McKeesport club has railroad display on track for holiday
Dean Liberty remembers the precise moment his life got on track.
“My father always had some Lionel train stuff around the Christmas tree when I was very young,” said Liberty, 49, of Port Vue. “But when I was 3, he took me to see the train display in Little Boston and that was it. Since then, I've spent about three-quarters of my life working with model trains.”
He's not the only one.
For the past six years, Liberty has served as president of McKeesport Model Railroad Club, which has been inviting local residents to its annual Christmas display since the 1950s. Although membership has gone through peaks and valleys during the ensuing decades, Liberty said the member base of 23 is about where it's been for the past 10 years.
“A lot of people think it's just a bunch of grown men playing with toys,” he said. “But this is far from that.”
The club works year-round breathing steam to the Mon-Yough Valley Railroad — the fictional line running through the group's 2,200-square-foot display laid out in the club building across from CP Industries along Walnut Street.
“There's no such thing as the Mon-Yough Valley Railroad,” Liberty said. “There never was. Instead, this is a fictional reflection on our area in the ‘60s.”
Aside from the overwhelming amount of planning, building and rebuilding the display, Liberty and the others go the extra step to create an expansive and detailed history for the imaginary railroad.
“The basic idea is that our train line enjoys a place beside the B&O and Pennsylvania Union railroads that served this area for over 100 years,” Liberty said. “Most of the changes to the rail industry have been in the last 40 years. Norfolk Southern took over Conrail, and now there's hardly anything left. But in our world, the Mon Yough Valley Railroad never got sucked up by this and still exists out there on its own.”
In fact, all the towns depicted in the display are only loosely based on real-life counterparts. Port McKee is an obvious local reference, but there are areas like Lee Ridge, which stands in for Cumberland, Md. The name comes from a town across the Potomac River from Cumberland called Ridgeley.
With roughly 20 scale miles of track in gauges ranging from mainline to trolley track and everything in between, the world of the Mon Yough Valley Railroad is vaguely but deeply rooted in the heritage of the Mon Valley.
And this year, Liberty said, is going to be particularly special.
“What you'll be seeing is a transition of what was here for about 25 years and a complete reconfiguring of the display that started in 2009 and is expected to be ready for next Christmas,” he said. “That means this will be everyone's last chance to see it exactly the way it has been for quite some time.”
Liberty said club members have poured more than 6,500 man-hours just to get the redesign as far as it is now, but that the project is still about a year ahead of schedule.
“The intent is that once this is rebuilt, nobody is going to have to mess with it for a couple decades,” Liberty said. “Provided we get to stay here.”
The club relies heavily on revenue from its annual Christmas display to be able to continue.
“We collect $4,500 in membership dues each year and we have $7,500 in core expenses like taxes, insurance and utilities,” Liberty said. “So we absolutely have to come up with that extra $3,000 to keep alive — and the only thing that does that is people coming through the door this time of year. Last year, we just made it with $3,350.”
Liberty said there will usually be between 10 and 12 separate trains running in the display, which visitors can walk through at a rate of $4 for adults 18 and older and $2 for children 5 through 17. Kids under 5 and uniformed active members of the military, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts are admitted free.
Once inside, guests can purchase model railroad items, enter a raffle to win a digital train set or enjoy snacks and refreshments. Santa Claus will stop by Dec. 22.
But to Liberty, all the hard work and dedication the club puts into the display each year are simply to ensure there will still be a display for families to visit in the future.
“This organization is 63 years old and has outlived a lot of similar ones,” he said. “I want to see it outlive me and continue being a tradition around here for years to come.”
Open houses are slated each Friday in December from 7-10 p.m., each Saturday from 1-7 p.m. and Dec. 22 and 29 from 1-6 p.m. Parking is free when available in the Steele City Auto Sales lot and across the street in the CP Industries employee parking area.
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.