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Model railroaders back on track

Wayne Pfeifer is looking forward to welcoming visitors again for the first time since February. [Damon Maclean]

One of the tourist attractions on hiatus during the COVID-19 lockdown, the St. Jacobs and Aberfoyle Model Railway will be back on track later this month.

The group of model railroad enthusiasts will be welcoming visitors again as of August 26, looking forward to a revenue stream now that they’ve signed a new lease at the St. Jacobs location.

Wayne Pfeifer, president at the St. Jacobs and Aberfoyle Model Railway (SJ&AMR), admits to a little trepidation prior to the reopening. That’s due to the virus itself – many of the volunteers fall into the vulnerable older-adult category, for instance – and the uncertainty faced by many organizations just now.

The tourist location last operated on the family-day holiday nearly seven months ago. Just last week, the company signed a new lease under a new landlord. They have had no money coming in since the beginning of the year and are looking for the community to come out and support them.

“We encourage our volunteers to tell all their friends and people they go to church with and so on – the model railway could use a little help with any donation. If anything more than $20, we’re a charity so we can issue a tax receipt,” said Pfeifer. “That money will be going towards paying the rent and keeping the lights on.”

Despite all the tribulations just now, members of the club are happy to be back at it.

“We’re all crazy. Model railroaders are a particular kind of human being that defies description,” he said.

The group’s model landscape encapsulates the 1950s, the golden age of Canadian railway according to many enthusiasts due to the presence of both steam and diesel trains.

“In the 1950s both kinds of locomotives could be seen on the railways at the same time.” 

The indoor display captures many places that Ontarians should be familiar with. Some locations include industrial built-up areas with monuments, including Toronto’s Union Station and the rural regions that are reminiscent of the surrounding areas. In particular, one spot is a power station in Bala, Ontario and the dam that used to exist near Clappison’s corners in the Hamilton area.

The SJ&AMR had its origins on a locomotive ride from Toronto, where the idea first surfaced.

“We started building this in the upper level of a barn in Aberfoyle, Ontario… in 1971, but our advertised start date is ’72,” explained Pfeifer. “We moved from the barn to one of these steel-arch type buildings in 1982, after 10 years, which gave us a chance to expand. We were there for nine years. And then eight years ago, we moved to St. Jacobs. And this is pretty much exactly the way it was in Aberfoyle except for a couple of things” – one of the additions is a Mennonite meeting hall.

Now set up in the tourist draw that is St. Jacobs, the display draws in visitors, some of whom have an emotional response to the exhibit, he notes, citing the example of a railway worker moved to tears.

“The finished interiors and in the upper part of this station, there was a railway office and a control panel for the tracks – they call it centralized traffic control and CTC down. We have a we have that CTC panel up in here. We have a man sitting on a swivel chair working at the CTC now, so when the night scene happens, you can see in and you can see that guy. When the night scene was over, this guy here was taking out his handkerchief and he was dabbing his eyes and he said, ‘You see that guy in there? That’s my job.’

“We’ve had several instances where a guy would walk in the door and he sort of get a little emotional: ‘that locomotive, I was the last driver before they scrapped it’ or stuff like that; we’ve had many of those encounters over the years.”

While the SJ&AMR space has reopened, there are new safety protocols in place, including screening questions for visitors. Additionally, there is limited capacity for 30 persons per show and staggered show times lasting an hour per session.

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