Lords of the trains

Lords of the trains

How a world-class model railroad layout landed in a Paterson silk mill

Mathew Horning, left, and his uncle, Bernie Callen, preside over their rail empire.

Start with a three-year-old’s enchantment with a toy that moves by itself, as if by magic.

Add the love of a doting father.

Simmer with time. Throw in more than a dash of unexpected curves.

The result: The world’s largest O-scale model railroad layout.

On Sunday, you’re invited to the third floor of a former silk factory in Paterson to see it.

If you go, brace yourself. Prepare to be amazed. There are tracks and trains and buildings rendered in loving details. There’s a replica of an Esso oil refinery; a Manhattan subway station, replete with microscopic model rats, and there are yet more trains, including engines that puff rings of flavored smoke.

You can look at it, and it keeps on going, like a train that has stopped you at the crossing that keeps on going, going, going, one car after the next, a plethora of shapes and colors, and still it keeps on going.

And to think that it started with an unassuming train on a simple course in a New Jersey basement.

It was 20 years ago that Mathew Horning of Haworth, now 23, discovered his older brother Randy’s train set. He couldn’t resist it. He picked up the toy, and like many a younger brother before him, he broke it.

That’s where his father switched the track of the story.

Marty Horning bought Randy a replacement, and he didn’t stop a chastened Mathew from playing with it.

In fact, Randy wasn’t that interested in the new train.

“I was the only one who played with it,” said Mathew. From there, his love of trains blossomed into a hobby that took a growing size in his life and that of his family.

His father had “absolutely no interest in model trains. Not even in the least bit. He saw that I was interested in it and he wanted to see me as happy as possible. So he ran with it – a little more than most fathers would,” Mathew said.

Marty died last year; now, Mathew’s hobby “is a way to have a connection with my father.”

When Mathew was younger, his father took him to train shows. Held in high schools and convention centers, the shows bring enthusiasts together to show off the trains they assemble and paint and the tracks they lay out, the meticulous craftsmanship they use in creating model scenery.

By the time Mathew was 10, he and his father had found a club that would let him operate its trains. The club had a modular set – it could be disassembled and taken to shows and then returned and reassembled. Then the club lost its home and had to find a new space.

“I had a loud mouth then,” Mathew remembered. “I said that my father had extra room.”

His father, along with an uncle, Bernie Callen, recently had bought a 19th-century silk factory in Paterson for their family business, which manufactures mats used for framing photographs. “There was a lot of excess space,” Mr. Callen said.

That was the beginning of what is now the NJ HiRailers club, whose directors are Mr. Callen, his son Dennis, and Mathew Horning. Later, a 60-foot train layout, valued at a quarter of a million dollars, went up for sale, and Bernie Callen bought it. It had to be lifted into the building on a crane, through holes made in the exterior walls. Eventually, the original club, with its modular layout, moved out, but still the tracks kept growing.

When Mr. Callen, 73, was a child in Jersey City, he loved to watch the trains downtown. Like many children in that era he had a toy train set, but as he grew older he put the toy trains away.

Now, though, there was a train set across the hall from his office.

“I can just go there and work the trains,” he said. “It’s very restful and relaxing. I’ll work on scenery. I’ll run it a little bit. I’ll just sit and look at the layout.”

Other than being on the other side of the hall from the tracks, Mr. Callen is typical of train hobbyists.

“Most of the guys in the club are 50, 60, 70,” he said. “They came back to the hobby after their children grew up.”

Over the years, the club grew, and so did the layout. It is now 185 feet long – more than half a football field – and 40 feet wide. With its trains and track at a 1/48 inch scale – a quarter of an inch on a model corresponds to a foot in real life – the layout models what would be five miles of tracks.

This, says Mathew Horning, makes it the largest in the world.

The club meets every Wednesday. Members must commit to eight hours a month of work on the layout. And a few times a year – including this Sunday – it opens its doors, allowing visitors to see the set and perhaps even control the trains.

Membership brings the keys and pass codes needed to visit and play with the trains any time.

Mr. Horning and the Callens, father and son, are mostly responsible for the layout. Other club members bring their own locomotives and rolling stock – that is, the non-locomotive freight and passenger cars and cabooses.

Mr. Horning’s devotion to trains has grown beyond the third-floor layout in Paterson. In college, he interned for a few summers with Lionel, the legendary toy train manufacturer, working on projects ranging from patent research to product design to – his favorite – working on a pop-up store in New York.

“I actually got to select the inventory,” he said. “I wrote the employee training manual, explaining the heritage of the company, who they were working for, everything they needed to know to sell trains.”

The toy train business has gone through peaks and valleys over the years. Before the Depression, Lionel’s larger trains were best-sellers, but its smaller, less expensive O-scale trains became popular when the economy tanked. Recent years have seen children’s energy and enthusiasm moving to screens more than toys. But, Mr. Horning said, the toy train business “is doing better than most would expect.

“As technology has grown, everything is controlled with remotes,” he said. “You can integrate it into your iPhone and iPad. That is going to be a huge draw for younger people. Technology has really helped bring toy trains into the 21st century.”

That said, he admits that in the world of model train aficionados, “I’m an outlier because I’m young. You don’t see many young people in the hobby.”

Mr. Horning, who is now studying for his MBA, also has learned to control full-size trains. He is a licensed locomotive engineer, and is preparing for a second license. (Different railroads have different licensing requirements.) And he is a volunteer conductor for the Polar Express, a Christmas-themed ride (Santa Claus walks down the aisles, as do hobos) put on by the New York Susquehanna & Western Technical & Historical Society in Phillipsburg, out on Route 78 near the Pennsylvania line. The Polar Express has the production values of a theme park, but it’s a real 12-car train pulled by an antique diesel locomotive.

He does not, however, plan on making trains his profession.

“I would not want to live the lifestyle of a full-time locomotive engineer,” he said. “You’re basically on call 24/7. If you work for a freight railroad, you start as the low man on the totem poll and when someone calls in sick, they call you. They give you three hours notice. It could be two in the morning and you’ll have to be there at five.

“It’s a wonderful hobby.”

What: Gaze to your heart’s content at the world’s largest O-gauge
train layout

When: Sunday, December 21,
10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Where: 185 Sixth Avenue, Paterson

More info: (973) 553-1555,

Joshua Cowen, the toy train king
Lionel has been synonymous with model trains since 1900.

That was when a young inventor and tinkerer made an electric-powered model train and sold it to a shop for its display window. The train was labeled “Electric Express” in gold and it had no top – it was designed so the shopkeeper could load it up with merchandise. The display indeed attracted customers – who wanted to buy a train for themselves.

A toy legend was born, and its father was Jewish: Joshua Lionel Cowen.

Mr. Cowen was born Cohen on the Lower East Side in 1877; he changed his name in 1910. He built his first train when he was a child. He attached a steam engine to a wooden locomotive he carved. It exploded.

Before finding success with toy trains, he patented a device that ignited a photographer’s flash, and provided the U.S. Navy with fuses for mines.

In 1953, Lionel was the world’s largest toy company. By the end of the decade, though, Mr. Cowen’s fortunes had turned, and he sold most of shares to his great nephew – the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn.

More recently, Lionel has had a turbulent corporate history, which included ownership by General Mills and a major investment by toy train fanatic and rock singer Neil Young.

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