Rubin: Why grow up when you can play with trains?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Fred Burton showed up five or six years ago with an armload of old train magazines he figured the railroad museum could sell. He’s been there ever since.

OK, he leaves sometimes, though there actually are a couple of beds tucked away where the public can’t see. But his heart and his expertise are all aboard at the Chi-Town Union Station and West Oakland Railroad Museum in Commerce Township, where the volunteers can be kids again and kids can be awestruck.

A never-ending labor of love, the Chi-Town claims to be America’s largest O-scale model railroad, and none of the gray-haired children working on their own layouts around the country have ever called to dispute it.

More than two miles of track. More than 160 engines and 1,000 train cars. More than 13,000 pounds of plaster, with another half-ton coming. Two houses’ worth of lumber to hold it up. A computer system to run it all, and late last Friday afternoon, Burton at the throttle — “dispatcher,” they call it — with his eyes on the screen of an Acer PC, tracking the trains.

Ask him what keeps him there, what makes such devotees of a crew of mostly retirees, and his first answer is one word long: “Control.” But surely, there’s more to it than that.

The Chi-Town will be open only two more weekends, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, before the doors close until November. Owner Paul Gribbell of West Bloomfield and the corps of 10 volunteers will be hard at work in the meantime, tweaking and repairing and expanding and having the best darned time since they were 7 years old and there was a Lionel making circles around the Christmas tree.

The crew members are mostly retired engineers (automotive, not railroad). Some of them wear blue-and-white engineer caps (railroad, not automotive).

They assemble in a former grocery store on Cooley Lake Road because Gribbell’s train collection was outgrowing his model railroad club and he figured 10,000 square feet sounded about right. He needed nine months just to diagram the initial layout, with its multiple levels and wide loop through the women’s restroom.

That was 1999. A few years later, he decided he might as well invite the public: $5 for adults, $3 for ages 5-17, wide-eyed younger kids free.

Ask Gribbell when the railroad will be finished and he says, “Twenty years.” But there’s a postscript: “If you ask me next year, it’ll be 20 years.”

So it’s a work in perpetual progress, much as the trains are in perpetual motion, hauling dumpers full of plastic coal or boxcars full of adventure or tankers full of dreams.

A lifetime love

Gribbell collected O-scale trains because the more popular HO was too small and he’s a purist; O-scale trains are built at a dependably accurate ratio of 1 model inch to 48 real inches.

The layout represents one of the more golden eras of train travel, the 1940s through ’60s, when locomotives were running out of steam and diesels were taking over. Chicago, or Chi-Town, was a centerpoint, says volunteer Larry Greene of Commerce Township, with the nation spreading out by rail in all directions.

Greene, 73, is an anomaly in that he was not an automotive engineer. He was an engineer for Burroughs and then Unisys instead. He did, however, receive the requisite Lionels for Christmas as a kid. His first Christmas with his wife, Carol, he gave her a set.

“She makes fun of me,” he says, but when they go to Nashville every other year, she’ll take an excursion with him on the Tennessee Central Railroad.

Trains are “fascinating to me,” he says. The size, the power, the variety ... Sometimes when he gets home from the museum, he’ll go to YouTube and watch train videos.

At Chi-Town, he has learned to tell the engines by their microchip-accurate sounds. He hears the coal train coming, two black-and-yellow diesels pulling an astonishing 111 cars, and points to the tail end, almost over the scale-model horizon.

‘Everything that children like’

John Gorsky of Farmington Hills, counting out the till at closing time, used to work for Ford. In fact, he worked for Gribbell in quality control.

His grandparents lived in Windsor, and the Chesapeake & Ohio rumbled so close to their house on its way to a Chrysler plant that his grandmother had to yank the laundry off the clothesline before it was blackened by soot.

He was 4 years old. Today, at 73, he is among the more poetic of the volunteers.

“The smoke, the steam, the sound,” he says. “The flash of the fire. It’s a machine that’s alive.”

To that end, he says, “it’s everything children like” — no matter how old they are.

Burton, the dispatcher, is 71. He used to be a performance engineer for GM. Now he’s wearing an engineer cap and peering at a yellow line on his computer that represents a train in progress.

“It’s technology,” he says. “It’s a challenge.”

Then he leans a bit closer to the screen.

“It’s fun,” he says, and why would anyone want to outgrow that?


Chi-Town Union Station

8275 Cooley Lake Road

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays

Closed March-November