By Donald Wittkowski
For one brief moment Saturday, 84-year-old Tom Eddis was a kid again.
The model trains that chugged around the railroad tracks on the stage of the Ocean City Music Pier rekindled fond memories of the Christmases of his youth.
He recalled that his now-deceased older brothers, Joe and Bill, had a train set that was taken out of storage just once a year.
“The only time it was put out was under the Christmas tree. It fascinated me,” Eddis said.
Eddis found himself captivated again on Saturday by the elaborate model railroad displays, many featuring holiday themes, at the Ocean City Train Show at the Music Pier.
He smiled as the toy locomotives, cabooses and passenger cars went round and round on tracks that passed through a beguiling fantasy town of tiny people, quaint homes and streets lined with miniature snow-covered Christmas trees.
“This really takes me back to when I was young,” said Eddis, a resident of West Berlin, N.J.
The train show has been an Ocean City holiday tradition for more than 20 years, equally popular with adults and children. It continues on Sunday at the Music Pier from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Al Schmidt, show director for the South Jersey Garden Railway Society, said model trains appeal to people of all ages because they are timeless.
“I think that regardless of your age, you can have fun with them,” said Schmidt, 74, of Haddonfield, N.J.
Over the years, model trains have become symbolic of the joy of Christmas. The custom of putting toy trains under the Christmas tree dates to the 1880s, historians say. Schmidt noted that he had a model train under his Christmas tree when he was young.
Tom Ayers, 75, a South Jersey Garden Railway Society member, recalled seeing his first model train when he was about 5 years old. Owned by Ayers’ grandfather, it was a toy military train inspired by World War II.
“To see that military train with tanks on it inspired me to no end,” said Ayers, who lives in Berlin, N.J.
As a boy, Ayers began collecting his own model trains, starting with a Lionel set when he was 11 or 12 years old. His love of trains continues today, well into his 70s.
“There are so many people who like the model train industry,” Ayres said.
One of the train buffs at Saturday’s show was 7-year-old Jimmy Ulrich, a second-grader from Mount Laurel, N.J. He was accompanied by his grandparents, Connie and Jim Ulrich, of Egg Harbor Township.
The younger Ulrich marveled at the nonstop action created by multiple train sets running simultaneously on the show’s sprawling, centerpiece display on the Music Pier’s stage.
“My personal favorite is the Baltimore & Ohio engine,” he said.
Ulrich described the joy of receiving his first model trains on Christmas morning about four or five years ago.
“I started unwrapping a couple of gifts, and there they were,” he said. “I really wanted them. It was a New Jersey Transit set.”
Since then, he has added Conrail, Southern, CSX and Amtrak model trains. He is hoping Santa Claus will bring him more trains this Christmas.
“I love how they run and how they look. I just love trains,” he said.