Right on track

Charlestown’s Model Railroad Club welcomes record number of visitors

Created date

March 20th, 2019
Roberta Poulton co-leads Charlestown’s Model Railroad Club. In 2018 the club welcomed a record number of visitors to their model train display.

Roberta Poulton co-leads Charlestown’s Model Railroad Club. In 2018 the club welcomed a record number of visitors to their model train display.

For more than eight decades, the Short Line Railroad shuttled both people and freight between Catonsville, Md., and the mainline tracks of the Baltimore & Potomac (later Pennsylvania) Railroad. 

Growing up near Catonsville, Roberta Poulton remembers the Short Line, which ran directly behind the St. Charles Seminary, now Charlestown, the Erickson Living community she calls home.

“My dad worked for the B&O Railroad before he went into the service and so did my grandfather and great grandfather,” says Roberta, a train enthusiast.

Roberta co-leads Charlestown’s Model Railroad Club.

“I originally started working on model railroads as a small child with my dad in the basement of our home over in Violetville,” says Roberta. “We used to put a train out every year at Christmas. When I was about 10 years old, I got my first train—an ‘O’ scale, which I still have today. It was a hobby we shared for more than 30 years. I love being able to continue that tradition here at Charlestown. Sharing it with the whole community lets me be creative and hold onto a part of my childhood that I loved.”

In 1993, Chuck Anders and a group of residents who wanted to continue their passion for the hobby during their retirement years founded Charlestown’s Model Railroad Club.

After several moves around campus, the club found a permanent home for its railroads in the community’s Maple Terrace neighborhood. The original layout was on a platform four feet high and had an elaborate toggle switch electrical panel for the trains. There was only a small access area for visitors, right inside the door. Since then, the railroad evolved significantly.

In 2014, club members rebuilt the entire layout to make the display more accessible for children and visitors with disabilities. They lowered the platform to 36 inches and made it completely accessible.

At the same time, they enlarged and lowered the room’s display window to allow for a better view of the railroad. In addition, they modernized the electrical system from direct current (DC) to digital command control (DCC), making it easier to have greater control over the trains, including lights, sounds, and speeds.

The club has two steam engines and six diesel engines in DCC. They have about 10 analog (DC) engines and a rolling stock of 200 cars.

‘Banner year’

The Model Railroad Club recently welcomed a record number of visitors. Last year, more than 2,190 visitors came to view the trains. Guests included 1,342 members of the Charlestown community and nearly 850 visitors from outside the community.

“This has been a banner year for the model railroad,” says Roberta.

The visitor count is up from last year when the model railroad welcomed approximately 1,442 guests. Over the past five years, a total of 8,831 visitors have enjoyed the opportunity to view the intricate display.

Roberta attributes the influx of visitors in part to social media.

“The club was featured on YouTube and Facebook,” says Roberta. “We were also featured in a local newspaper article.”

Today, about 15 members of the Charlestown Model Railroad Club work together to maintain the display. Each member’s different areas of expertise and interests are leveraged to care for the scenery, electrical, and other elements of the landscape.

“Two of our members are civil engineers by profession,” says Roberta. “They have really contributed a lot to the layout with buildings, roads, and scenery. We also have an artist here at Charlestown who made a 14-foot mural for the back wall in our train room.”

The scenery includes two lighted signs, one Esso and one Bethlehem Steel, as well as railroad crossing signals, a traffic light, and a track signal. A sound controller features 16 different sounds, including that of a cow, chicken, rooster, and siren. They recently added a police car with flashing lights.

“My background is scenery, landscape, and design,” says Roberta. “I’m not electrically savvy, but I build a lot of the kits. My dad and I used to do a lot of scratch building—taking things from various parts of other kits and making new buildings.”

The model railroad is open to visitors every Saturday from 12 p.m. until 2 p.m. and by special arrangement. During the holiday season, the train room offers extended hours. For the railroad’s younger visitors, the club offers three different treasure hunts complete with a prize for those who are able to locate every item on the list, such as the Charlestown box car, Baltimore Ravens railroad car, and merry-go-round.