BEACHCOMBING: 'The Biggest Little Railroad Museum' Can Be Found in Wallingford
Photos by Catherine Avalone
When Dave Peters worked as a railroad machinist, he would come home at the end of each day’s work with a souvenir or two — or three — in his bag.
“Every time I saw somebody throwing something out, I grabbed it and took it home,” he says. “There was never a night I came home that there wasn’t something in my bag.”
This collector’s habit led piece by piece to what Peters calls “the biggest little railroad museum in Connecticut.”
For the past 20 years or so, Peters and his wife, Barbara, have been showing astonished visitors the Peters Rail Road Museum, a stuffed-to-the-rafters wonderland in the basement of their Wallingford home.
He insists on retaining the “Rail Road” double word usage. “Originally it was always two words,” he notes.
David and Barbara Peters, of Wallingford, owners and curators of the Peters Railroad Museum in Wallingford, are photographed behind the ticket booth. David Peters, a retired railroad machinist, began collecting railroad memorabilia in 1961.
The museum is available to the public, but by appointment only. Just call Dave or Barbara at 203-269-1788. Admission is always free.
“We have Girl Scout troops and Boy Scout troops come in,” she says. “They love it.”
Dave Peters looks at it this way, and his wife shares the sentiment: “It’s no good if I don’t share it.”
When Peters met me at the door of his modest-sized home, he was wearing an eyepatch and using a cane. He has Bell’s palsy, a paralysis or weakness of facial muscles caused by damaged nerves.
“I’m not doing too well,” he says. “I’m falling apart and getting old.” He is 84.
Peters notes years ago he could have told me a story about virtually every object in his basement. But the collection doesn’t really need a narrator.
Peters first showed me around upstairs. The ground floor contains a library filled with more than 2,000 railroad books and assorted collectibles such as railroad stamps, conductor’s watches, plates, matchbox covers and soap.
He also took me into “Jeff’s room,” where his younger son lives. He works for Metro-North as a machinist, carrying on the legacy.
You could easily mistake “Jeff’s room” for that of a child, as it overflows with train toys, including several clocks bearing railroad designs.
But this was all prelude. Peters opened a door and we descended; this is now an effort for him, as he must slowly back down with the aid of his cane.
The first thing you behold at the bottom of the stairs is a ticket window from the Wallingford train station before it was refurbished. (Peters always pronounces the town name “WallingFORD,” as a conductor would call it out.)
Alongside the ticket window is an Underwood typewriter, with only capital letters because it was used for railroad telegrams. There’s one in it from Aug. 23, 1937, announcing an extra run out of Wallingford.
Every inch of the ceiling and walls is covered with railroad signs, photos and paintings of beautiful vintage trains and memorabilia. Peters pointed toward a row of beer bottles on a shelf, each one with a railroad emblem on it. They include the Railway Brewing Co. out of Anchorage, Alaska, Pullman Pale Ale, Light Rail Ale and Old No. 38 Stout.
“Most of those beers I drank,” Peters informs me.
Nearby are some wine bottles, including Night Train Express. “Oh, I remember that one,” Barbara says. “Horrible!”
Peters is particularly proud of the front door and headlight of a New Haven Railroad car, built in 1955, which he has up against a wall. His wife remembers when it arrived: “He brought that home in a Volkswagen with the seat down. He just said, ‘I’m gonna get it.’”
This amazing basement also contains file cabinets with a total of 60 drawers of railroad postcards, photos and other documents. He opened a drawer and showed me some of the postcards, meticulously labeled with such categories as “comic,” “odd” and “bigger than life.”
One of the larger items on display is a mannequin of a young male brakeman. “Barbara and I call him our third son,” Peters says. “I got him from Railroad Salvage — 50 bucks.”
But what really draws your eyeballs is an expansive model railroad, an amazingly detailed replica of the coal town of Oak Creek, Colo., replete with a mountain, a gold mine and a tunnel in that mountain through which the trains run. Atop the mountain is a hobo camp and a flock of sheep, one of them black. The village even contains a brothel.
Peters began building it in 1957, the year he got married.
He sat down at an engineer’s chair marked “Santa Fe Railroad,” reached for the authentic locomotive throttle and the model trains lurched into motion. Moments later a miniature hot air balloon slowly descended from above the village.
Talk about attention to detail; the rail cars are filled with coal which Dave and Barbara gathered themselves in Oak Creek.
But that was back in the days when Dave was more mobile. “I don’t ride trains anymore,” he says wistfully. “When I was feeling better, we’d go all over the place: across Canada and the Orient Express, Paris to Istanbul. We ate like kings.”
What does the future hold for this one-of-a-kind museum? It helps that railroading is in the family’s genes; their older son, Dave Jr., is a part-time conductor for the Valley Railroad. Barbara says Jeff might keep the museum going “when we’re gone.”
“I think that’s his desire,” she says. “But whether that’s a reality, who knows?”
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