All Aboard Hobbyist Builds Tiny Rail Empire

Posted: July 16, 1989

Welcome to the North Hills Central Railroad, the creation and domain of North Hills resident Chuck Schrader.

"This is my empire," said Schrader, fanning his arm over the freight yard, amusement park, main terminal and engine shop.

"It's my world, and I'm the president, the vice president, the secretary and the janitor."

Schrader's empire, about 125 feet of H-O gauge railroad track that runs through and around his basement, and even out to his side yard, took more than 50 years of collecting, building and rebuilding.

It's the only place in town where you can hitch a ride on a whipped-cream car, bounce around on the Charlie Brown Express, enjoy the view from the monorail or live dangerously and ride the roller coaster.

Schrader's system is also the only place where someone can sit in front of a scale model of the stage at Radio City Music Hall, lights included, listen to theater pipe music, or watch films rolled from a 35mm projector that was used in the old Keswick Theater.

In short, Schrader's empire is where someone can walk back in time and get lost in the alluring world of rails. Schrader said all that is needed to enjoy this world is imagination and a little time. Imagination he has; time he has not enough of.

A semi-retired coffee service salesman, Schrader has had two lifelong hobbies - model trains and restoring organ pipes.

"I guess a lot of people get into trains and organ pipe music because of the nostalgia," Schrader said. "But I don't really think that I'm the nostalgic type.

"My first love has always been and always was model trains," Schrader said. "But since I'm only semi-retired, I don't have as much time as I would like to spend on the trains."

Schrader says that his track would equal 20 miles of the real thing and that his fastest locomotives would be traveling at 60 m.p.h. in full scale.

Schrader owns 56 locomotives, 120 freight cars, 40 passenger cars and 5 trolley cars. He said it isn't the size of his collection that is most impressive, but the fact that for the most part, he built it himself.

"Every car, every track and every detail that you see here is one of a kind because I pretty much put them all together," he said. "Some cars I bought, but I always end up rebuilding them and putting more detail on them."

It was detail and accuracy that attracted Schrader to the H-O cars and tracks.

"That's what I love about the H-Os . . . the fact that you can get it right to the last detail," he said.

Standing at the controls for the eastbound main passenger line, Schrader, wearing a conductor's hat and the look of a man who wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world, yells orders to Dan Sluzas, 10.

Dan, who met Schrader through a library club, seems destined to follow in his mentor's footsteps. Dan regularly visits with Schrader and said he was starting to build his own system.

"Now, Dan, throw the westbound switch and let the trolley come through," said Schrader, serving as the yard conductor. "We've got to clear the track for the passenger cars."

And, on cue, the passenger line climbs its way up the track, travels around the water pipes, over the washer and dryer, through the freight yard and under a warning sign that reads "Warning, Contagious Model Railroad Disease."

Schrader waits not so patiently on the other side of the room, blows his homemade train whistle and walks up to the main controls.

"You know, what really makes this hobby is the way that you can really work at it," Schrader said. "If you don't really work and stick to just buying hobby cars, then it's not worth it."

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