A Holiday Festival of Trains

Categories: Day Tripping, Do As The Locals Do, Featured, Gadget Diva, Miscellaneous, Mommy Diva, The 411 Diva
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By Angela Rocco DeCarlo ©2009 –

They’re back!

Sadly, there was no train exhibit last year at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, CA, and plenty of train enthusiasts were disappointed, especially those who had enjoyed the trains the previous two years. But this year the train exhibits have returned, bigger and better, thanks to the dedication of various model train clubs, including the Southern California LEGO© Train Club and Train Collector’s Association and Empire Railway Museum, Perris, California. This is a “must-see” holiday event for the entire family: A tradition to treasure.

It’s hard to tell who is more thrilled by the 1,500 feet of track, 13” tall multi-layered landscapes with 14 trains running on six tracks – adults remembering their own toy trains as children or the children they have with them, experiencing the romance of trains as their fathers and grandfathers once did. The exhilarating displays call for repeat visits to fully appreciate the charm of the two rooms of trains. The entrance lobby is taken up with a ginormous LEGO© landscape, while the traditional mountain of trains keeps company with the George Washington “Crossing the Delaware” painting in a separate room.

The LEGO© cityscape is spectacular, with skyscrapers, heliports, street cafes, miniature vehicles of all kinds, including, of course, moving trains. There is a 20 foot-long suspension bridge and a 15 foot-long cable-stayed bridge and two others. There’s even a little pirate’s cove hidden beyond “civilization.” It is difficult for the eye to accommodate the fabulously diverse features, so the museum made a little game to help the children along.  Two whiteboards list items for viewers to find. The day we were there, the items viewers were encouraged to locate were: Superman; four American flags (hint: look for Superman at one of the flags); sea monster (look under a bridge); five helicopters, two pizza trucks and much more. It was not an easy task – but made the experience more challenging. Older kids especially liked circling around to find as many of the designated pieces as possible.

The second display room, in addition to the mountain of trains, had an 8’ x 8’ glass-enclosed, button-operated inter-active game. The children could push a button to make the helicopter fly, the RR gate go up, the conductor emerge from the station and other actions. Wonderful vintage videos of the opening of Disneyland, 1955, played on, with then-Vice President Richard Nixon and family cutting the ribbon to start the Disneyland Monorail train and having a tough time doing it. Walt Disney had to rip it apart with lots of laughs all ‘round.

In this room the huge mountain of six levels of moving trains – all different sizes, tiniest at the top, largest on bottom – was enchanting. The landscape was dressed for autumn on two sides with a beautiful winter scene of a snow-dappled village, complete with an infinitesimal flying Santa sleigh at the top, on the other side. The children never tired of going round and round to marvel at the trains rushing through tunnels and over bridges, finding something new with each look. They have asked to go back again.

When you go, be sure to inspect the various cases along the walls, which contain marvelous Lionel trains – invented in 1901 by Joshua Lionel Cowan. Initially, the animated trains were used to attract window shoppers in New York City. Each year the Lionel Company produces 300 miles of track and has built 50 million train sets.

Each year my own Christmas fireplace tableaux features a Lionel engine from one of these trains – a last remnant of a post-WII Lionel train set. The set belonged to my husband, Dan, when he was a boy, but the rest of the set – tracks and trains– were flooded out in the basement of our suburban Chicago home years ago. Only the treasured heavy black metal engine remains.
In his memoirs, Richard Nixon wrote: “All through grade school my ambition was to become a railroad engineer.” His father, Frank, who built the family home, which is located at the Museum, had been a street-car motorman in Columbus, Ohio, before the family relocated to California.

Today, with our ability to fly across the country in the time it would have taken Nixon’s father to travel by horse and wagon from Whittier to Anaheim, the romance and wonder of the adventure trains once represented is hard to imagine. This exhibit rekindles that amazement of travel and trains and the longing to explore, which is engendered by powerful trains cutting through the countryside.

Don’t miss the full-size steam engine, “Chloe,” a sugar plantation engine, displayed next to the presidential helicopter (go inside the helicopter for extra fun) east of the Nixon home at the edge of the library property. On your way to the helicopter take a peek in the windows of the White House East Room replica with its glorious crystal chandeliers and oil paintings.

Something of the horse and wagon remains in modern trains and their tracks. It is said the width of the early train track – 56.5” wide – replicates the width of two horses and the wagons they pulled. Going farther back, there were roads of wood rails in Germany in 1550, which had horse-drawn wagons hauling freight and people. The iron rails and wheels arrived about 1776 and by 1789 a flange was added to allow the wheel to gripe the rail. Once the steam engine appeared – 1803 – in Wales, the world was changed forever. Various inventors are credited with the steam engine, among them James Watt, but there are others.

Of course, everything goes back to the Romans and train track widths are no exception. The width of modern train tracks are approximately the width of ancient Roman chariots’ wheels.  The engineer of the Knott’s Berry Farm full-sized steam engine first shared this with me. Further research indicated he was on the mark and the Romans can take another bow for their contributions to Western culture.

The Romans were in England 54 B.C. and didn’t leave until about 425 A.D. They left their beautiful roads, walls and centrally heated villas with hot running water to go defend the Empire elsewhere. It would be more than 1000 years before an Englishman would again have a hot bath in a warm house – and longer than that for fast transportation. They didn’t call it the Dark Ages for nothing. Technology and trains threw a bright beam of enlightenment across the land.

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“A Holiday Festival of Trains,” Nixon Museum, runs until Jan 10, 2010.
Nixon Presidential Library & Museum
18001 Yorba Linda Blvd
Yorba Linda, CA92886
714-993-5075 – www.nixonlibrary.org
Admission: adults, $9.95; seniors $6.95; children 7-11 $3.75; children 6 and younger are admitted without charge.
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

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