European train display at Blackhawk carries visitors to another era
By Lou Fancher
From a 3-year-old boy’s wonderment to a college grad’s best excuse to hang out with kids to a 66-year-old computer hacker dude’s delight, model trains are a multigenerational treat.
At the 16th annual European Train Enthusiasts (ETE) Modular Group display presented by the Blackhawk Museum, scale versions of locomotives, freight and passenger trains zip through miniature European landscapes and villages at Blackhawk Plaza Shopping Center. A whistle and smoke puffing from a tiny smoke stack on a red, white and silver locomotive garners a one-word whisper from Luca Kurpinsky, age 3, who says it all: “Wow.”
His mother, Ashley Kurpinksy, of Danville, says her son’s fascination with trains is boundless. “He doesn’t watch cartoons. He watches ‘I Love Toy Trains,’ an Amazon show. He sings the songs. He knows the names of every train.”
The young Kurpinsky was accompanied at the ETE exhibit by his grandfather, Peter Caponio, of Alamo. “The kids just love ‘em,” was all Caponio had time to say as he took off to follow his grandson and a freight train loaded with detailed replicas of supplies.
The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the national ETE organization, one of 16 in the country, has approximately 130 members. The modular units that make up the display are made individually by members and designed to be interchangeable. Standing on table legs that put the track at 44 inches high, they form a cohesive, circular journey through hilly and flat terrain, bridges and train stations characteristic of Europe. Overhead electrical wires power the digital and analog system that can run up to 14 trains simultaneously without collisions.
Stretch Andersen is the Bay Area group leader and ETE’s national vice chairman. “I‘ve been involved in European model trains since I was given my first set for Christmas in 1955,” he says. While he and his friends also played with American brand trains — Lionel and American Flyer models — Andersen was given by his father German-made Marklin trains. “He thought they were unique, well-made.”
And they are. Made mostly of metal — American models are primarily plastic — in diverse colors and designs that represent each country’s engineering pride and singularity, they are robust, lasting. Which is a good thing, because Andersen’s Marklins weren’t actually a favorite toy; nor were trains a childhood obsession as they are with the energized young Kurpinsky.
“It wasn’t a major part of my upbringing. I was involved in theater groups, student government, swimming and water polo. Really, trains were something I played with but they weren’t a passion.”
That is, not until he was a 25-year-old bachelor with little furniture, a first home with a vaulted ceiling and a towering Christmas tree. “I called my father and asked if he still had my trains. I thought my friends would get a chuckle if I put up a little train setting.”
Soon after, noticing in a catalogue that Marklins were going digital, the former operational manager for Silicon Valley startups and company turnarounds felt his computer hacker habit tickled and was hooked. “They put a computer chip in a locomotive. You could set it to respond to a control pad. If you punched in an address of a specific locomotive, the decoder would pull a message from the track to have one train slow down or back up and another train speed up. You could write code and make the lights go bright as a train sped up: you had independent control.”
During their 26-year marriage, Andersen and his wife, Michelle Andersen, have traveled on trains and to train factories and museums in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. One-month rail passes took them on their honeymoon; they’ve tried to return every year.