Fifth-grade model train enthusiasts to play hosts on home tour

Mary Pickels
| Monday, April 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Train tracks, horn blasts and flashing lights signal the hobby that absorbs Mark Cox and twin sons, Christopher and Matthew.

The brothers, who turned 11 on April 5, were given a train set for Christmas at age 3 from their maternal grandfather, the late John Lopatich.

Fifth-grade students at Latrobe Elementary School, the boys build trains from Lego sets and proudly point out their own work on the layouts they design with their father.

“They were so little, they would stand on stools when they started,” Mark Cox said.

Each boy will play host for one of the Unity family's two train layouts during the fifth annual Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association Model Railroad Home Tour.

Stops include five private homes in Vintondale, Latrobe, Saltsburg and Greensburg along with three portable layouts at Latrobe's Huber Hall.

The association, whose goal is to preserve the history of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, began the tour as a fundraiser to help support its museum in Ligonier.

The boys have visited numerous train and trolley exhibits and have a wish list of train rides.

“The Horseshoe Curve (National Historic Landmark in Altoona) — I've always wanted to ride that one,” Matthew said.

One display includes a school, church, café, bank, motel and swimming pool, coal mines, mountains and a working magnetic crane.

One building reads “Anita's Restaurant & Eatery,” a tribute to their mother, Anita.

“Most of the buildings, we will put lights in if they are not in already, to light it up and make it look pretty,” Christopher said.

The hobby is not inexpensive, Mark Cox said, but trains can be purchased used or through trades.

“You can start out with small trains and have a nice little display,” he said.

Their second layout includes a Coors Light train, which can emit “fog” to depict refrigeration.

It has a Steelers trolley, a Polar Express train and a copy of a No. 1152 Doodlebug, a Ligonier Valley streetcar.

The family sometimes visits train displays while on vacation, Anita Cox said.

“Anywhere we are, we brake for trains,” she said.

Lanny Dixon of Vintondale spent 20 years building his basement train display, which he describes as a throwback to “a happier time.”

The three-rail O-gauge layout is “99 percent done,” said Dixon, 71. “But I plan to expand. I may start all over again.”

A member of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum, Dixon said his love of trains was sparked with a Christmas gift from his parents when he was 4.

“It was right after World War II. I added on what they gave me each year for Christmas. Trains used to be toys. Now they are scale models of real trains,” he said.

The art of his layouts imitates life.

“It's modeled on something you would see on the street back in 1946, for example,” Dixon said. “It pretty much models Western Pennsylvania at that time — industrial cities, mountains and cliffs.”

There are freight trains and passenger trains, steel mills, and specific touches from any mid-1900s Main Street — signs reading “Uncle Sam Wants You,” an ice cream truck, a street car, a bank, a hobo camp, a movie theater with lights racing around the marquee.

The layout mimics the look of cities such as Johnstown, Greensburg or Pittsburgh in the 1940s or 1950s, he said.

“It is what you might see on city streets downtown during the ‘pre-mall' era,” Dixon said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or

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