Fifty years ago, people in the city of Pittsburgh would have seen trains ambling over bridges, following railroad tracks along rivers to take passengers and goods to their destinations.
Those halcyon days might have been forgotten, had it not been for the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum.
The museum has been in existence since 1938 when it was founded in Downtown Pittsburgh. It moved from place to place with no real home until 1986, when organizers built its current headquarters at 5507 Lakeside Drive in Gibsonia.
The museum hosts a holiday show every winter to highlight its model layout of the massive Mon-Valley system that ran from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD back in 1952.
This year marks the 24th holiday show for the museum, where members work on the different aspects of the trains and scenery all year long.
“That’s 24 years of work,” museum President Ray Mueser said of the detailed display. “There’s not someone here eight hours a day working on it. It’s just whenever somebody has time to come out, then we come out and work on it.
"There’s always something new every year that we work on, and it expands every year.”
The display is breathtaking at first glance, with its painstaking likeness to the original landscape. The volunteers conjure a near-exact replica by painting murals in the background, constructing every tree on their own, and even using twisty ties from Giant Eagle to sprout miniature cornfields. Mueser said they work hard to ensure everything is built exactly to scale.
“We went down and took pictures of the old buildings that we were going to use,” Mueser said. “We went to historical societies' museums to get pictures. Then we bring them back here, and we shrink them down to HO scale and build them ourselves.
"Whatever you are seeing, this is what it looked like in 1952.”
Instead of relying on steam power like the old engines, the system is entirely operated by a command computer. While this is more a efficient system than relying on the old wiring, the trains still have wreck just like the real railroad, Mueser joked.
The November-to-January show averages about 10,000 visitors, many of whom are families and children.
“We’ve driven past them a million times, [but] never knew they were here,” said visitor Aronna Wesche. She visited the museum recently with her husband and son, who are fans of model trains.
“We’re getting ideas for our Christmas display," she said. "It’s very child-friendly.”
Being child-friendly is one of the things Mueser takes pride in. The museum's entire first floor is an interactive play zone, where children can press a button to watch Thomas the Tank Engine race around the track.
“We have children going out of here [happy], which we call our satisfied customers,” he said. “They’re going out of here kicking and screaming ‘I don’t want to leave’.”
This overall atmosphere is what attracted many of the current volunteers to become members of the organization.
“I came out here eight years ago as a visitor, and these guys looked like they were having too much fun,” said John Emph, the group’s treasurer. “I’ve been into trains all my life. It’s a great hobby.”
“The whole organization has a history to it,” said Dan Devic, who has been involved with the museum for 17 years.
“Things are always changing for the better, which is something you don’t see in a lot of today’s society. We keep the pilot lit under this thing and keep it going.”
The museum offers its time-machine glimpse into the past every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day until Jan. 22. It is open from 6 to 9 p.m. on Fridays, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekend.
The requested donation for the Holiday Train Show is $6 for adults and $4 for children under 12.