Above the fifth floor of Main Building, in an area inaccessible by elevator and reachable only via a short stairway largely out of view, is a firehouse, a gas station, a shopping district, even a freight warehouse and a cold storage facility—all of it part of 3,000 feet of miniature train track crossing over a trestle, coursing through a tunnel, cruising down a straight-away. Friday evenings, the sounds of steam being emitted from an engine, two whistle blasts, then a locomotive with cars and caboose in tow fill the room, the train chugging down the tracks.
Welcome to the Illinois Tech Model Railroad Club (ITMR)
The club was started by students in 1948, a time when passenger and freight trains were a primary means of transport, and the city as train hub was host to the Chicago Railroad Fair. One student asked his father, the superintendent of buildings and grounds, to help locate space on campus for ITMR. The “attic” of Main Building was found to be largely unused and fit the club’s needs. Since several early members were civil engineering majors who spent summers practicing surveying at IIT’s Camp Armour in Boulder Junction, Wis., the first layout was given the name Camp Armour and Boulder Junction Railroad. Over the nearly 60 years that the club has been in existence, the layout has changed several times. In 1974, the main route was redesigned to run from Chicago to Peoria, a layout that remains to this day. For sentimental reasons, the name of the railway line has remained and among its members is affectionately known as “The Cabbage (CA&BJ) Route.”
Train enthusiast John Massura (CHEM ’72) has been driving from his home near Chicago’s Midway Airport to Main Campus most Friday evenings for 37 years, give or take time off for illness, the occasional Boy Scout trip, or a railroad show. “We operate the first three weeks of the even months,” explains Massura, one of ITMR’s 37 dues-paying members—men and women of all ages and life statuses, some with IIT connections and others without, all bound together by their love of trains. “The other weeks we continue constructing the railroad because it’s not done. And it will probably never be, because they say if your railroad is done, then you have to tear it down and start over.”
“We talk about all kinds of things, mostly railroading, sometimes not. It’s the camaraderie.”
In 1950, however, club members had to remake the layout because the peak above the attic was destroyed by fire and the train setup was irreparably damaged by water. Today’s layout, which fills every alcove of the attic, comprises three lines: a main line, running from Chicago to Peoria; a foreign, or short line, running from Joliet to Streator; and a narrow gauge line, running from Streator to Galena. All lines trace fictitious routes that conform to practices and standards established by the National Model Railroad Association to ensure a level of consistency in layouts throughout the country, and to provide for interchange of cars and locomotives.
The club’s standard gauge lines, for example, are scaled to the proportion of .1378 inches to every one foot of real rail measurement, known as HO Scale. According to Massura, each basswood tie is hand-laid, with every other tie hammered into place with Lilliputian-sized metal spikes. This degree of detail is not only achievable but is a source of pride for club members who are eager to augment a hobby they intensely enjoy.
“Almost everything I learned about model railroading—when you get down to this kind of ability—I learned from people here,” says Massura, crediting his ITMR “crew” as being the prototype for his model railroad learning experience.
While he used his knowledge of circuitry and wiring obtained as a telecommunications employee to configure much of the inner workings of the layout’s DC-powered system, Massura notes that club newcomers need not feel intimidated by their lack of certain capabilities. “This is one hobby where you need quite a few skills—carpentry, electrical, artistry, machinery, and probably a half dozen more,” he says. “But someone will help you where you’re unsure, so you will learn from them.” Members are next planning work on track detection, a sophisticated electronic technique whereby signals are cued to turn from red to green through a “gentle short” applied to the rails by means of the caboose, a car that is a required feature of any train that is run at the club.
The train that eventually brought Massura to the attic of Main Building was the one that circled his family’s Christmas tree in the home where he grew up, one block from where he now lives. After three years of displaying the set only during the holiday season, Massura’s father, John, put the train onto a 4x8 plywood sheet, and he and his son began adding switches and assorted cars, eventually moving the setup from under the tree to the dining room and finally to the basement where the one plywood sheet grew to four sheets. After his father passed away, Massura inherited his entire train collection, including the Lionel Christmas cars. Now he is passing on his joy of trains to members of Generation Z. Massura plans to purchase Lionels for his 4-year-old grandsons, and he counsels Boy Scouts who are earning a merit badge in railroading. He is also building a model railroad in the basement of his home, a fantasy narrow gauge route through southwestern Colorado. His ITMR colleagues have helped him add to it over the years; Massura expects it to be 25x40 when complete—that is, if it is ever completed.
A soft-spoken man who enjoys wearing railway-inspired T-shirts purchased at train conventions, Massura retired from AT&T in April 2007. He is former treasurer of the Chicago chapter of Mensa and remains an active member. It is the train life, however, that Massura loves, and for him and a cadre of ITMR friends, it has become a true labor of love.
Each Tuesday evening for the past 16 months, Massura and a half-dozen members who comprise a “round robin” railroading group have been meeting to complete the construction of a model setup begun by a man most of the group has never met. One member of Massura’s group was approached by the widow of a member of the church to which he belonged, who asked him if he knew of any model railroad buffs who could complete the train layout her late husband started. Massura and his friends readily agreed. After all, this project is another opportunity to share in their passion and fellowship.
“We talk about all kinds of things, mostly railroading, sometimes not,” says Massura. “It’s the camaraderie.”
The Illinois Tech Model Railroad Club meets every Friday from 7-11 p.m. in Main Building on Main Campus. Contact John Massura at email@example.com to arrange for a visit or for additional information.