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Many children are first introduced to model railroading at Christmas when a train magically appears under the Christmas tree.

As a young boy, North Huntingdon resident Bob Prehoda loved his model train and hated to take it down every year after Christmas.

"We'd set up the train after Thanksgiving and take it down in January," he explained. "I decided then that, when I grew up, I'd display it all year-round."

When he got married, Prehoda set up a train in the newlyweds' bedroom. It didn't take long for his wife, Janice, to get the idea that trains were important to him.

In 1987, Prehoda, an elementary school teacher, began to build a model railroad in the basement of his Markvue Manor home. It's an HO-scale railroad, which is the most popular scale, and offers the widest variety of commercial products and accessories. At a scale of 1:87.1, one inch on the model translates to more than seven feet in the real world.

He named his railroad the "Huntingdon Northern" in honor of his hometown. It includes more than 2,000 feet of track, about 350 rail cars and 50 engines, each with its own miniature computer. The Huntingdon Northern is a coal-hauling model railroad, operating between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md. It's been featured twice in Model Railroad Craftsman magazine.

The Huntingdon Northern interchanges with four other model railroads on the layout. The Western Maryland, the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pittsburgh & West Virginia were real railroads that operated in the region. The fictional Cumberland, Pittsburgh & Western is the name of a friend's railroad.

The railroad depicts southwestern Pennsylvania circa 1961. Prehoda used a Pennsylvania map to pick out names of towns that sounded like the kind of places you'd find here. He selected Falls Junction, Chestnut Ridge, Spruce Creek, Coal Valley, Laurel Springs, Hickory, Meadow Run and Port Allegheny.

The fictional town of Huntingdon is also a major rail yard just southeast of Pittsburgh. Other rail yards are located at Chestnut Ridge and Spruce Creek, just outside of Cumberland. A yardmaster is assigned to coordinate rail movement at each yard.

The model railroad is run like an actual working railroad. Operations are simulated as they would have been in that era. Written train orders are used, typical of the practice in 1961, and a card system is used to control movement of the rail cars. Prehoda makes the buildings and rail cars appear realistic by making them look dirty, soot-covered and used. Even the boney piles (mine refuse) are accurately depicted.

In the process of constructing the railroad, Prehoda recruited people with specific talents and skills to help him.

"I like to recruit people who are smarter than I am," Prehoda said with a smile. "I met most of them through the National Model Railroaders Association. I've met a lot of good people through this hobby."

While most model railroads are designed to be watched, this railroad was laid out for operating purposes. To operate the railroad, Prehoda needed a crew. Most of the men who helped build the railroad continue to serve as crew members, and several of them have their own operating layouts.

On the third Wednesday of each month, between 10 and 14 men gather in Prehoda's basement to operate the railroad. When they arrive at 9 a.m., he assigns each man a job -- dispatcher, operator, yardmaster or engineer.

They take a lunch break at noon and receive new job assignments before returning to work the second shift. They take their jobs seriously; since they've all been doing this for at least 10 years, each man knows how to perform every job on the railroad.

On a recent snowy day, 10 railroad workers, retired from their real-world professions, were busy performing their assigned duties on the Huntingdon Northern. Crew members who are unable to attend will "call off" work, just as they would on a real job. Some of the men wear their Huntingdon Northern RR hats, adding to the realistic atmosphere.

Terry Newell, a North Huntingdon business owner, was the dispatcher. As though he was working from a remote location, Newell worked out of sight behind a curtain. The dispatcher is like a traffic police officer, directing rail traffic instead of automobiles. He issues written train orders and dictates them to an operator. A closed telephone system is used for communication purposes. In 1961, dispatching was done by phone; today it's done by radio.

Bill Wilson, the 88-year-old operator, traveled from Baldwin to perform his duties. He retired from his accounting job at West Penn Hospital in 1983 and is proud to be the oldest member of the crew. The operator receives orders from the dispatcher and copies them onto a train order form. He then reads them back to the dispatcher to confirm their accuracy and delivers them to the assigned engineer. The orders are dated with the current month and day and the year "1961."

Bob Johnson, a mechanical engineer from Murrysville, was the Spruce Creek yardmaster that day. His job was to "block" (organize) the cars in the proper sequence to facilitate their delivery to Coal Valley and other locations, based on instructions outlined on "car cards."

Johnson explained that, "The way bill identifies where the car is going. It's a miniaturized version of what they actually used on the railroad. If you don't get the cars blocked right in the yard, it's a lot harder when the cars reach their destination. The cars are classified according to their destination and are blocked in geographical order. A different track is assigned for each destination. The cars that go the furthest are placed in the back of the train.

Larry Kline, an electrical engineer, drove from Oakland to work as a railroad engineer. He's been a model railroader since he was 11. He moved to a larger house to provide more room for his O-scale trains. He's also a freight car historian and has co-authored a book on the subject.

Dick Flock, an engineer and minister from Greensburg, has been involved with model railroading since he was 3 and has been a member of the National Model Railroaders Association since 1961. Working as a train engineer, he described his view of the Huntingdon Northern RR.

"Think of it as a theater," he said. "Trains come on the stage from Pittsburgh and go back off the stage in Cumberland."

Flock is also a railroad photographer who never gets tired of chasing trains.

Dave Baker made the long drive from Johnstown to operate the railroad. He vividly remembers his first experience working here 10 years ago. "When I arrived, I learned the crew had organized a union and went on strike for higher wages," Baker recalled. "It was the Brotherhood of Model Locomotive Engineers -- Local No. 2," Prehoda added.

"I thought all I was going to get to do was carry a picket sign all day," Baker said with a smile. "But Bob got an injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act, and we had to go back to work." As the story was told, the whole crew burst into laughter.

Other retirees operating the Huntingdon Northern that day included Bob Balawajder, a teacher from Bethel Park; John Oleyar, an Air Force meteorologist from West Newton; and Ed Maier, a chemical engineer from Murrysville. Missing from the crew were Roy Ward, an electrician from Ruffsdale; Vagel Keller, a tank commander with a doctorate in history from Point Breeze; John Wesner, a mechanical engineer from Churchill; and Paul Boget, a mechanical engineer from Murrysville.

Originally, Prehoda recruited people to work on the railroad. Now he has to turn them away because there's no room for more crew members in his basement.

"As far as we're concerned, this is a real railroad because that's the way we run it," he said. "It's a labor of love!"

Every holiday season, there's a lot of publicity about model railroad displays like the Miniature Railroad & Village at the Carnegie Science Center. But throughout the year, unless you're involved in the hobby, you may not realize how popular it is. There are thousands of model railroads operating year-round in every imaginable scale and layout.

As evidenced by this diverse crew working in Bob Prehoda's North Huntingdon home, people from all walks of life are involved in the hobby. The thing they all have in common is a passion for railroading. For this group of retirees playing with trains, it's Christmas every day.
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