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Trains chug with enduring appeal

There’s an excursion line operated by the Everett Railroad that makes regular runs out of Hollidaysburg.

You ride in restored vintage passenger cars pulled by No.11, a coal-fired steam locomotive built in the 1920s.

Chugging along on an old track through narrow ravines and deeply wooded hillsides, passing the backyards of houses built a century ago and remote rustic settlements, it’s pure time-travel.

In the summer, with all the windows thrown open and the coal smoke wafting in, the sense of a trip back to the past is unmistakable.

Then there are those experiencing the ride from outside. Each time the whistle blows, that iconic sequence of long and short blasts for a grade crossing, there are people waiting to wave and take pictures and videos.

They’ve got tripods set up, they’re vying with each other for new angles, they’re on top of pick-up trucks and hanging out of trees. They’re even standing in waders in the middle of the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, framing the perfect shot as the train comes rumbling across the bridge.

Ever since the first railways of the mid-1800s, we’ve had a love affair with trains, and not only with actual rolling stock.

From the start, toy trains captured the imaginations of children and adults alike. With the advent of electric motors to power them, model trains, accessories and complementing scenery were the most wished-for presents under the Christmas tree.

Building and operating a layout — hands-on stuff with trains — became a treasured holiday activity, one that is still going strong.

The Train Collectors Association, a national group headquartered in Strasburg, is the source for every kind of information on toy trains down through the years, and has stunning layouts at its Toy Train Museum.

To provide a genuine glimpse of the old days of toy trains, six dealers at Apple Hill Antiques in State College have put together an exhibit of pre-1950s model railroad collectibles.

Trains, signals, signs, and structures from before the age of plastics are currently showing in the shop’s Collectors Case. Among the items are Marx, Lionel and American Flyer tinplate and cast iron, including a rare Dayton-Toledo spring-driven locomotive from the late 1800s.

According to Roger Snyder, owner of Apple Hill, “These early pieces really evoke the spirit of the time. They were used and enjoyed for generations — a true connection to the past.”

The heyday of trains can be summoned up by being around operating steam railways and getting a heady whiff of acrid smoke. It can also be recalled by toy trains and accessories from an earlier era. Either way, it’s great fun.

(Hartman resides in State College.)