Archives For model railroad

At the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, you see model trains chugging charmingly through the trees, mountains, and cityscapes, and clacking across bridges as they merrily toot their horns.

You don’t see the workshop crammed with test tracks, a lathe, a drill press, soldering irons, a drawer filled with spare train motors, dozens of bins of spare parts, and rows of small jars of paint labeled “CNW yellow” and “Wisconsin Central maroon.”

But that’s what keeps the trains rolling at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Watch our engineer interview video on YouTube.

Have a tiny engineer? Don’t miss Trains, Tricks & Treats on October 21 & 22.

Small boy with a microphone talks about the Model Railroad Garden.

This summer, a few of our younger visitors got a chance to interview our engineers. View the video on YouTube here.

A room in the basement of the Regenstein Center is the hive of repair activity for the Model Railroad Garden, which operates through October 29. There are also ghost trains for Night of 1,000 Jack-o’-Lanterns (October 26 to 29), and trains that wend through Wonderland Express, which begins November 24. That is why there is a staff of three year-round engineers and 18 seasonal engineers, helped by 66 volunteers, that keep the repair shop busy year-round.

The work is crucial. The Model Railroad Garden has 350 model railroad cars and 125 engines, and during the season they run on a punishing schedule: eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week.

“The trains are not designed to operate the way we operate them; companies will not design them that way,” said chief engineer Dave Rodelius. “So we just continually use up the trains, and when they’re used up, we discard them. We get two of everything. When one breaks down, we replace it with the other.”

The engineers replace motors, wheels, and track—400 feet of track a year. They repair motors. They wire the electronics that make the trains run, testing the trains on the workshop tracks before putting them into service; incorrect wiring causes the fuses to blow. They install circuit boards with electronic sound cards that make horn or bell sounds when the train travels over magnets.

They also invent their own fixes. They have to.

Every spring, the miniatures also get a mini-makeover. Read more about our Miniature Maintenance.

PHOTO: Miniature Chicago Cubs fans.

Cubs fans in fresh whites never lose hope for their team winning one day.

“The Amtrak train hasn’t been made since 2004; we couldn’t get wheels anymore,” said operating engineer John Ciszek. “So we re-engineered the truck assembly (which holds the wheels) with a bolster plate.” Now they can replace the wheels with ones still being made.

And when they need a part that doesn’t exist, they have it custom engineered.

The behind-the-scenes work continues outside. Discreetly tucked away in the Model Railroad Garden is a shed that stores cars and engines overnight, and another that houses banks of remote controllers that operate the engines and their charging stations. A board fitted with small colored lights shows the direction each railroad line is operating—green for clockwise, red for counterclockwise.

The constant work is a labor of love. Rodelius, Ciszek, and maintenance technician Dave Perez have been model railroad enthusiasts themselves since they were children.

“Most of the engineers have their own layouts in their basements,” Rodelius said. “It’s the perfect job for most of the people here. They love it. You can’t keep them out of here.”


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Once there was a boy who loved model trains. When the boy grew up, he became the chief engineer of train exhibitions at the Chicago Botanic Garden—and he still plays with trains. “I hardly get to play with my railroad at home because I get to play with this one,” said Dave Rodelius, in the tone of a man who can’t believe his good fortune.

PHOTO: Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this summer: a steam engine!

Dave Rodelius shows off one of the stars of the Model Railroad Garden this spring: a steam engine!

This year marks Rodelius’s 15th season at the Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America, which opens Saturday, May 9, with a special treat. This season, the Model Railroad Garden will pay tribute to steam engines, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Chicago Horticultural Society (the Society founded and manages the Chicago Botanic Garden). Models of historic steam engines will chug along 1,600 feet of track, representing the early days of the Society, when steam engines ran commuter coaches along Chicago’s elevated tracks and hauled freight over long distances.

Q. Dave, you have the greatest job title ever! How did you get this job?

A. I was retired, and my wife saw a little blurb in the newspaper that the Chicago Botanic Garden needed tram drivers. So I became a tram driver. One day, I saw that they had torn things up right in the middle of the Garden. I said, “What the Sam Hill are they doing here?” That’s how I found out there was going to be a model railroad out there. Then one of the secretaries, who worked for a vice president, found out that I had been into model railroads all my life. So one day, the vice president of visitor operations at the time called me into her office and asked if I would be interested in managing the railroad. I didn’t get a chance to ask her how much I’d have to pay.

PHOTO: Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Visitors of all ages enjoy the Model Railroad Garden.

Q. But that was back in 2000—and the railroad exhibition was going to be a five-month exhibition.

A. We had more than 100,000 people come through in five months. The little path out there was constantly packed with people. One thing led to another. In our first year, the trains didn’t make any sounds—no choo-choos or whistles or anything, so we added sound cars. Gradually, the railroad became so darn popular that it became a permanent exhibition.

Q. So you became interested in trains as a kid?

A. When I was 6 or 7, my dad bought me a Lionel train. That train would go around the Christmas tree and in the bedroom. Now I have a model railroad layout of Solothurn, Switzerland, where my daughter got married; it’s in my basement. It has Swiss trains and a ski lift.

Q. It sounds like you were a busy kid.

A. My family had 2.5 acres that we farmed in World War II for vegetables. I sold vegetables in the neighborhood in my little wagon. Then I was in the Boy Scouts and became an Eagle Scout in 1948….I grew up in Evanston and still live in Evanston, and I have lunch with some sixth-grade classmates once a month.

Q. And you’ve had some other interesting jobs before you started running the railroad.

A. I received a bachelor’s degree in animal science at the University of Illinois. I wanted to raise cattle. In college, I was an intern at a purebred cattle farm. The most fascinating thing I did was to help birth calves. You get to see the little rascals trying to get up and stumble around….Eventually, I was drafted into the U.S. Army engineer corps. Two years later, I was discharged and became a manager at a livestock feed manufacturing company. Then my dad bought a photography studio in 1961, and I became a photographer.

Q. What keeps you motivated after all these years?

A. My passion for the railroad is what drives me—I absolutely love this railroad. The same passion goes for everyone. We have 18 engineers and 75 to 80 volunteers. They get along so darn well that I can’t believe it. You cannot keep these people away; they are just so dedicated. They whole thing has kept me young. I get up and down on my hands and knees all the time. I should write to the AARP—if you want to hear about a good job to have, we at the Garden have it.

PHOTO: Model Railroad Garden volunteers.

Left to right: Model Railroad Garden volunteer engineers Ken Press and Mark Rosenblum with George Knuth, staff engineer

Q. What do you do in your spare time?

A. I do some gardening, and some fishing and boating. My wife and I have three daughters and three grandkids. My wife is spectacular, one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

When I met Larry Marchetti at a model train show in 2002, I had no idea he was connected to the famous Como Inn restaurant, or that it would be the beginning of a 12-year friendship, full of fun and hard work together.

PHOTO: Larry Marchetti.

Larry Marchetti in the Model Railroad Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden

I was displaying my N-gauge layout at a show put on each year by the Fox Valley Division of the National Model Railroad Association. Larry stopped to look and we got to “talking trains.” I had been operating the Model Railroad at the Chicago Botanic Garden for two years, and we were expanding and looking for people to help us. Larry mentioned that he had a G-scale layout in his basement and, as they say, one thing led to another. I thought to myself that this was a fella who knew trains, was at ease talking to people, and someone I could get along with.

Larry soon joined us as an engineer and I realized I was very lucky in finding him. He turned out to be quite handy with tools and machines and, as he already had a lot of the same type of rolling stock that we had, was expert with repairs. It wasn’t too long before he became our first chief operating engineer.

We clicked and it worked very well. We eventually came to a point where we could kind of anticipate what the other guy was thinking of doing next. We had some squabbles and some hearty disagreements but they never got in the way of our respect for each other or the ends to which we were working. Some people forget, that is what a good friendship is.

Larry teased and cajoled with everyone in the Model Railroad Garden, always creating laughter and having fun. He was seven years my junior and he never let me forget that I was “the old man.” Another one of his favorite names for me was “shorty.” The “old man” one I comprehended but, “shorty,” I’m still working on. Larry was an infectious personality. He grew on you. He helped create our motto, “If you are not having fun in the Model Railroad Garden, you don’t belong there.” But when you are playing with trains what isn’t fun?

During our time together we would talk about our childhoods, our “war stories,” and our families. It was then that I found out that Larry grew up in Lemont, Illinois, on his family’s farm with a lot of animals and farm work. We realized that we had that in common, as I grew up in a similar way. I also learned that the Como Inn was the family business for many years. No wonder he had the gift of gab and found it easy to talk with our Garden visitors. He was a natural, and our visitors enjoyed his explanations of what the different cars and engines were used for and how railroads really worked. He would make the railroad an educational experience.

PHOTO: The Como Inn model, created with all natural plant materials.

The Como Inn model created by Applied Imagination in honor of Larry Marchetti. Its debut will be at this year’s Wonderland Express exhibition.

During the 12 years he worked here, Larry put his heart and soul into making the Model Railroad Garden better with everything he did. Every time he came up with an idea, we would kick it around and invariably it would turn out to be something really cool. There were so many that I can’t remember them all. Let’s put it this way, if it weren’t for many of his ideas the railroad wouldn’t be as great as it is today.

PHOTO: Dave Rodelius in the Wonderland Express exhibit.

Dave Rodelius, chief engineer, brought Larry Marchetti on board the Model Railroad team.

Larry, of course, was also heavily involved in Wonderland Express when it arrived on the scene and had a tremendous amount of input regarding the logistics of its construction and operation. He did it with the same intensity he put into the Model Railroad Garden. He was a great detail man and during the construction of Wonderland Express we all would give him a hard time about being picky and he would give it right back to us, all in good fun. That could have been another motto of the railroad. ”If you can’t take some fun poked at you, you might not want to hang around with these ‘Railroad Rowdies’.” Once in a while, when Larry and I talked to friends, we would joke about spending more time together at work than we did with our wives at home. It wasn’t too far from being true.

Now you know why the Como Inn was chosen to be displayed in Wonderland Express in Larry’s fond memory and to commemorate his life with us. Applied Imagination has done an outstanding job of replicating it in great detail, for which we thank them.

Thinking of you, Larry,
Dave Rodelius

The Model Railroad Garden opens for its 12th season on May 7. We caught up with Brian Busse from Applied Imagination as they were finishing their setup. The horticulture staff are currently planting the miniature gardens around all of the American landmarks Busse and his team installed. See how the garden turns out at the opening on May 7! Visit www.chicagobotanic.org/railroad for more information.