Kids Navigate the Rails During Winter Break
By Suki Wessling
One of the highlights of Santa Cruz holiday season is the ginormous train set at the Museum of Art & History, where kids can run the trains themselves.
The set has been put up for 15 years by a group of devoted train lovers, the Golden State Toy Train Operators.
“I’ve always enjoyed trains,” says Eric Child, 75, one of the group’s founders. “When I was about 6 or 7, I got my first toy train set. As a very small child in San Anselmo I can remember taking the train to catch a ferry over to San Francisco. I had a heart murmur so I had to go to Stanford Children’s Hospital. [Later] I lived across from the railroad tracks in Sunnyvale so I could see all the trains going through.”
Though the organization is officially located in San Jose, Child says that the germ of the idea came from going local.
“We were part of the ‘over the hill gang’ because the main organization was over the hill in San Jose and we were all in Santa Cruz,” says Child.
“Craig Miller and I decided wouldn’t it be nice instead of always having to go over the hill to play trains if we had something here in Santa Cruz?
That’s when we approached MAH and started the train show here, 15 years ago.”
Child says that Santa Cruz is a great place to be a train enthusiast. “There’s a strong history in railroading in Santa Cruz County,” he says.
Child speaks enthusiastically of his younger years, hiking to remote spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains to see abandoned train tunnels and right-of-ways. One time in the mid-1970s a co-worker took him and his fellow enthusiasts on a plane ride to see the lines from above. Although much of the more remote sites are now closed to the public, families can still see traces of the history of local railroading at Roaring Camp, downtown, and in Nisene Marks State Forest.
Child does a huge logging town-themed yard display at his home on Oceanview Avenue that attracts thousands of visitors each Halloween.
This month at the MAH, kids get to be the one with their hands on the controls, the feature that Child and Miller insisted on when they designed the exhibit.
“They are just mesmerized,” Child says. “It’s like having your own mechanical miniature world. For a lot of kids now, of course, it’s their own electronic miniature world!”
The adults who work hard to create this yearly display don’t view it as work. They are passing on their passion for a bygone era to the younger generation, and from the looks of it, playing with trains never gets old.
“We have a good time!” Child says.
Visit Child’s home railroad at https://fcwgrr.com/! It even has a Facebook page.
Suki Wessling is a local author and the mother of two former children. She teaches online courses for homeschool and afterschool at AthenasAcademy.com and writes articles for parents on her blog. Visit www.SukiWessling.com for more information.