MARBLEHEAD - It started as a simple hobby between a father, his sons and neighborhood children in the basement of a Bellevue home.
It has grown into a world famous, gigantic spectacle witnessed by folks from as far as Europe and beyond.
It's called Train-O-Rama the self-proclaimed largest operating multi-gauge model railroad display open to the public.
Inside a yellow, rectangular building in Marblehead, you'll find more than 25 running trains, more than 1,200 pieces of train equipment, new fiber-optic fireworks and a new 21-inch bridge. Everything is operated through a single remote control.
As you weave your way through the layout, you feel as though you're passing through several towns: A barbershop, grocery store, newspaper office, churches, homes, schools, amusement parks and Drive-ins all dot the landscape. Snow-capped mountains and Christmas scenes conjure the Yuletide spirit, even while greenery and sunshine prevail outside.
"It's really snowballing," owner/operator Terry Timmons said about Train-O-Rama, which dates back to the early 70s. "We're not done; we're always adding to it."
And as Timmons and his wife, Maggie, continues to add pieces, people continue to flock to 6732 E. Harbor Road, where the building stands.
Timmons, who lives in Norwalk, said it's hard to estimate how many visitors he gets per month or year. However, on a board dotted with stars next to city and country names, he and his wife track the hometowns of patrons. Train lovers from 85 countries and throughout the U.S. have visited the attraction.
"Everybody likes trains," Timmons said.
Combine that with the lack of space for train layouts at people's homes, and an exhibit such as Train-O-Rama is bound to attract many enthusiasts.
Timmons said many visitors marvel at the scope of Train-O-Rama.
As a boy of about 10, Timmons remembers being in awe of the engines that towered over him in the round house at the Nickle Plate Railroad. Timmons' father, Max, worked there as a pipe fitter during the late 1940s.
Max Timmons' love of trains extended beyond his work.
His wife, Naomi, once asked him what he wanted for Christmas.
"Trains," he answered.
Naomi searched and found a steam engine in a local hobby store. To this day, the steam engine called "Grandpappy" is on display at Train-O-Rama.
"From then on, trains were his main-stay," reads a history of Train-O-Rama atwww.trainorama.net. "Every gift-giving occasion was met with trains."
Max Timmons lost his job due to the merger of the Nickle Plate Railroad with the N&W. To continue supporting himself and his family, he did home repairs and improvements. In his spare time, he, his sons and other neighbor children played with trains.
They played in the living room, dining room, and basement, but not the laundry room.
"The battle lines were drawn and MOM won NOT in MY laundry room!," the history section of the Web site states.
The Timmons' expanded not outward, but upward; there were three levels and three main lines, as well as several "side lines."
Eventually, family friends convinced the Timmons' to take the display public. After a long drive, many phone calls and persuading, Timmons located a small building on the Marblehead peninsula. Construction began in 1971, and Peninsula Train-O-Rama, as it was called then, opened for business in June 1972. Admission was $1.25 for adults and 75 cents for children.
A couple of moves later, in 1979, Terry Timmons and his wife moved into the present location. For the next several years, Max Timmons continued to involve himself in Train-O-Rama, before he died in January 1983.
"We all missed him, but had promised him we would carry on his dream," Train-O-Rama's history reads.
What would he think of the spectacle today?
"He'd probably be smiling," Terry Timmons said.
It's hardly as simple as back in Max Timmons' time.
Back then, the lack of technology meant features such as whistles and bells. Today, technological advances allow for simulated announcements from a crew member, station announcements, an Ohio State train that plays the fight song and one that simulates a radio broadcast of a game.
"He'd be amazed at that," Timmons said, referring to his father.
IF YOU GO
WHEN: Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. There are extended hours between Memorial Day and Labor Day. During that period, the exhibit is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: 6732 E. Harbor Road, Marblehead
HOW MUCH: Adult admission is $7, children 4 through 11 get in for $5 and senior citizens pay $6.