BONNERS FERRY — Trains run through our county, annoying some as they wait for it to pass, but also delighting others. The sounds of the powerful engines pulling their long string of rail cars, blowing their horn, rumbling as it snakes through the terrain, reverberating through the ground, brings memories of toy trains that once excited young eyes as they watched on, admiring the subtle and intricate details that accompanied them.
Times have changed. Children are far less likely to ask for a train set for Christmas anymore, instead hoping for a Playstation 4 or new smart phone.
“Model railroading is a dying hobby,” said Vic Cherven, Jr., the unofficial president of the Spokane, Panhandle, and Palouse Model Railroad Club (SP&P). “Most of us are really old. When my dad started me out in 1950, I was a year old. Now I’ve been in it for sixty-some years.”
Model railroading teaches so much to the hobbyist that has succumbed to its allure. “I learned how to paint. I learned how to make those trees, I learned how to make the grass, I learned how to make tunnel portals, I learned how to solder,” said Cherven. “All those things are part of the learning- there is just so much to it. There is no hobby, that I know of, that teaches this much, with such a great variety. The electronics, the wiring, you can just go on and on and on.”
Cherven and his father started their model railroad layout in California, eventually moving to Boundary County in 2005. They continued in Idaho, designing a custom building to hold their dream project in 2007, an S gauge replica of the Western Division of the Southern Pacific railroad, including the Oakland Mole terminal, heavy industries along the San Francisco Bay, and more.
The building houses a 1500 square foot model train room that is 65 feet long, by 39 feet at its widest point. “This is ten years worth of work in this room and I’m not ready to operate yet,” said Cherven. “If my dreams and goals are ever going to be reached, it’ll be even bigger than it is now. It’s one of the biggest S gauge layouts in the country, that has ever been built.”
Cherven and his father started in a club called Inland Empire S Gauge Association of the Pacific Northwest, which at the time, had about 25 members. “One of the oldest of the S gauge clubs. It started in 1967,” said Cherven.
The club had begun with about ten original members. “Almost all of them had a layout, and they were good modelers,” said Cherven. “They wrote a newsletter every month and they got together once a month at somebody’s house and they played trains.”
When Cherven joined the club, he reinvigorated it. “I was the one writing the newsletters and doing most of the publicity,” he said. “I got the membership up to about 35, and that was in 2010-2011.”
As the times changed though, different facets of the hobby began to divide the club members. “S gauge is different that some of the other gauges, especially HO and N, because there are two or three separate facets, maybe even four facets,” Cherven explained. “There is scale modeling. Most HO modelers are scale modelers. That means they try to keep everything in correct proportion to the real thing, according to scale. S gauge has a facet of scale modelers, too. But the other end of the spectrum from those guys is what we call tin plate modelers. They got started in the 1950’s by the A.C. Gilbert Company.”
The A.C. Gilbert Company produced the iconic American Flyer model trains, highly popularized over the early years. “All the fathers came back from World war II and they saw Gilbert’s American Flyer trains and they all bought their kids American Flyer trains. Growing up in the 1950’s, I had about ten American Flyer train sets,” said Cherven. “Those trains used oversized wheels to stay on the track, because little kids are pretty rough on stuff.”
There was also a group in that club that were known as scalers. Cherven and his father had evolved from American Flyers, through an intermediate step, and had become scalers.
“We used small track, small couplers, and small wheels, that are proper proportion to the real thing,” said Cherven. “The scalers and the American Flyer guys really didn’t mesh too well. We tried, but it is a traditional problem in S scale railroading- it has always been that way- not just here, but everywhere.”
Although Cherven attempted to keep the large club together, they were unable to come to an agreement, so a small group split off, forming the Spokane, Panhandle, and Palouse Model Railroad Club. The name was a play on a real railway called the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway (SP&S).
With experienced members, and all but one having their own home layout under progress, they chose to break away from the traditional club formats, and chose a new model, originally inspired by Jess Bennett, a premier S scale modeler, who passed away before being able to see his idea come to fruition.
Cherven called the new club an “Interconnected Home Layout Model”, with the primary goal to be focused on realistic operation. “Each home layout should be designed to conceptually connect with others in the club, to form a network,” Cherven wrote in an article for the National Association S. Gaugers Dispatch magazine.
SP&S club members are required to have a home layout under construction by the end of their first year. The members meet approximately once a month, at a club member’s house, working together on that member’s layout. “Working on each other’s layout is what really sets this style of club apart from others,” said Cherven.
The SP&S recently attended the Spokane Model Train Show at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center on October 15 with a portable S gauge train layout that the club members have been building over the past few years. Each club member built two or three sections of the layout, measuring two by four feet, called a module.
“This was the first time we exhibited it in public,” said Cherven. “For this show, we had 14 modules, making a 16 by 20 foot rectangle. We had lots of interested viewers, including several young parents with small children.”
Cherven hopes this kind of exposure will inspire a younger generation of model railroaders to again step up and carry the hobby forward into the future.
“There aren’t many families now that are getting their kids into model railroading. They are all playing with videogames, and stuff like that,” said Cherven. “That’s what kids do today.”
With so much to gain and learn by becoming involved in model railroading, from creativity, to engineering, to patience and perseverance, it remains a hobby that should preserved and passed on the next generation.