Model Railroad Club of Toronto packing up 67 years of memories to make way for condos

Jordan Chittley
Daily Brew
A train speeds by a 50s sign. After 67 years in the Liberty Village location, The Model Railroad Club of Toronto will be moving to make way for a condo.

Dave MacLean will never forget the first moment he set eyes on the miniature trains humming by quirky scenes in a basement in Liberty Village, in the west end of Toronto.

The year was 1970 and he was just eight years old. He walked in to the Model Railroad Club of Toronto with his father and like most people, he was overwhelmed by all the cars, people, buildings, tunnels and, of course, trains.

"I remember walking into this room saying 'wow, this is so cool,'" said MacLean, who received his first train set from his dad when he was just four years old.

Fast forward to 2013 and the 50-year-old engineer is now the club's president. There are 22 members who meet in the basement every Wednesday evening to run the trains, and they open it up for public shows on weekends.

How can you not be overwhelmed? There are 6,000 feet of track, 1,000 trains and countless scenes that include a prisoner trying to kill someone while working the rails and a golfer fishing his ball out of a lake. To walk around the rails is to walk across a country with models of the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver and the former railway station at Yonge St. and Summerhill in Toronto, which is now a liquor store. It's all set in the 1950s so they can feature steam and diesel trains, although all of the model trains are electric.

After 67 years at this location, the club is being forced to move because of a condo development, which will replace the club with a 32-storey condo with three levels of parking — meaning in a few years cars will park where the trains now run.

The model railroad is the largest in Canada and sits in a former armaments factory. The long, narrow main room where the trains run used to be a shooting range.

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MacLean may be president, but he's a relative newcomer to the club. Some members have been there more than 40 years and one has been with the club for more than 50 years.

Stuart Macadam has been a member for 42 years and still remembers the first time he walked into the room. He saw club signs while driving by one Sunday, so he went in. In no time, he was operating. He went back the next Wednesday and has been going ever since. Macadam, a Sudbury native, was 19 at the time, but his love of trains goes back much further.

"When I was a child my father and mother and I used to go grocery shopping. My mother went to the Loblaws, which was right beside the Canadian Pacific main line and my father and I would sit out either in the car or on the loading dock of the Loblaws store and watch the CPR trains go by," he said.

"It's a creative outlet ... it's fun to be a builder, it's fun to put things together, it's fun to build a system and there's so much here in terms of not just the trains, but the systems that make things run," MacLean said. "What you see on top here is only half the story, what's underneath is kilometres and kilometres of wire."

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But there is much more to the club than running trains. There's a camaraderie.

"You develop good friendships," MacLean said. Macadam compared the club to a family.

"There's hundreds of thousands of hours of time invested in this. Everything is handmade including the track, the buildings, the structures and the electrical systems," MacLean said.

They now have ten weeks to tear it all down and estimate it will take about two years to build it back up to the point where they can show it off again. The club hopes to save part of it, but about 80 per cent, including the scenery, is too big to be moved and will likely end up in dumpsters on the street.

"It's very bittersweet," said MacLean. "It's great we get to build something new and fresh, but sad to see the decades and generations of people's work have to be disposed of."

Macadam agrees. "It's sad to be tearing this apart, but to be building something new is exciting as well."

This isn't the first time the club has moved — 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the club. It was founded by Harry Ebert and Borden Lilley in 1938 and was originally in Ebert's basement before moving to the fourth floor of Union Station a year later. Seven years after that they moved to the location in Liberty Village and some of the scenery moved with them.

The club will host shows on upcoming Saturdays and Sundays for the next few weekends between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., with the final show coming on Family Day, Feb. 18.

MacLean encourages people to visit the club before the tear-down begins.

"We'll rebuild, but what you see here will never exist again."