Charleston native Mike West has 1,000 square feet devoted to toy trains in his home. On top of that, his wife, Jo Ann, once an interior designer, has carefully placed various trains throughout the house.
But of all the trains of various scales, ages and values West has collected over the years, he said the one he cherishes most is one of the smallest: his very first train.
“I’ll keep all the small trains just for nostalgia,” West said if he ever had to downsize his vast collection.
West, a retired Navy engineer, said he got his first train for Christmas in 1947 when he was 5. For several years after, he was fascinated by trains until his father, a naval officer, moved the family to the Philippines. So instead of playing with his trains, he spent his time exploring and “running through the jungle.”
Many years later after returning to the United States and graduating from The Citadel, the trains resurfaced.
“Do you want these old trains you used to have?” West said his parents asked him. And West has been collecting ever since for the past 50 years.
Johns Island resident Carl Blum became a train enthusiast about 19 years ago.
“I saw some old Lionel style trains, and I remembered how much fun I had with those as a kid,” Blum said as he reminisced on the first train he received for Christmas.
James Island train collector Jere Pugh is also nostalgic about the blissful feeling of getting that first train.
“As a child, that was the dream to get a Lionel train for Christmas. I got one in 1947 at 9 years old. I was amazed my father would spend $49 for a train set. We were a lower-middle class family,” Pugh said.
“What I have found are most of my (art) collectors are older guys who have been on a quest their whole adulthood to get the trains they couldn’t get as kids,” Lionel toy train artist Angela Trotta Thomas told The Post and Courier last month.
West and Blum said they are those collectors. West said as a child his family could afford only Marx trains, which are not as coveted as Lionel.
“It keeps you young,” West said about having trains.
West said there are three types of train enthusiasts: those who deal, those who collect and those who operate.
West collects mostly O-gauge and G-scale trains and train memorabilia. He has a bench from the old train station on Columbus Street downtown and a lantern owned by his grandfather, a yardmaster for the station.
Blum admitted that when he started collecting he mistakenly “blundered around and bought everything I found.” But he advises others who want to start collecting to do their research first.
“Join the club (Charleston Area Railroad Association). It covers several different areas. Without any expense, you can experience what you like the best there and get a focus before you start purchasing. You can get advice from experienced people,” Blum said.
West operates several intricate tracks throughout his house. His office has a track that runs up around the ceiling and crosses a large wooden bridge he built himself. In the train room, he has several large displays and is working on a reproduction of a route that ran through Tennessee and North Carolina.
West and Blum said laying tracks is the most time consuming part of creating the displays. They use recycled and natural products to create the scenery, like old doll houses, sawdust, moss and foam rubber mattresses.
“I look at it like a play. The setting is the track. The players are the trains. It’s my art,” West said.
Operating the trains and creating the scenery bring West, his family, friends and neighbors together.
He said his wife has “an eye” to help create the sceneries. And neighborhood children sometimes come over to help, too. He also has a circus-themed display complete with a tent and cartoon characters that his grandchildren love to play with.
Mary Lehr, curator of the Best Friend Museum in Citadel Mall and former president of the Charleston National Railway Historical Society for seven years, said it’s important to draw younger generations to the craft.
“We need to get children involved so the hobby itself will not die out,” Lehr said.
“It’s a bunch of gray-hairs. We try to interest young people,” West said with a laugh.
He added that train magazines are targeting young people with Thomas the Tank Engine.
Lehr was drawn to trains in 2003, when a friend showed her a life-size reproduction of the Best Friend of Charleston in an old shed downtown.
“I’m going to ask the mayor to bring it out so children can see it,” Lehr told herself. “It started from there with me.”
The Best Friend was the first steam-powered railroad locomotive entirely built in the United States. It was built in 1830 for the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. It was also the first train to suffer a railroad explosion.
After bringing the reproduction back to life, Lionel approached Lehr to help create 600 limited-edition models of the Best Friend. She received one as a gift, and it’s on display at the museum. The life-size reproduction she salvaged is on loan to Norfolk Southern in Atlanta, but it will return to Charleston in July. It’s uncertain where it will be museum.
Lehr said the best part of her job is seeing the kids light up when they see the trains.
“It causes the children to use their imagination. Even (Steven) Spielberg got his start with Lionel trains,” Lehr said as she told the story of director Spielberg filming his trains as a child.
In the past, Pugh has created displays for children at the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital. He noticed many of the children could not get out of bed to see the display, so he created a mobile one that he could take to their rooms.
“If you see the looks on their faces, that would be self-evident. Moms tell me it was the first time they’ve seen their child smile in weeks,” Pugh said.
Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or firstname.lastname@example.org.