NEW CASTLE TWP., Pa. - Every Sunday this time of year, Wally Fetterrolf Jr. and other members of the North Schuylkill High Railers get together.
"Right now, I think we have five on the main level, and then we have our three on the upper level," Fetterrolf explained. "We have two trolleys and then a little hand car running."
The trains are running on track in the back of a mall.
"We're usually a lot busier than you know what we are this year," Fetterrolf said. "The last few years have slowed down some."
There aren't many stores open anymore in the Schuylkill Mall near Frackville, Schuylkill County. The train town has been been tucked in the mall's back corner for the past 16 years.
"There's no people coming in," Fetterrolf said. "Well, hopefully things will get better in the new year."
It's the same kind of optimism that kept the coal towns going long after the mines had closed. Like The Little Engine Who Could, trains at the Broad Mountain and Mahanoy Valley Railroad keep chugging on. You can see it for yourself for just $1. That's all they ask to share their labor of love.
"We always tell everyone that we are the best kept secret in Schuylkill County 'cause people come in and say, 'I didn't know you were here,'" Fetterrolf said.
The ballast of the O-gauge layout is real coal and tells the story of the anthracite region in the height of the coal industry in the 1920s, back when coal was king and coal companies owned just about everything.
"The area was dingy. dirty, dusty, smoky," Fetterrolf said. "Mahanoy City seen upwards of 100 trains a day in a 24-hour period. The traffic was extreme."
As are the details in the train layout.
"So there actually are people who can come in and pick their houses out, if they live in the little mining patches," Fetterrolf explained.
You'll pass Gilberton, Maysville and Mahanoy Plain.
"This is Ashland how it would have been in the 20s," Fetterrolf added.
My keen eye spotted the Delorean from the 1985 flick "Back to the Future." It's not the right time period, but one of the surprises hidden throughout the layout.
Part train enthusiast, part consultant, Fetterrolf knows the layout and the stories behind it.
"I used to work underground in the coal mines," he said. Like they say, it gets in your blood and it don't get out. They leave remembering their childhood, learning something."
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