All Aboard!

Aberfoyle Junction's display model railway
is a train lover's paradise

By Andrew Vowles

Prof. Wayne Pfeiffer and his fellow railway enthusiasts have handcrafted this miniature city complete with a busy train station and a switching yard.
Photo by Martin Schwalbe

Ask Prof. Wayne Pfeiffer, Agricultural Economics and Business, to explain his lifelong passion for trains and he tracks it all the way back to a defining moment as a four-year-old in Nebraska in 1949.

He recalls how the family farm lay within view of two busy railway branch lines. One day not long after his father had helped him assemble his first-ever train set, Pfeiffer watched an engineer leave an idling locomotive on the siding and cross the field toward their farmhouse. It turned out the man had recognized Wayne's father from their service during the First World War.

For the youngster, the shining moment came when the engineer reached into a pocket, pulled out a silver dollar and pressed the coin into his small hand.

Years later, Pfeiffer is still playing out the dream of many a youngster who grew up during the 1950s, as a member of Aberfoyle Junction, a self-styled Group of Six whose lifelong love for the Iron Horse coalesced more than two decades ago into the ultimate model train layout.

A "miniature railway museum" or a "display model railway" is what he calls the sprawling waist-to eye-level display in an unassuming steel building in Aberfoyle that draws about 3,000 visitors a year, mostly from southern Ontario.

Inside the front entrance is a collection of railroad memorabilia, including a long-handled hammer donated by a former Canadian Pacific executive that was used to drive in the ceremonial last spike during construction of Toronto's Union Station in the 1930s. Playing on an overhead TV monitor is a video of the display that the group produced last summer.

Step through another doorway and you've entered a train lover's paradise.

Erected on a waist-high frame running around three sides of the 3,500-square-foot room, the display represents southern Ontario from farms to the outcroppings of the Niagara Escarpment to a Lilliputian-sized city complete with a busy train station and switching yard.

The display is meant to represent the late 1950s, a key turning point in railroad history as the era of steam gave way to another. "Steam and diesel were both on the rails together in those days," says Pfeiffer.

He and the other Aberfoyle Junction members have handcrafted a miniature environment over the years, just as they have collected or built the display's miniature trains that travel amid the scenery, wait at stations and go about railway operations in the switching yards and roundhouses.

Modelled after real-life behemoths, mostly owned by CP and Canadian National railways, the collection comprises more than 50 locomotives, 200 freight cars, 60 passenger coaches and about two dozen cabooses. All the trains are modelled to "O" gauge or 1/48 life size. (Most home hobbyists collect "HO" gauge models, only half the size of those on display at Aberfoyle.)

The steam locomotives in the display were hand-made from plans obtained from the railroad companies. "We get the exact drawings that the companies used to build the real locomotives," says fellow Aberfoyle Junction member Chuck Bard, adding that all of the passenger coaches are also built from scratch.

The oldest real-life locomotive modelled in their display was a steam engine built by CP in 1885. The oldest model itself, constructed in 1971, is patterned after the Royal Hudson locomotive, which headed the train that King George and Queen Elizabeth used to tour Canada in 1939.

None of the Aberfoyle Junction crew ever rode the rails for a living. Frank Dubery, who worked at Ontario Hydro's Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, and his wife, Gay, began building the original display in 1972 in a barn at the Aberfoyle Antique Market. Bard, a retired electrician, joined them with his wife, Gwen, a graphic artist. Her creations include the display's scenic backdrop and several paintings in OVC's Small-Animal Clinic. Craig Webb, a retired schoolteacher from Hamilton, is a railway historian with special expertise in passenger operations.

Running the display involves all four men at the controls in an elevated platform above the display. One crowd-pleaser is their choreographed night scene, including two minutes when the only light in the room comes from hundreds of tiny bulbs on the display and the illuminated windows of passing trains.

Word of Aberfoyle Junction has spread widely among model railroaders and collectors - a growing fraternity, according to Pfeiffer. Twice while travelling on trains overseas, he has struck up conversations with seatmates who have not only turned out to be avid modellers but who, unprompted, also mentioned a must-see if ever in Canada: the Aberfoyle Junction Model Railway.

"We had a regular from Texas who would fly his Lear jet into Kitchener-Waterloo Airport to attend our shows," Pfeiffer adds.
His own preferred mode of transportation is still the train, even during numerous overseas trips for international development projects that have taken him across six continents in his nearly 30 years at Guelph.

Aberfoyle Junction runs spring and fall shows that Pfeiffer says appeal not just to diehard fans but also to ordinary visitors looking for the nostalgia and romance of a bygone era, as well as a growing number of young families. The first show in 2002 will take place May 4 and 5 and May 11 and 12. Groups can also book a visit. For information, call Ext. 3667 or 823-2312.