Like many baby boomers, Jack Smith grew up in the 1950s on model trains. But unlike most children of the day, he never strayed from the hobby.
Smith, 71, still has his original 1956 Lionel set on a shelf in his basement.
“It still works,” he noted. He occasionally runs it in his basement or upstairs on his temporary annual Christmas layout.
The 17-by-20-foot miniature world that occupies half of the basement of his home at Port Jefferson Station is filled with structures and landscaping so impressive it’s been featured in several model railroad magazines.
And Smith is so adept at creating lifelike scenes that the Railroad Museum of Long Island in Riverhead called upon him over a decade ago to repair the landscape in the layout he acquired from Lionel’s head office. Corp. in Michigan.
Smith’s New England-themed exhibit in the fall is the third layout he has built in his home since he and his wife, Pamela, moved there in 1981. The Retired Teacher has managed to extend it over the past year by adding a 1- per 12 foot section.
“Now I’m done,” he said. “There’s no way I can make it bigger,” he said, noting that he had considered and rejected the removal of a wall. That would have meant moving the plumbing and spray booth, where he painted trains. “It would be a lot of work. I’m very happy with what I have here. It’s fun. I really enjoy it.”
Smith calls his model estate the New York & New England Railroad. It was inspired by an actual but now defunct line of the same name that connected upstate New York with Providence, Rhode Island and Boston. It was eventually absorbed by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
“That’s roughly 1945 to 1957 when they started to introduce second-generation diesels, and steam by that time had all but disappeared in New England,” Smith explained. “So this is the era of the vapor-diesel transition.” This allowed him to operate replicas of steam locomotives and early diesel engines.
The continuing appeal of doing this, Smith said, is “their design, the realism, the movement, the sound, the action and just the idea of creating your own little world the way you want it. It’s a pass. -multifaceted time.
“Making landscapes is my biggest passion,” he said.
A precocious passion
Smith developed his passion for model railroading when he was just a child. “I had my first Lionel set in 1956 when we lived in Brooklyn,” he said.
His father paid $ 25 for a Lionel steam locomotive freight train in liquidation. “My dad was an electrician apprentice, so $ 25 was a lot of money back then. me.”
When Smith’s father set up the trains in the living room of their apartment, “I was totally won over by it,” he recalls. “The following year we moved to Centereach and the builder had left a whole pile of lumber in the basement, and my dad decided to build me a train system in the basement when I was 7 years old. I really adopted it. Every year or so, my Uncle Frank would buy me a car, “he said.
Smith has increased his collection by buying cheap trains from neighborhood kids who are no longer interested in the hobby, and sometimes friends’ parents have simply given him trains that their sons no longer play with.
“I kept it until I went to college, but I saved all the trains and all the parts,” Smith said. “I have always dreamed of having an arrangement in the basement.
In the late 1980s, his father, Jim, and his brother, Tom, who had built an arrangement in his own basement, pushed Smith, saying, “What are you waiting for?
With that push, Smith said, “I finally got my way around and had set aside part of my basement to build a landscaping, which I did in 1989.” He created a post-war arrangement on two levels with “a lot” of Lionel accessories which took up a third of his basement.
When many model railroaders complete a layout, they quickly take it apart and start over because they think they can improve it, or they love the process of creating as much as the movement of trains. Smith meets both criteria.
His second layout was called Peconic River and Orient, a more realistic track with properly sized trains and no oversized post-war Lionel props. But he was not satisfied.
“I felt I had pushed him as far as I could,” he said. “It was good, and it had been written in a few magazines, but there was new stuff coming out and I felt I could do better.”
Provision n ° 3
So Smith, who retired in 2005 after 31 years as a special education teacher at Eastern Suffolk BOCES High School, decided in 2006 to dismantle the second network, sell trains and accessories and donate many old buildings.
He wanted to start with a “blank slate,” Smith explained, so he moved all the model railroad inventory he wanted to keep in a temperature-controlled PODS storage unit.
“It opened my eyes,” he said. “I was three-quarters full, so I realized I had too many trains” – then I sold more trains. “And I also rented a storage unit to keep my buildings because they were more fragile.”
The new layout, its clean sheet, would only represent New England and upstate New York, he decided.
“I had trains from all over and from different eras,” he said, which he sold because they weren’t relevant to the new design.
“New England is my first love since I was little. Every summer my parents would go on vacation to New England. Eventually when they retired they moved to New Hampshire and built a house on Lake Winnipesaukee, ”he said. “So I always had New England in my blood and I loved trains. I saw New Haven and Boston & Maine.”
To create more model railroad space in his basement, he removed an oil tank, then repaired and repainted the wall.
“I proposed a new track plan and started the ‘benchwork’ [wood framing that the supports the layout]“A lot of it was reused from the previous layout,” he said, “and off I went. “
He painted a backdrop depicting New England in the fall. “I’m not an artist,” Smith said, so the wall is now covered in his fall foliage print.
The layout is considered a back-to-back track, or more precisely “a high rail to scale O track”, with everything at the same scale – 1/48 of the actual size – except the track, which is oversized.
“I’m not looking for the easy way”
Smith’s route has a main line with several sidings and branch lines for industries. It can operate two trains simultaneously consisting of post-war and modern trains from several manufacturers, including Lionel and MTH.
Some of his buildings are “made on the fly” and others are “made in kit”, meaning that he has combined kits and custom parts to create his own structures. Buildings built from the ground up include a coal storage tower made from cardboard carpet tubes and painted to look like a structure Smith saw near upstate Saratoga.
When using kits for buildings, he likes to customize. “I’m not looking for the easy way,” he explained. For example, a station kit became the town hall and prison of his fictitious business district.
One of his favorite structures is an old mill that he personalized from a kit and placed on a stream near an acetate waterfall that he covered with clear caulk and white paint.
Another favorite kit-bash is the Sawyer River Lumber Co. sawmill and lumber yard complex. “It took me all summer to do this,” he said.
Some buildings are named after actual businesses he saw in the upstate or around New England: Hitchcock Chair Co., Tower Root Beer, and New England Confectionery Co.
When Smith comes up with a name, it usually has a personal connection. His Macintyre machine shop built from the ground up, for example, was named in honor of his seventh-grade metallurgy teacher. “J. Yacht,” the name of her grandparents ‘and parents’ family doctor in Brooklyn, adorns the kit’s doctor’s office.
The most unusual aspect of Smith’s layout is the way the switches work. Unlike most miniature railroad switches, which run on electricity, Smith’s are powered by compressed air, which is more reliable. It has a small compressor and a storage tank under disposal. “It’s so simple,” he said. “It’s old school. This technology dates back to the 1950s.”
When it comes to running trains, often with family, friends and neighbors, Smith is spoiled for choice. He estimates that it has around 100 engines and up to 300 cars displayed on shelves lining the walls or stored under the layout. “I had a lot more before,” he said. “I got rid of a lot of things.”
Model trains are not the whole world of Jack Smith. He and his wife have traveled extensively, including a four-month world cruise in 2019. He also practices photography and gardening.
Pamela, 68, wife of Jack for 41 years, enjoys her husband’s train habit. “I think it’s great,” she said. “It keeps him busy. And I always know where he is.”
Smith said, “It’s a fun hobby. It’s about having a good time and enjoying it. I come here several times a week. It’s very relaxing. I just sit here and I watch them go. “
As the holidays approach, trains will take up even more of their time. Next month, Smith will be putting up a layout around the couple’s Christmas tree. It goes up a week before Christmas and goes down on New Year’s Day.
“It’s nothing really fancy,” he explained, “but I never missed a year.”