“Look! Here it comes!”
Almost in unison, a dozen small heads swivel to the left.
Sure enough, with a clatter of metal wheels and a cloud of blue smoke, a tiny locomotive emerges from the dark railroad tunnel, pulling a chain of boxcars and tanker cars in its wake. It slows down to take a sharp curve, then speeds up again as it travels past miniature homes and forests.
Across the room, another model railroad setup has attracted the attention of several fascinated adults. In fact, little trains are chugging and whistling and clattering along almost everywhere you look in this century-old building.
There must be someone somewhere who doesn’t love watching model trains. But you won’t find them here in Traverse City during December.
That’s when the Great Lakes Children’s Museum and the Northern Michigan Railroad Club put on their annual Festival of Trains, a two-week display of miniature trains and layouts that draws an estimated 7,000 visitors each year to the city’s former Carnegie Library. This year’s festival will be held Dec. 12-31.
Even children who’ve never seen or heard a real train in their lives watch in wide-eyed fascination as these miniature marvels go through their paces, surrounded by 4,000 square feet of elaborate displays that evoke the sights and sounds of a vanished American landscape.
Each day, over 400 people wander through the stately Sixth Street building – now home to the Crooked Tree Art Center – to watch the trains. Many are youngsters on school field trips or visiting with their families, but a substantial number are adults indulging in a bit of historical nostalgia. The allure of model trains spans entire generations, especially during the Christmas season.
“There’s something about trains that just fascinates people,” said the railroad club’s Bill Kirschke. “It’s something that gets the older people just as excited as the kids.”
Although this “Up North” corner of Michigan hasn’t had regular train service for more than a generation, railroads are deeply interwoven into its history. Trains hauled lumber from the forests and produce from the farms, and they helped launch the local tourist industry. (In fact, the computer-generated steam locomotive featured in the film “The Polar Express” was modeled on the PM 1225, a real-life engine that ran between Grand Rapids and Traverse City during the 1940s on the long-vanished Pere Marquette Railroad.)
The railroad club – a group of several dozen committed model train enthusiasts – works all year to maintain and improve the hundreds of tiny buildings, landscapes and cars that make up the six working train layouts on display. Each year since the festival began in 1991, they have redesigned the exhibits around different themes – and one of their most popular annual features is a “swap meet” where railroad aficionados can exchange gear and paraphernalia. (This year’s meet will be held Dec. 12-13.)
The Crooked Tree Arts Center is located at 322 Sixth St. in the city’s historic Central Neighborhood. Hours will be 10 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 pm on Sunday. On Dec. 24 and Dec 31, hours will be 10 am to 2 pm; the exhibit is closed on Christmas Day. Cost is $5 per person per visit; household unlimited festival passes available for $25 or $30 at the door. (Yes, people keep going back over and over again.
For information about purchasing advance passes and scheduling school trips, contact the Great Lakes Children’s Museum here.