Once upon a time, model train sets represented one of the crown jewels of a toy store’s inventory. Ads for train sets took up pages in every Christmas catalogue. Alas, the sun long ago set on the heyday of model trains. Today, in the minds of my own adult children, the words “model train” are more likely to conjure memories of this scene from the movie “A Mighty Wind” than of any playtime on the den floor.
So, I was intrigued when I learned that a new model train display was attracting attention at the Presbyterian Heritage Center (PHC) this summer. In preparation for the season the PHC unveiled a new scale model of the Mount Mitchell Railroad, and yesterday I stopped by for a peek. I gave the visit a big thumbs up. Director Ron Vinson freely admits that the construction of the scale model was great fun, as you can tell by the way he delights in explaining its detail.
During the early 20th century, the Mount Mitchell Railroad ran from the Black Mountain Sawmill up into the forests above Montreat. Logging was its purpose, and for a time the trains also carried tourists on a scenic voyage into the wilderness and up to Mount Mitchell. The government put a stop to the tourists’ trips in 1917 at the advent of World War I, such was the demand for lumber. In 1922, after the lumber had been harvested, the railroad equipment was removed, and ownership of the land reverted to the MRA. That land has since become the functional spine for several of the most popular trails in our conservation easement. Hikers often return to town carrying rusted railroad spikes and other souvenirs.
The history outlined by the exhibit is interesting, landmarks of early Montreat and Black Mountain are well-rendered, and even the youngest among us will enjoy searching for the family of bears walking through the woods near the railroad. (They are harder to spot than you might think, as a scale model black bear is somewhat smaller than a scale model train.) Plans are underway for an addition to the display this fall.
Though housed on the MRA’s campus, the PHC is an independent nonprofit organization that conducts a learning center and manages a research library, museum, and website. Its efforts are dedicated to the education of young people and adults about the heritage and history of churches sharing the Presbyterian and Reformed faith. The PHC is already visited annually by thousands, and Ron says the new train display has increased interest. That’s great news for the PHC and for the rest of us, because more of us will see the other wonderful exhibits on Montreat’s history that are also well worth the time.
So, as the woman in the movie says, “Thank God for model trains.” Go see this one if you get a chance, and then stay a while. And thanks to all the staff and volunteers who make the train – and the PHC – go!
President, Montreat Conference Center