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Hobby that keeps chugging along

Crookston man has built an elaborate, detailed train city in his basement

By Tim King

Bill Phalen of Crookston has been involved with trains his entire life. At times, it has been full-size trains, but for the majority of his life, it has been model trains.

This involvement in trains started...

“First I was born,” he said, as if one might incorrectly imagine him running a scale model locomotive prior to that.

“I wasn’t doing too well so my parents took me to the University of Minnesota Hospital on the train. I was just an infant but I guess I liked the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks.”

Bill Phalen in his workshop, where the magic of his train community happens. The train track suspenders were a gift from Helen, his wife. Photo by Anna Phalen

It could be that it all started there. Or maybe one could credit his father for his life-long avocation. After all, fathers have been credited for many other activities of their sons.

“My dad rode freights in the 1930s, since he was about 14 years old,” Bill said. “He rode the rails out west for work, and from Crookston to Minneapolis.”

There is other evidence of paternal influence.

When Bill was five or six years old, his dad gifted him a Lionel train set for Christmas. Like so many other fathers and sons for time immemorial, or something close to that, the boy and the man enjoyed letting their memories and imagination run as the little train click-clacked around the tracks.

“I walked to school in the morning, but the train on the Burlington Northern line was my school bus going home,” Bill recalled. “Every day between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., about when school was out, the train went by. I’d jump a car and it would carry me home. I had to run a little to jump on the different types of cars. I still would like to ride freights but I’m too old. But I do get the wanderlust occasionally. Years ago they didn’t bother you when you were riding the cars. Now they’d probably throw you in jail.”

Kids, when Bill was growing up, were allowed to read the comics and magazines in the rack at the drug store. Occasionally they bought one and, apparently, that worked out for the owner. It was on an expedition to the drug store’s magazine rack that Bill discovered that the model railroading world was bigger than he imagined. Bigger, by far, than the four by eight sheet of plywood for his Lionel.

“When I was about 12 years old, I was looking at magazines in the drugstore and found Model Railroader magazines,” Bill recalled. “When I looked at it I was amazed at how much was being done with model railroading. That inspired me to buy an HO scale starter kit.”

The scene here is, “The Chicago and Northwestern Transfer has just arrived at the ST&T yard with a cut of loaded grain cars.” Photo by Anna Phalen

Buying an HO scale model train was a good decision for a 12-year-old heading for a lifetime of model railroading. The HO scale is the most popular model railway scale in the world, according to both Bill and Wikipedia. The name is derived from “Half of O,” with O being another scale for model trains. Scale is important in model trains. Everything for HO trains, from locomotives to cars to tracks and scenery, is 87 times smaller than in the real world. The O scale equipment, on the other hand, is only 43.5 times smaller than the real thing. There are lots of other scales and they are arranged in ratios. HO, for example, is 1:87, and the tiny Z scale is 1:220.

“The Lionel was 0-27 scale and sort of crude and large,” Bill said. “The detail on HO scale is much better.”

Wikipedia has this to say about HO Scale: “There is a vast selection of ready-to-run, kits and parts for locomotives, rolling stock and scenic items from many manufacturers depicting trains from all around the world.”

That plentitude allowed young Bill to start adding to his model railroad layout. Eventually the 4x8 foot plywood became too small, and even though Bill’s parents were supportive, everything had to be moved to the basement. Bill was frugal as he expanded the layout. For example, if he wanted a new grain car, he wouldn’t buy a ready-to-roll car.

“I’d buy a shake-the-box kit for about a $1.50,” he said. “People don’t buy kits so much nowadays but they are less expensive.”

To support his growing avocation Bill developed entrepreneurial skills.

“I mowed grass and did odd jobs,” he said. “There was a neighbor who paid me $5 to mow his lawn. I remember that because it was as big as a football field.”

Eventually young Bill grew into adulthood. He raised a family and worked in construction. Some of his construction jobs involved building track-side grain elevators. Bill was studying those elevators with the eye of a model railroader, hatching a model railroad layout plan.

“Whenever I was on rails I took pictures of elevators,” he said.

Gabby’s Bar & Resort is a popular place for the locals and tourists alike. Photo by Anna Phalen

One of Bill’s last jobs, prior to retirement, was track maintenance for the short line Minnesota Northern Railroad, headquartered in Crookston. That gave him plenty of opportunity to study grain elevators.

In the mid-1990s, Bill heard about the Greater Grand Forks Train Club. The Club is made up of a group of model railroad enthusiasts who meets regularly at the Northern Lights Railroad Museum at Heritage Village in Grand Forks. Bill joined the group and has made lasting friendships and advanced his knowledge about model railroading.

Shortly after joining the Grand Forks Club, Bill and his wife, Helen, decided to remodel and expand their Crookston home.

“In 2000, we added on to our home,” Bill said. “I told my wife that she could have everything upstairs but I wanted the basement. I built a layout there that is 24 by 26 feet.”

“When I started planning the layout I made a drawing of the basement to scale. I wanted room to walk around so I made three to four foot aisles. I’ve been in places where the walkways were too narrow and it can get crowded.”

Bill’s layout, which is a work-in-progress, features several HO-scale, general-purpose diesel locomotives that would have been in service during the 1960s to the 1980s. Bill describes the track as a continuous run, meaning the train can keep going continuously. However, it is also a switching layout, which means the operator can switch a locomotive, or an entire train, off the run and bring another on. The new digital switching technology allows several trains to be running simultaneously.

The layout is sort of a theater in Bill’s mind, and the switches are like curtains for the actors, or the trains, to come on or go off stage. In model railroad talk, the off-stage is referred to as a staging yard.

“You can imagine the yard to be another city -- as being beyond the layout,” Bill said.

The DM&IR is coming down the hill with a caboose hop to the BN yard to pick up a cut of loaded limestone cars. They will be delivered to the taconite plants on the Iron Range. Photo by Anna Phalen

While Bill is enjoying running his trains on the layout that he’s already created, he’s planning the next stage. He’s always imagined his trains as serving the Duluth - Superior Port facility where Red River Valley grain is off-loaded from trains onto ships. Right now he’s creating the water which will eventually hold four HO-scale ships.

“I’ve had a wooden kit for one of the ships since the 1970s,” he said. “It will be five to six feet long.”

The HO-scale lakeside elevators, of course, will be even bigger.

Bill said he takes particular joy in creating the buildings for the layout. Constructing the port will give him enjoyment for a long time to come.

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