J im Lafayette spent nearly 40 years working for the Delaware and Hudson Railroad and more than a decade after his retirement he’s still working on trains, they’re just a lot smaller now.
Tucked away on the second floor of Lafayette’s Adams Street home is a sprawling model train set the former railroad conductor has pieced together one miniscule piece of track at a time.
Like many people, Lafayette had a model train set growing up and he dabbled in the hobby after retiring from the military. But when he began raising a family, the pursuit fell by the wayside until a fateful conversation about ten years ago with friend and fellow model train enthusiast Bill Frazier.
“He kind of talked me into it. He had one and was very knowledgeable,” Lafayette said. “I knew a lot about railroading but not a lot about model railroading.”
This isn’t your father’s model train set. Many of the engines have computer chips and small speakers that make authentic noises. Some can even bellow plumes of smoke from their stacks.
The train rolls through fictional communities, with names such as Twin Junction and Grand Junction, and past iron ore mines and pastoral countryside. It even passes through a facsimile of Whitehall, chugging by Riverside Veteran’s Memorial Park, American Legion Post 83 and Benjamin’s coal tower.
“I had to take a few liberties,” said Lafayette, pointing out the park is on the opposite side of the street in his scaled down version of Whitehall.
Many of the elements included in the model are based on aspects of his life.
“Most of the engines I have are engines I actually worked on,” said Lafayette.
There’s a replica of the old Podunk iron ore mine in West Fort Ann where one of Lafayette’s relatives passed away many years ago. There’s also a billboard featuring pictures of two of his granddaughters, a roundhouse meant to approximate one that used to be located in Whitehall, and a model of his beloved white 1965 Ford Mustang with blue interior.
“I bought that same exact car after being hired by the railroad,” Lafayette said.
Lafayette began piecing together his model in the spring of 2003 but his love for trains was cast long before that.
He is a fifth generation railroader who worked for the D&H railroad for 36 years.
“My family has been on the D&H as long as the D&H has been in Whitehall. You could say its part of my blood,” he said.
Lafayette has 53 engines, 300 rail cars, dozens of buildings, and lots of tiny cars and figurines.
Every little detail is carefully considered, right down to the tracks, which are painted so as not to appear shiny.
Replicas of an iron ore mine, a cement factory, train depots, and the buildings on Main Street were all handmade and each includes the minutest of details. Benjamin’s Coal Tower, which was made by Frazier, was built using the actual blue prints from the building.
“Benjamin came up and looked at it and said it looks just like it except for the pigeons, so I added some pigeons,” Lafayette said.
The train’s surroundings, which Lafayette refers to as the “environment,” are made from a type of Styrofoam housing insulation and cut and painted to look like grassy fields and wooded forests. Rocks are made from plaster castings and the vegetation, which Lafayette purchases, is carefully plotted and laid out.
“It takes many, many hours to get the environment right,” he said, adding the work is a welcome distraction from everyday life.
But unlike some model train hobbyists, he doesn’t aim to be completely authentic.
“I worked on the railroad for 36 years. I don’t want it to be real. I don’t want it to be serious; I want it to be fun. It’s a hobby.
The fun is in the doing,” he said.