Train hobbyists show what gets them steamed up

Larry Stark’s sliver of imaginary Los Angeles, where it’s forever 1937, is a Depression-bitten place of scrap yards and tumbledown wooden shacks, weedy yards and soot-smudged tenements. Hobos still roam with their knapsacks, and the great steam locomotives -- the kind that left him gasping as a kid -- still dominate the rails.

“It’s sort of like my little empire,” said Stark, 63, who has spent the last six years building the 12-by-17-foot model railroad in the guest house behind his Burbank home.

Stark’s miniature rail system was among nearly a dozen that were open to the public for viewing Saturday by members of the Model Railroads of Southern California online chat group.

Many train hobbyists favor big open spaces and mighty mountain ranges, but Stark’s imagination leans toward the cramped and noirish, what he calls “the moodiness and gloominess.”

There are painted cracks in the pavement and oil stains under the tracks. Ragged curtains flap in tenement windows. Scurrying up the palm trees are rats, small enough to fit under a fingernail, that he glued on with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers.

“I don’t like the toy-like shininess,” Stark said.

He grew up haunting the train hobby shop down the block from his Burbank home, and became so ubiquitous that the owner put him to work building 4-by-4-foot models for sale.

In high school, Stark got distracted by cars and girls. He attended the Art Center College of Design, but figured it would be tough to make a living as an artist.

Five years ago, after retiring from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, where he worked as a construction supervisor, he threw himself back heavily into trains.

“When you retire, wouldn’t you like to do all those things you did when you were a kid?” he said.

Stark doesn’t want to talk about what trains cost him, though zealous hobbyists say it’s easy to pour $50,000 into it. For Stark, it’s a solo hobby. His wife has no special longing to do it. Neither does his son.

For Joe Enos, who was showing off his own 22-by-22-foot model at his Arcadia home Saturday, trains are a family affair.

“It keeps my family together,” said Enos, 49.

Every Thursday is train night. The project is 16 years in the making, 230 feet of track snaking through a mountainous, largely treeless landscape that he says probably looks like Colorado.

It inhabits the earliest memories of his eldest son, Joey, now a 17-year-old senior at Monrovia High.

“I’m probably the only person I know my age who does this,” Joey said.

Bill Parke, who manages the Original Whistle Stop in Pasadena, a specialty shop for train hobbyists, said he sees fewer and fewer children coming in on their own.

There are video games and other distractions, of course. But Parke said there’s also the fact that children don’t get the up-close, visceral experience of a steam engine the way he did when he was 6 or 7 years old near Bucks County in Pennsylvania.

“It’s a fascinating thing when you’re standing on a platform and a steam locomotive rumbles into the station,” Parke said. “There’s 150,000 pounds of dead weight on the rails, and the ground’s trembling, and it sort of gets into your blood.”