Strasburg Museum’s train exhibit extends hours

By Josette Keelor

Inside a restored railroad car at the Strasburg Museum, Winchester model train builder John Schreiner has brought to life the sights, sounds and even the smells of the “golden age” of mid-Atlantic railroading in a 1939-style railroad system he donated in 2006.

“You’re not just seeing 1939,” he said, “you’re hearing it.”

Think train whistles, think the rumble of wheels on track and the distinct engine roar that defines a freight train from a passenger train. Think the voices of conductors announcing upcoming stops and warning of the last chance to board.

“Each engine has its own program,” Schreiner said.

Until recently the exhibit was a once-a-month treat for those who arrived on the right day, museum President Gloria Stickley said.

“It’s been really popular,” she said. But visitors have been disappointed when they couldn’t make it there on exhibit day.

“We couldn’t get it going,” she said. “We couldn’t get a regular time set up.”

But all that’s changing. Through the end of October, the interactive exhibit is open every Saturday with Schreiner trading off weeks with fellow model railroader Joe Winkelmann. Stickley said the museum also welcomes any other volunteers who love trains and would be willing to operate it for visitors.

“You will see everything that reminds you of Shenandoah County and our mountains and valley, and it’s just really unique,” she said.

On a recent afternoon at the museum, Schreiner imagined a future when the D.C. Metrorail — currently reaching its way farther west through Tyson’s Corner — could replace the ancient train tracks that so defined the valley during the early 20th century.

“At one point,” Schreiner said, “there were three passenger stops in town.”

In fact, the museum itself used to be a rail station, and inside its 60-foot-long restored boxcar, an Atwater Kent antique radio from Roanoke is set up to broadcast a Sept. 21, 1939 program from WJSV in Washington, with an address from President Franklin Roosevelt and music from the Big Band Era. Beside it, that month’s Mid-Atlantic Radio Guide highlights listings for programs in the recording, and photos under plexiglass offer views of trains from the era.

The model, which includes various trains and the approximate routes they would have taken between Kentucky and D.C., is a mash-up of the entire Mid-Atlantic region from 1939.

“I think that’s Antietam Creek washing into the Shenandoah River,” Schreiner said, but the river can also represent about seven others depending on which train is moving past it. To the left of the river is a miniature of the Strasburg Museum with a tiny impromptu bluegrass band on the street corner out front holding fiddles, a guitar and a washboard.

To the right side, “Here’s our drive-in movie theater,” Schreiner said. “I call it the Shenandoah Drive-in.”

The movie screen shows a film he made called “I Ride the Southern Rails”“because it shows you riding the train at night,” he said.

A backdrop Schreiner crafted in Adobe Photoshop and added to the display this year includes period style buildings in Strasburg and Winchester, Roanoke, Alexandria, Baltimore and as far away as Savannah, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn.

He chose them for the look they provide. “It’s meant to blend in with what’s in front of it,” he said. Images of railroad yards are almost all from Roanoke, he said, and the sky behind the buildings is a 360-degree image Schreiner shot with his camera one day when weather conditions were at their best.

But the real performance comes from the trains that travel along to electronic programs Schreiner purchased through MTH Electric Trains in Columbia, Md., to provide the sounds passengers would have heard during the height of America’s railroad love affair.

As the scent of smoke spirals through the room from generators in the train engines, rail cars light up the darkened train museum for night scenes.

“And then, whoops, our switch tower caught on fire,” Schreiner said, flipping a handle to make two figurines run from a building where he said smoke normally begins pouring out and people “rocket up and down stairs yelling for help.”

Schreiner admitted that when he started he wasn’t as devoted to the model as he is today. “I just wasn’t really motivated to work on it much,” he said. He started it in his basement, but then it began taking up too much space. So he offered it to the museum, which just happened to have an empty 1930s baggage car they weren’t using for anything other than storage.

“It fit perfectly into our plan,” he said.

The model train exhibit at the Strasburg Museum, 440 E King St, Strasburg, is open every Saturday through October. For more information, call 540-465-3175 or visit www.strasburgmuseum.org.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com