CHICO — "Old toy trains, little toy tracks. Little boy toys, comin' from a sack," theses opening lines from Roger Miller's 1965 Christmas carol "Old Toy Trains," capture the long romance between boys, model trains and Christmas.
"My daughter asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her I wanted a model train set. I never had one as a boy," recalled Joe Clark.
"And, sure enough, on Christmas she gave me a big box with everything in it. I set it up in the garage," he said.
That was in the mid-1990s. Little did Clark know then his daughter's gift would lead him to become a serious model train hobbyist. Eventually, he would found High Sierra Model Railroad Club, the only model train club between Sacramento and Redding.
"It was my son-in-law who suggested I start a model train club. I thought it wasn't a bad idea so I made fliers and put them up in hobby shops in town and Paradise," Clark said. "Our first meeting was in March of 1999 and 12 people showed up."
Clark's son-in-law, Larry Trimboli, offered the unfinished loft in the warehouse of his business, Sierra Log Homes in south Chico. Though the shape of the loft was an awkward "L" — measuring 10 feet wide with each leg of the L being 40 feet long — Clark was grateful to have a space. He named the club "High Sierra"
in honor of Trimboli's company. After seeing the barren loft with its unfinished ceiling and patched floor, most of the new members "went away never to be seen again," he said.
"Those of us who stayed had a vision of what could be done with the space, though, so we went to work," said Clark.
Members decided to install a complete train control system, a Digitrax DCC. It allows multiple trains to be run simultaneously and handles all the layout control and operation as well as lights and sounds on the trains.
The loft, which has been remodeled, now holds more than 300,000 feet of mainline track plus turnouts and switches. The mainline runs through small towns, countryside and mountains, for the most part duplicating Western Pacific Railroad's Feather River Route through the Sierra during the 1950s.
Club member Ray Hauling is a retired Southern Pacific "railroad man" who worked as switchman, brakeman, yard master and conductor during his long career with the company. He created most of the three-dimensional mountains, hills, valleys, farms and orchards through which the High Sierra model trains run.
"I like to work with my hands and I was looking for something to do," Hauling explained.
"Art classes were too expensive so when I found the club, I thought what the heck, I'll check it out. I love it. I can't wait for our meetings each week. It's a great group of guys," he said.
The High Sierra layout also includes tunnels, a U-shaped curve and a water tower where the steam engines can "fill up." The club has 20 locomotives "on the bench" ready to go, most are equipped for sound.
Bill Delgardo, an early member who likes building models, used a set of Southern Pacific Rail Road plans for a 50,000 gallon main-line water tower as the blueprint for the High Sierra water tower. Scaling the plans down to size, Delgardo made a special jig for his saw and cut the "timbers" for the model tower from old barn redwood.
"It's 8 inches tall and looks just like an old water tower. I painted it so that even the part that holds water looks like water is wicking through it. Boy that was fun and oh man it is cool," said Delgardo.
These days there are eight members who meet each week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to run the model trains, add to or reconfigure the layout and take in each other's company. Several others have moved or passed away.
"It's a neat hobby, the world's greatest hobby," said Delgardo. "It's not horrifically expensive and it gets us guys together and keeps us out of bars chasing women. I like to encourage people to come see what we have and then to come back again.
"It's like watching a great movie: You watch it again to see what you've missed the first time. There are a lot of little details in our layout that make it remarkable," said Delgardo.
The High Sierra Model Railroad Club a membership organization for model train hobbyists.
Location: 3650 Morrow Lane
Meetings: weekly, Tue. And Thurs. 6:30pm 10:00pm, open to visitors
More information: www.highsierramrrc.webs.com or 342-4305
Membership Cost: $100 one-time initiation fee; $25 a month