Arnold City man's love of trains evident in woodworking
By Joe Napsha
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
When retired railroad worker Bill Strickler of Arnold City built a wooden replica of the passenger-baggage railroad car that sits next to the West Newton Station, he was combining his lifelong love of railroads with his passion and skill for woodworking.
The intricately-built replica sits on a wooden arched railroad trestle inside the West Newton Station, which is itself a replica of the 1910 Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad station on West Newton's West Side. The station is the visitors center in West Newton for the Great Allegheny Passage, the recreational trail that connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md.
Strickler, whose home is filled with model wooden railroad trains he has built, said he was inspired to build a replica of the 1928 passenger-baggage car when he saw a worker welding on the railroad car. He began the long process of building the wooden train this summer and finished it about a month ago.
While the 89-year-old Strickler did not keep track of the many hours he invested in making the railcar in his basement wood shop, he said the work takes “a long, long time.”
“It was pretty tedious. It takes a lot of patience. I did it all by hand,” and did not use any model kits, Strickler said.
Before he started building the trestle and railcar, Strickler said he took extensive photographs of the refurbished 70-foot passenger-baggage car.
He used a variety of wood for the railcar and trestle, including purpleheart, African mahogany, walnut, maple and poplar. Using his router, cold saw, lathe, scroll saw, table saw and band saw, he cut countless small pieces of wood and glued them together to make the wooden masterpiece.
The different shades of brown and purple wood on the arched trestle, which is adorned with the tag “P&LE RR,” and the passenger-baggage car are the colors of the wood and not the result of any wood stain, Strickler said. He gave the trestle and railcar a clear coat of varnish, which gives it a gleam in the sun that streams through the windows of the trail station.
Strickler estimated he spent more than $60 on the wood he used for the project. The railcar, which moves on the wooden tracks he built, has blinds in the windows and doors, as well as the springs for the wheels.
“He wants every little detail on them. He is very proud of his work,” said his daughter, Debbie Russo, also of Arnold City.
As for how long he will keep the display it at the train station, Strickler said, “I'm just going to let it be there.”
Robert Hand, president of the Westmoreland Yough Trail Chapter, which oversees that section of the recreational trail, could not be reached for comment.
Strickler's fascination with railroads began while growing up near Dickerson Run in Fayette County, when his father worked for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. Strickler said he would walk by P&LE's Dickerson Run rail yard, which featured a roundhouse and turntable that moved the locomotives and rail cars.
Strickler's father took a job with the Monessen Southwestern Railway Co., a short line that served the former Pittsburgh Steel Co. mill in Monessen.
Strickler had quit school after finishing eighth grade at Liberty School because his family had moved near Linden Hall outside Dawson, which would have required him to walk 3 miles just to catch a trolley to go to school. He worked on a nearby farm, milking cows and handling a team of horses pulling the plows and discs that prepared the fields for planting.
Before the United States entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, Strickler followed his father into the Monessen Southwestern Railway, working in the maintenance department. He only lasted six months at the rail yard before the U.S. Army drafted him and placed him into the newly formed Army Air Forces, where he repaired B-24 bombers.
During part of his duty, he was repairing planes from a base in southern Italy. At one time, he was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, where he said temperatures dropped to 32 degrees below zero.
After his discharge, he returned to the Monessen Southwestern Railway, where he became a supervisor of electric locomotive trains for 25 years at the Monessen rail yard. He worked there for 44 years before retiring in 1986, when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. shut down its Monessen mill.
Strickler began his woodworking and building model trains while still working on the railroad, but retirement gave him more time to do it, Russo said.
Strickler has built a wooden model of the Layton railroad bridge, which crosses the Youghiogheny River near Perryopolis, and is on display at the Perryopolis Area Heritage Society's museum in Perryopolis. A replica of a Monongahela Railway locomotive that he built is on display in a Brownsville museum, Strickler said.
Strickler also has built a replica of the Monessen Southwestern's No. 10 steam locomotive, which was “a real workhorse” at the mill, lugging cars loaded with slag up to a nearby dump in Rostraver Township.
Not all of Strickler's wooden trains are on public display. A 9-foot-long wooden train featuring a locomotive and four railroad cars, including a coal tender and caboose, sits in the living room window of his house.
“He's got a wooden train on every windowsill,” and has built several cabooses with night lights in them, Russo said of her father.
He also has made intricately-designed wooden napkin holders, rocking horses for his grandchildren, as well as a wooden tractor and rocking airplane.
His daughter said that over the years, people have offered to buy his wooden creations from him, but he has not sold them.
In addition to the wooden trains he has built over the years, Strickler's love of trains has extended to model railroading . He has an extensive HO-scale model train layout featuring more than 300 feet of track and 81 model train cars in a basement layout.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-836-5252.
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