June 17 • 12:08 PM

On the fast track

Attica Township resident builds a miniature world around model trains

Imlay City’s David Held places a locomotive on the track leading into King’s Mill as part of his S-scale model train tour through southeastern Michigan. photo by Tom Wearing.

December 10, 2008
In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it wasn't uncommon for a young boy (or girl) to wake up on Christmas morning to find a Lionel, Marx or American Flyer model train chugging around a circular track beneath the tree.

These days, says local model train buff Dave Held of Attica Township, fewer young people are interested in taking up the hobby. Possibly because there are so many other distractions to occupy the time and minds of today's youngsters.

Regardless, for those who enjoy the sight and sound of scale-model trains clickety-clacking around elaborate basement or family room layouts, model railroading is as popular as ever.

Held, 69, has been interested in model trains since he was nine or ten years old. The first train he remembers is the one he received as a Christmas gift from his mother and father.

Infatuated with building things as a youngster, Held enjoyed playing with the Marx & Lewis O-27 gauge train. It wasn't long before he graduated to more complex layouts, employing the smaller HO gauge scale models.

"For me it's always been about creativity," says Held, a 1957 graduate of Detroit's Cass Tech. "I like to plan, design and build things. The idea of building something is exciting and challenging for me."

Held says his creative juices began flowing in his youth. His father, Otto, owned and operated a bowling alley in southwest Detroit, giving rise to his independent spirit and work ethic.

"I grew up in that bowling alley," he recalls. "I was always working to help out. By the time I was in my teens, I was running the place."

Although his parents inspired his initial interest in trains, they didn't share the same affinity for the hobby. "They only tolerated me," he grins.

After graduating from Wayne State University and finding an engineering job with Chrysler Corporation, Held's priorities changed. Married to wife Nancy in 1960, his focus shifted to raising a family and earning a living.

It wasn't until the 1970s that he again immersed himself in model railroading, resulting in his current association with the National Association of S. Gaugers (NASG), a model railroad club with whom he has served as secretary and is a regular attendee at club conventions.

As evidence of his standing among model railroaders, Held's train layout was featured on the June 2008 cover of Dispatch, a publication devoted to the interests of S-gauge train enthusiasts.

"I joined the S-scale (1/64th) club in 1978 and have been a member ever since," Held says. "There are about 2,500 members in NASG and a lot of them are old American Flyer collectors."

Held says he regularly gets together with fellow NASG club members Bob Stelmach of Oxford and Jan Burdzinski of Rochester, to talk shop and share ideas.

"We help each other and we learn from one another," he says. "Not long ago we had five trains operating at the same time on my layout. That was a lot of fun. It was one of the most enjoyable times I've had."

Held's 57-foot-by-22-foot layout features more than 250 cars, 15 locomotives, many feet of track, countless buildings, bridges and tiny plastic human and animal figures.

"The fun part is setting up all the scenery," he says. "I like to replicate everything to scale.

"I start out placing aluminum window screen over a plywood form and cover it with hydrocal plaster. I paint the base with an earth (brown) color, sprinkle on the ground cover, spray it with a wetting agent, add more glue and then add lichen and (synthetic) trees.

"It requires patience," he says. "It's a natural progression and takes a lot of time."

Held's historically accurate and "according-to-scale" layout pays particular attention to the railroad lines that traversed Michigan from the early 1900s through the 1970s.

They include the Pere-Marquette, Wabash, Grand Trunk Western and the C&N Chesapeake systems, each of which was, for a time, integral to the transport of goods and passengers in the region.

Held reminds that railroads remained a primary mode of transportation until the 1950s, when modern freeways began to provide easier and more direct access to the state's commercial and population centers.

He finds it ironic, now that current concerns about gasoline prices and the nation's reliance on foreign oil is creating renewed interest in railways and other forms of mass transit.

"They have worked in places like New York and Chicago, but they haven't really caught on here," says Held. "I don't think the mentality of this area can handle the idea of going back to rail."

Referring to the City of Detroit's former (electric) streetcar system, he notes that regular streetcar service was suspended in April 1956. Much of the old system was sold to Mexico City, where it remains operational.

"They've been talking about mass transit for years in Detroit, but I don't think it's going to happen. The People Mover seems to be an excuse so they don't have to do anything else."

Despite resistance to railways in the "real world," Held's model railroad is fully operational.

When guests arrive, he enjoys showing off his entire collection of railroad-related items, including historic photographs, books and magazines, artifacts and a replica of the old Pere-Marquette engine No. 1225.

Held says the original Pere-Marquette No. 1225 locomotive has been restored and makes occasional excursions to Owosso. It's the same locomotive seen in the recent film, "The Polar Express."

Held particularly likes to display his trains during the holidays, possibly conjuring up memories of the first train set he got from his parents.

"We always have a gang over for Christmas to see the layout," he says. "I let them run the trains and they get a kick out of it."

Life is not limited to model trains for Held. When he feels the need to get away from things, he stays busy with his duties as a member of Imlay City's Downtown Development Authority.

He's also taking classes two days a week at Baker College in Flint, where he's studying Web design and development.

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