club's newest member, said with a hint of glee. "You get to be a kid again. You get to play with trains."
When Rich Sorensen, 68, was a teenager, he stuffed all of his model trains in a closet, wrapped in newspaper.
But after having a son of his own in the 1980s, Sorensen pulled his tracks out of storage. The father and son bonded, sitting on the living room carpet, watching the trains roam on their predestined journeys along customizable tracks.
Now Sorensen brings his 5-year-old grandson, Derrick, to The Lionel Club.
When asked why he likes trains, Derrick said: "Because."
The 5-year-old can't put to words why he's so fascinated, nor does he need to. He spends hours running circles around his grandfather and his friends, ducking underneath a bascule bridge that Nelson built and hopping onto a step stool to get a better view of the locomotives moving along the half-dozen tracks, entering a tunnel inside a plastic mountain and speeding past carnival-themed figurines.
Nelson, a retired electrician who worked at InSinkErator for 30 years, recently repaired a model that he believes was originally made in the 1920s. Now, it runs too fast and derails around some of the sharper curves.
"It just amazes me that that's a 90-year-old train that he fixed up and it runs like new," Deadrick said.
Deadrick joined the club over the summer after finding a train — a Lionel Express Freight — from his childhood, tucked away in an apartment.
Club members attend trade shows with other hobbyists across the nation, checking out others' collections, buying/selling/trading old and new models, and socializing over their shared interest.
There are only a few model-train manufacturers left, Nelson said, making every design all the more collectable.
Deadrick points out a relatively new silver "passenger" train owned by a fellow. He said it probably cost around $3,000.
If Deadrick had never taken his Lionel freighter out of its original packaging in the 1950s, it might be worth a similar amount.
"I want to buy more stuff of this vintage," Deadrick said, showing off a 65-year-old Lionel catalogue. "Since I'm not married, I don't have to ask forgiveness or permission. I can just go buy."
Hechel, who has been the club's president since it was founded 20 years ago, laments at the changing times.
When he was a kid, it seemed that every boy got trains as a gift for Christmas or birthdays. But the same thing didn't happen with the generations that followed.
"If you go back to the '60s, everything was astronauts and rockets," Hechel recalled. "The glory of trains kind of died out ... it's important that we keep that going, that interest and fascination with trains. Otherwise, it'll die out with us."
"Like any club, it needs new blood," Deadrick added.
Even while standing on a step stool, the 5-year-old Derrick is still a head shorter than his grandfather. They lean over the railing together, watching as Nelson's refurbished engine brushes past a series of holiday-themed boxcars.
Their motions mirror one another as they observe the trains, their heads swiveling in unison.
Despite a 58-year age difference, grandfather and grandson find themselves engrossed in the same trains chugging along the same track.
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Journal Times.