Arts & Entertainment

Toy trains take holiday spotlight at Nixon Library

The holiday model railroad display at the Nixon Library includes all sorts of toy trains.
The holiday model railroad display at the Nixon Library includes all sorts of toy trains.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda is all decked out with holiday decorations. That includes a whole lot of toy railroad tracks. They're part of the library's 3rd Annual Festival of the Trains exhibit.

The famous George Washington crossing the Delaware painting fills a wall on the north side of one room. But Washington’s not overlooking menacing troops or a looming battlefield. Instead, he stands above a giant exhibit of toy trains laid out in the middle of the room. It’s straight from the mind of Bob Lemberger of the Train Collectors Association.

"Three of us did about 90 percent of the work on this and it took us about two months. There’s about 180 sheets of Styrofoam, which started out as plain white sheets of Styrofoam, 4 feet by 8 feet and 2 inches thick," says Lemberger. "And underneath is a leveled platform, which takes us a day to put up.

"And then there’s plywood sheets on four different levels so we can get up to the top. Now we have to start – we work from the top, down. We build the mountains up on the top and put up the trains up there. Once we get to a certain level, it becomes more difficult to get back to the top."

They used hammers, saws, scrapers – even their fingers – to claw out the shape of Alp-like mountains, complete with the North Pole and a flying Santa on a sleigh. The 3-D display stands twice as tall as most people.

"I kind of got the idea to build a three-dimensional train layout years ago," recounts Lemberger. "I was on a Small World and... there’s something going on at every eye level or, I should say, not just at eye level.

"You look out and you see something at eye level and you look up and then you look up and then you look up, then you look up at the ceiling, there’s something going on. And so I thought it’d be neat to build a train layout that does the same thing."

So Lemberger created his first 3-D layout with the first toy train exhibit at the Nixon Library. He and his crew have built it three years running.

Below the white mountains, trains of all types wind through autumn trees that fill one side of the display. There’s an antique castle. An old-time street scene unfolds along the train track, below the snowy North Pole village.

"We got all kinds of little activity going on," says Lemberger, as he points out the whimsical features of the street scene. "We have a police car – actually a couple police cars – and if you look close at that building, that’s a donut shop, which one of the guys thought was cute.

"We have Nixon campaigning in the '50s, 'Nixon for Senator,' which would have been before he was vice president. That might’ve actually been in the '40s. And then we have a couple of fire trucks over here. And then if you look close, you can see we’ve got a jack-in-the-box on a motorcycle there."

Around the corner, a more modern Thomas the Train and his buddies make their rounds on their own tracks.

"And what’s great is this Polar Express scene up here," says Lemberger. "We’re running a train that’s a model of the Polar Express and it’ll actually stop randomly in front of these houses like it’s picking up the kids from the movie."

The Polar Express train flies by on the tracks and then suddenly stops. Over nearby loudspeakers, you can hear music from the movie and the sound of the conductor asking a little boy, "You coming?... This is the Polar Express!"

A quick "All aboard!" call and the Polar Express train bursts into motion on the track. It rounds a corner, on its way to the North Pole.

The Train Collectors Association’s Bob Lemberger says he enjoys every part of this, especially building so many detailed scenes.

"It’s fun to come in here, like on a Saturday, when this place is packed, watching the kids, watching the elderly – you know, just everybody. You know, everybody loves trains," Lemberger says. "You think this is for kids, but you see so many adults just eat this up, especially when they come through the front door and they don’t know what to expect and they see this big, humongous train layout."

The layout also includes a large Lego train setup in the Nixon Libary's lobby. And out back, the museum has brought in a real-life train engine that used to belong to Ward Kimball, one of Walt Disney's animators. That train engine looks much like those you see at Disneyland.

The exhibit is at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda until Jan. 10.