For Bob Cherrnay, it began with a four-piece electric train set his parents gave him for Christmas when he was 4 years old.
Fifty years later, Cherrnay still has that $12.95 gift put away in its original box, and he continues to play with trains.
Only now, his train layout is so large it fills a room bigger than many homes, requires six cameras and television monitors to keep track of them and is operated from banks of switches, control panels and gadgetry similar to those used in life-size rail terminals.
Sheds Professional Pressures
"Model trains are therapy," said Cherrnay, who sheds the pressures of the business world whenever he enters the 55-by-33-foot train room he included when he built his home here in 1970.
Cherrnay's Rolling Hills Railroad is more than O-gauge model trains, however. It's 1,815 square feet of Americana complete with cities, country towns, industrial complexes, farms, ranches and vehicles--all in quarter-inch scale.
Miniature people are everywhere in his fantasy land--working, playing and doing what real people do.
On the edge of a lake, close to a railroad trestle, an emergency crew works on a half-submerged car that plunged into the water. An ambulance and rescue workers stand by for casualties.
Between two dilapidated, handmade buildings, a mugging can be seen in a litter-strewn alley. Across town, an elevated train station is filled with waiting passengers, while in the street below police are involved in a shoot-out with some felons.
Painted Skies, Horizons
Skies and horizons of Cherrnay's miniature world are painted on the walls.
Inside his train room, Cherrnay is no longer the company executive--he heads a multifaceted automatic transmission consulting firm. Shut off from the business world, Cherrnay is an overgrown boy who is proud of his toys.
"Look at that New York Central train. That's what I remember when I was a kid in the Bronx, New York. Did you see that White Castle hamburger place over there?" he asked enthusiastically pointing over a mountain.
"Let me show you an old Amtrak. Now, where is it?" as he scanned the monitors and worked a couple of switches to make the replica come choo-chooing through a tunnel at Kruse Junction and head for Walkers Corner and eventually the South Hills roundhouse.
It took Cherrnay a year just to lay the 5,000 feet of nickel-silver rail that rests on 65,000 wood ties cut to scale. The landscaping consists of 2,000 pounds of plaster, molded and painted on top of 60 sheets of plywood at table-top level.
More Than 100 Locomotives
"There's probably over 100 locomotives here and several hundred railroad cars," he estimated.
He won't talk about the dollar investment in his hobby. "That's a nuisance detail," he said.
Every train on the Rolling Hills RR is an exact reproduction of an original--down to its number and paint scheme. Diesel, electric and steam, they are the trains that operated the nation's railroads between the 1920s and 1970s.
A library of railroading books on one wall is where Cherrnay does his research.
While it's taken 17 years to develop this train layout, Cherrnay admits he didn't do it alone.
Evening for Enthusiasts
At least once a week, model train enthusiasts and friends who have helped build and maintain this massive display spend an evening here.
"Some like to paint the trains, some like to run them, others like the electrical part, making repairs or working on the switches or landscape," he explained. "Some just like to watch."
Neither Cherrnay's wife nor his three grown children share his love for trains.
"My children prefer horses," he said. "They like the flesh horse; I prefer the iron horse."