The club has the quaint charm of a Norman Rockwell curio: miniature locomotives whistling around homey landscapes, men in conductor's caps and children bubbling, the railroad crossing sign hung by the front door, its red lights flashing.
And, like Rockwell's America, it might disappear.
After operating more than 20 years at the old brick police station on Jenkins Avenue, the Charleston Area Model Railroad Club is getting kicked out by the city of North Charleston. The Olde Village around it is changing — new shops, trendy gourmet restaurants. Space is at a premium, and the city wants to use the building for popular art exhibits and civic groups now using The Meeting Place every day. That building, around the corner on East Montague Avenue, needs to be rehabilitated.
The railroad club has never been a big draw. It chugs along with a steady line of collectors and the curious, an off-to-the-side hobby on an off-to-the-side street. It has 38 members holding a weekly Tuesday evening open house. On a recent night, 17 adults and four children roamed the banquet-table-sized rail sets, tinkering with gear or watching it go with a wide-eyed awe.
Wylan Sheffield, of Walterboro, pressed his face to the glass wall waiting for the next pass of the whistling locomotive. "Train!" the 2 1/2-year-old called. "Hi, train! Bye, train!"
"It's the travel, it's the way of travel," said club member Richard Ketcham, 67, of Summerville, who's played with model trains since he was 7 years old and still has his first train set. "It's much more comfortable. And quite honestly, I have fun playing. Is that legal?"
And like any good hobby, it has its obsessive quality. Ed Reardon of Seabrook Island owns 200 locomotive engines, 400 passenger cars and 800 freight cars — and gets ribbed because they are tiny scale models, not the big, ridable scales. I.D. Smith, of West Ashley, has every Lionel model-train maintenance manual printed — 1946-1969 — and is the go-to guy for repairs for collectors who come from miles away. Smith helped build the huge, rambling, hill, dale and village set-up that dominates the layouts in the club.
They are, in a word, serious. Their trains run among the Christmas decorations at Charleston Place. Their modest membership is growing and getting younger. But they don't have deep pockets. The loss of the $1-per-year lease could cripple the club. President George Maas figures that, even if they can find a big and economical-enough space, they can only hold rent for about a year.
"We feel we're more than a bunch of old men sitting around," Maas, of Mount Pleasant, said in his appeal to City Council for some consideration earlier this month. "We've had 24 good years here, and hopefully we'll have a few more than that. Before we tear everything up, come on by and see what we have."
The Olde Village is changing. But in a city built from its railroad tracks out, council members can't help but turn an ear to the plaintive wail of a train whistle. Council gave the club until the end of 2009. Mayor Keith Summey told Maas they would see what they could do to help find another spot.
"It's a wonderful thing for the children to see," said Councilman Kurt Taylor.