Some years ago, it was the dream of most little boys to have an electric train for Christmas. The name “Lionel” was probably almost synonymous with “Christmas wish” for young boys.
It was not unusual to see Christmas trees, often decorated with colorful Noma Bubble lights and little electric trains running around their base.
The electric trains, with maybe a few more feet of track and accessories added, eventually were packed away and stored in the attic as the boys became interested in other toys and pastimes.
Not so with Mark Miller.
His interest in and passion for model trains began with the first one given to him by his dad, Mark Miller I, in 1957, and has continued through the years, resulting in an impressive setup of track; countless trains of various makes, brands and descriptions; intriguing, state-of-the-art additional cars; related equipment; and accessories.
He has the designed and crafted realistic scale-models of Vandalia, Ramsey and the Kaskaskia River. He has crafted models of such things as local businesses and water towers.
Reflecting the three generations of Miller Funeral Home, he made South Hill Cemetery, complete with tombstones bearing names, a hearse, a funeral in progress with mourners under the tent, a police car escort and the old mausoleum, which was demolished several years ago.
The introduction to the train room began with Miller switching a lever. The Pennsylvania Railroad came alive as the train began moving along the lengthy loop of track.
The train makes authentic sounds as a whistle blows and it started clanging down the track, beginning to chug along, with smoke rolling out as it picked up speed. Around the wall enclosing the track area are the old-style bubble Christmas tree lights.
Miller explained how his interest began in the model trains.
“My dad wasn’t interested in them,” he said. But his dad did gave him his first new Lionel train in 1946.
“The interesting thing is that it cost $25,” he said, pointing it out in a display case, “and my dad was making $10 a week … at the most. That was pretty expensive, and I wondered how (my dad managed it).
“I have parts of a gentleman’s train here in Vandalia. It came out in 1937 and it cost more than $100. Back in 1937, that was a lot of money.”
He had a Marx train and a used Lionel train prior to getting the new Lionel.
Engineering Ways to Build His Collection
Following the Christmas gift of the new Lionel train from in 1946, Miller began working at building his “railroad.”
“I mowed yards,” he said, “and I bought a train engine in 1954. I paid $50 for it at Famous-Barr in St. Louis.
“Then I bought some things from John Caldwell at Western Auto. I actually made time payments to John. I would take him a quarter every Saturday, and he would let me look at the car until I got it paid for. He kept it on a back shelf and I’d go back and look at it,” he said. “In fact I’ve got it in a box. It was a crane car.
“I’ve been at this all my life,” Miller said. ‘In fact, I had an accordion, way back when, and my cousin, Janie Beccue out in Brownstown, had a Lionel train, and we worked out a trade.
“I still have the train,” he said. “I don’t know whatever happened to the accordion.”
Running a post-war Lionel on the track, Miller said, “This is the kind of trains we had when we were kids.”
As the train rounded the track, it passed the railroad station, Vandalia water tower, Purina Mills, Michel’s Feed Store, The Ramsey News-Journal office and Ramsey Cafe, traveling over the Kaskaskia River and past South Hill Cemetery.
“They didn’t have the sound when I was a kid,” Miller said, “just the smoke and whistle. Now I have a passenger car that talks to you. It says, ‘Dining room is now open’ and “All Aboard!” Voices can be heard from an engineer’s radio as he talks to someone and waits to be told he is “free to go.”
That was the Illinois Central, and the sound of the wheels can actually be heard scraping on the steel rails as it pulls away.
Explaining the different styles, Miller said, “This one is from the turn of the century,” he said. They were first made about 1900. They survived through to the mid-1950s.”
Miller can impart the history of the trains in his sizable collection, with the sounds of the trains in the background.
As the trains wind around the track, it passes the train station located nearby, near the entrance of a tunnel. It holds an flying American flag flying, with people going about their business and a yellow school bus in the parking lot, all in the foreground of a Miller-crafted, snow-covered mountain with green pine trees that he fashioned from wood, foam rubber and steel wool. The muddy Kaskaskia River flows, with a man floating on an innertube. The river runs under two railroad trestles and a steel bridge, again entirely crafted by Miller.
Imagination and Creativity
His imagine and creativity seem to know no bounds, as he gives action and reality to the figures. A girl sliding down the mountain can be seen falling off her sled, as well as a sheepherder and his dog.
The track and trains also share some history. At the station, one can see the facsimile of “the shipping cases the boys from World War II were brought back in. I went with my dad on several occasions, and I can remember them distinctly,” he said.
At South Hill/Fairlawn cemetery scene, a man with a chainsaw can be seen near the cemetery fence. A large tree had fallen on the fence, bending it out of shape, and the saw operator is cutting the limbs off the fence. Also in the realistic scene, a man is standing to one side with a shovel, wiping his brow, unobtrusively waiting for the mourners to leave, so he can fill the grave, just like in real life. The minister and the funeral director are also present. A couple with young children is standing a way from the ceremony, so they wouldn’t disturb the service.
“The names on the stones are those who have been connected with funeral services in Fayette County from years ago – Hunter, Fahnestock, Brown, Howard May, Sturgil, Golden Luster, Cocagne, etc.,” he said.
All the while, the trains are emitting the actual sounds of a moving train. “In the old days,” Miller said, “the sounds were in a speaker under your table.”
On Down the Track
Miller has plans and the beginnings for an Mayberry village, Civil War trains with soldiers, cannons and other accessories; a fire station with a siren, opening doors and a fire truck, ready to roll; and a military train with 40 cars, Jeeps, tanks and other vehicles.
Miller’s train station also holds airplanes, dirigibles and many other items of interest. He has had articles and photos published in train publications.
Thus far, Mark is the only family member interested in the trains, but he still has hopes of someday getting his wife, Mary, and their son Mark and his wife Brooke interested. The Millers also have a daughter, Michelle, her husband, Mark Daniels and their children, daughter MacKenzie, and son Mitchell, and “Grandma” Moore.
Mitch does show some interest and has added such figures as elk and fish to the track sites on occasion. However, an elk once got on the track somehow and derailed the train.
Meanwhile, Miller’s Train Station is a fascinating showcase, not only for his trains, and his knowledge their history, but also for his creativity, ingenuity and craftsmanship.
And for the record, he believes the caboose should still be a part of every train, model and otherwise.