Marcus Kelly: Model Train Maestro

Train Maestro Marcus Kelly
Photo by Dianna Troyer

By DIANNA TROYER

Familiar sounds often take us to a cherished time and place. For Marcus Kelly, hearing rumbling and chugging trains—their whistles blaring and brakes screeching—whisks him back to his childhood home in southeastern Idaho, where he grew up beside the railroad tracks near Firth.

“My dad knew how much I loved trains, so he bought me a model train car when I was 13,” said Kelly, 63, who lives near Moore about 80 miles northwest of Firth. “Model trains have been a passion of mine ever since.”

He still has his dad’s 50-year-old gift, a green and yellow Western Pacific caboose. It whirs along tracks as part of a replica he is building of the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad, a rail line he learned about when he was a boy working on his uncle’s cattle ranch near Gilmore, Idaho during summers.

Kelly is among about a half-million model train hobbyists in the United States and Canada, according to the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, Penn. The hobby appeals to so many, because it is artistic and creative to build a set as well as technical to make it run electronically.

Since retiring last May as a radiation control technician at the Idaho National Laboratory, Kelly has devoted more time to his hobby. Anticipating retirement a few years ago, he bought himself a gift—a modular mobile office auctioned at a government surplus sale at work.

It has become a depot for several model trains that chug simultaneously in different directions along 75 feet of track. Train sound effects surround him.

A clock on the wall toots like a train whistle on the hour. It features a photo of Union Pacific’s renowned Engine 119. It met Central Pacific’s Jupiter engine, to establish the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 in northern Utah.

“Time goes by fast out here. It’s relaxing to work on the set, and, besides, it’s cheaper than therapy,” Kelly said, laughing and watching his trains run. “The little boy never goes out of the man.”

He told the humorous history of the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad—nicknamed the G & P, or the “Get Off and Push” Railroad.

“The joke was the engines were so slow, you had to push them,” Marcus said.

From 1910 until 1939, when it went out of business, the railroad ran 100 miles between Salmon, Idaho and Armstead, Mont. It was named Gilmore, for the town where ore was loaded, and Pittsburg, for the home of its investors.

The railroad owners bought used locomotives, because they were affordable and cost-effective for the line’s short track length. Despite the jokes, the railroad was invaluable to local miners and farmers, who depended on it to haul their ore and crops to market.

“The owners ran any type of engine they could find,” Kelly said. “It was a poor railroad, but it got the job done.”

He is sharing his enthusiasm for building and running a model train set with his grandchildren.

“When they visit, they’re mesmerized watching the trains run,” Kelly said. “I tell them, ‘Build something for the train set.’ They made a shed for repairing engines. I love seeing what they come up with.”

On a table, glue and thin strips of balsa wood await their creative touch.

Kelly’s wife, Pam, said she and their grown sons have a family joke about him and his model train set.

“We sometimes ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He was never like this with our sons when they were young,” Pam said, smiling. “There were always chores to do and no time for play.”

Building a set is complicated, Pam said.

“You have to be a historian, a carpenter, a painter, and electrician to create a set that looks like a scene from a historic railroad,” she said.

Kelly said he will never be completely done with his set.

“There’s always something else to build for it,” he said. ISI