The City Magazine Since 1975

Track Record

December 2018
Track Record
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

Carl Blum has invested decades of engineering ingenuity into his model train layout 

It’s impossible not to be filled with wonder upon beholding Carl Blum’s John’s Island train room. More than 1,000 feet of track wind through an idyllic landscape featuring three towns, a towering mountain range, wall murals, and bridges and tunnels galore. Blum, a retired Bosch engineer, didn’t just wing this intricate design: he laid it out on a drafting computer, incorporating 45 “turnouts” (where trains switch routes) and elevation changes of 28 inches. Operated by CAB controls, the trains chug through a 24- by 24-foot outbuilding that—thanks to the ”Toy Train Trust” in Blum’s will—is guaranteed to live on as a museum after his death. “One thing that’s seldom preserved are the layouts themselves,” explains the dedicated creative.

CM: When did you start collecting?
CB:
In 1994, I was looking for a hobby and remembered how fun Lionel trains were as a kid. Like many new collectors, I first bought anything that caught my eye, but then I learned about model train operations. What impressed me was that each train had an origin and a destination like a real railroad, and that created a sense of purpose. So I built a layout for operations. It was 10 years before I considered it finished.

CM: Why do you love this hobby?
CB:
As a kid, it really honed a lot of manufacturing skills. I learned how to cut things, and I liked to build electrical wiring. Now there’s artistry involved in creating the scenery, and I get a kick out of the innovative stuff like making my own turnout motors. I’m currently working on creating a motor that can be 3-D printed.

CM: So did you create a lot of the display yourself?
CB:
If I can build it, I will. For example, I created the scenery using foam rubber from carpeting and mattresses (I lead workshops on how to do that), and I built one of the room’s best features: a 10-foot-long shelf with a gear drive for displaying nine levels of trains. I’ve done lots of smaller projects, like making a log bridge from a log I found on my property.

CM: Where do you find your trains?
CB:
I bought a bunch of stuff while traveling in Europe, as well as in US antiques stores and flea markets. I now have 50 engines and several hundred passenger and freight cars, so I really only make a purchase if I find something very unique at a train show.

CM: How often do you operate them?
CB:
Twice a week, several other operators and I get together; we have three layouts among us, so we rotate around. Each train has an ”assignment book” that instructs the operator to, say, drop off two boxcars in Jamestown, then pick up a gondola of pipe to take to Ruth’s Mountain. The challenge is to complete these tasks, shuffling the cars around quickly before the next train comes through.

When Carl Blum was a boy, his Aunt Ruth made sure he unwrapped a train every Christmas. Today, the John’s Island retiree honors her with “Ruth’s Mountain”—one of three towns in his 912-square-foot model-train layout. Each December, this holiday-themed engine hits the tracks.

Lives: On John’s Island
Works: He retired in 2009 as a design engineer at Bosch.
Local legacy: In 1998, he helped establish the Charleston Train Show, which the Charleston Area Model Railroad Club now hosts each November.
Outside the train room: Find him contra dancing with Charleston Folk at the Felix C. Davis Community Center in North Charleston.