It’s amazing what a small group of dedicated and skilled volunteers can accomplish to showcase their love of model trains.
Walk into the Boothe Memorial Railway Society Museum, part of Stratford’s Boothe Park, and be prepared to gape. Or just smile.
When those more than 12 trains are running, you will behold an armada of whistling engines whirling through a carefully crafted landscape of miniature trees, mountains, tunnels, town buildings and rail yards.
“We’re just model-train enthusiasts,” says Paul DeVitto, president of the Boothe Memorial Railway Society. “It gets under your skin. It can’t be cured.”
The society formed in 1999 after the family of Albert Arsenault donated to the community a 12-by-15-foot model train layout that Arsenault had built. It was stored in a town garage at the park.
When town officials asked for volunteers to build a structure to house the layout, the railway society’s members answered the call. In addition to creating that structure, reminiscent of a railroad station, they upgraded Arsenault’s project and several new layouts on different scales. In 2002 the museum opened.
The society’s brochure states: “Our purpose is to promote an interest in model trains and railroad history through educational projects, community outreach and fellowship among members, thus expanding the growth and enjoyment of the hobby and appreciation of railroad history.”
Upon entering the museum, immediately to your right is an extraordinary 72-inch-high curved wood trestle that supports the train as it runs over and past a small pond, waterfall and other scenery.
The trestle was the work of Don Masso, the society’s vice president. “I cut the lumber in my basement wood shop,” he says. “It took me several months to finish the trestle. It was a labor of love.”
Masso adds, “I grew up right here in Stratford, not far from the railroad tracks. It stuck in my bones.”
One might think the society’s approximately 45 members have worked for real railroad companies, but only a couple fit this category. Masso notes, “Paul is in the real estate business. I was in insurance. We have a doctor and several school teachers.”
The members pay just $20 in annual dues. “Everyone is encouraged to join,” DeVitto says. “We’ve got people like Don who are highly sophisticated in electronics (and woodworking) and people who just come in and ask: ‘Can I join?’ Some of them want to build their own home layouts. We’re happy to give them information.”
“Everybody does their thing,” says Ed Montagnino, another society member. “I do a lot of the electrical stuff but I don’t touch the scenery.”
Montagnino is also the guy who takes the society’s portable layout out into the community. He notes that most residents of senior citizen centers aren’t able to come to the museum.
Montagnino adds, “This is also a museum of artifacts from the railroad industry.” He points to the railroad signs, flags, uniforms, signaling kits and lights from the New Haven and New York Central lines. You can also spot paintings of railroads as well as conductor figurines and a ticket booth.
“We want this whole thing to be interactive,” DeVitto says, “so that our visitors, especially the little ones, can have fun with it.”
DeVitto walks me past a large model of Thomas the Tank Engine and squats down by a model train, led by another Thomas engine carrying cartoon figures from Sesame Street.
“It’s down at the kids’ level,” DeVitto says. “They can sit here on the stool and watch it.”
But they also like the other layouts. DeVitto says, “The best part is when the little kids come in here, get up on their tiptoes and you see the smiles on their faces. That makes it all worthwhile.”
Masso also welcomes the youngsters. “When kids come in and I’m around, I give them a little train whistle. They go tootin’ around and have fun.”
The floor-level layouts include, in intricate detail, miniature autos, boats, train cars, human figures and town buildings. Outside a bank stands a group of bank robbers. A portion of Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo is here, including its tiny spinning carousel.
Another railroad runs on a loop near the ceiling, drawing attention with its bells and whistles. There is also a side room with an additional layout still being created by John Csonka, the society’s treasurer. He is working on the expanse of trees and adjoining landscape. Periodically the train disappears when it enters a tunnel and goes behind the mountains.
Although admission to the museum is free, at its entrance is a donation box. A sign attached to it states: “Your donation will help us complete the garden railroad.” That rail layout is set up just outside the museum in warm months.
The museum is open most Saturdays during the summer from 1-4 p.m. At other times of the year the open houses are held 1-4 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month, weather permitting. More information is available at bmrailways.com.
In addition, the members hold work sessions on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month from 7 p.m. to about 8:30. The public can attend.
“That’s when we do repairs or clean the tracks,” Masso says. “You’ve got to do it if you want the trains to run.”
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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