Ah, yes. The steamy shrill of a train whistle. It’s not something we hear often in Traverse City these days, except when it’s time for the annual Festival of Trains. Presented by the Northern Michigan Railroad Club (NMRC) at the History Center of Traverse City, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the miniature models and is open now through New Years Day.
Long before we had a marina (and we’re talking 1950s), Traverse City had four rails bringing trains to haul away the lumber from here and surrounding areas, said TC History Center executive director, Bill Kennis.
“The Chicago fire (in 1871) sent us millions in revenue for our lumber,” Kennis said about the region’s sudden relevance in that industry. “Nearby Manistee had more millionaires per capita than any other place in the world.”
The town’s founder, Perry Hannah, has been credited for jumpstarting the railroad scene by building the first rail line. With railroad access and the need for lumber, Traverse City turned into a rail town.
With the Festival, the History Center hopes to branch education and fun, said Kennis.
It seems to be working. “During this time, we will get 10,000 people through here,” he said. “On any given Saturday, we can have up to 500 people.”
The exhibit, which features the Thomas the Train theme this year, is the History Center’s biggest fundraisers and attracts not only locals but out-of-towners and ski bums, along with folks visiting family in town.
“It becomes a tradition,” said Kennis.
Some children—and adults—will come every day, he added.
It’s no wonder as it can take some time to explore what each display table has to offer, from teeny tiny people and animals to elaborate street layouts and the slew of trains that run interchangeably.
“You can’t have a train run for 14 days because it’ll burn out the motor,” explained Bill Kirschke, one of the 22 NMRC members who volunteer hours for the exhibit. “During the busy times you might see 20 different trains.”
Kirschke brought his Z-scale (smaller scale) train and track model but has a permanent 21-foot-long display at home. Each item is personally owned by an NMRC member and many, like Kirschke, are avid collectors who have purchased pieces from various trade shows, magazines and online websites.
“I paint the people,” Kirschke says about the figurines that stand barely a centimeter tall. “I get them unpainted because they’re a whole lot cheaper. They’re so small that you don’t have to really worry about how fine the paint is. You just put a glob here and a glob there. They’re not perfect but they look pretty good.”
Although model trains have been around for years and seem like an ancient hobby, the experience is what makes it timeless.
“These trains make noise, they smoke, they’re interactive,” Kennis explains as he points to a boy about the age of four who moves excitedly between stations “It’s not static. It’s not a video or a book. It’s somewhat of an art form.”
The Traverse City Festival of Trains runs now through New Year’s Day at the History Center, located at 322 Sixth St. Admission is $5 per guest (free for ages four & under). Family passes are available for $30 with unlimited visits to the festival. For more information, visit festivaloftrains.org or call 231-995-0313.