Operating since 1946, the club's massive layout will be dismantled by April — a victim, its members say, of the rapid redevelopment that has transformed the once-industrial area into a trendy neighbourhood now home to offices, condos and bistros.
"We're over the shock now," longtime member Brian Bentley told CBC News. "We're getting annoyed with the neighbourhood down here anyway, it’s way too overdeveloped.
"There was a time when we were down here at night, we would be the only people here, unless one of the factories was working overtime. There was no traffic to contend with, no parking problems to contend with. It was idyllic. As the area has become busier and busier, it's become less and less enjoyable just to get here.”
Bentley first came to the club as a boy in the early 1950s. He was about 10 years old at the time and had an obsession with trains. It was a common affliction for boys born in an era when railroads played a more central role in the lives of Canadians and an electric train set was the ultimate high-tech toy.
“My father had to lift me up to see the trains,” Bentley recalls. Ten years later, Bentley would become a permanent member of the club he’s now been involved with for more than 50 years.
A neighbourhood in transition
The club's layout fills a basement room that measures 110 by 40 feet and was once home to an armaments factory. Back when the club moved into its location on Hanna Avenue (their address is now on East Liberty Street) the neighbourhood was crisscrossed with railway sidings that served dozens of busy factories and warehouses. As years went by the factories and the sidings that served them disappeared. The neighbourhood last saw real trains in the 1980s, though a few scraps of rail remain embedded in the streets.
“We had a lot of real railroading right here,” said Bentley. “It’s changed a lot. In those days there were steam engines running up and down the streets around here, the switchers were steam switchers, not diesels.”
The area’s transition to a trendy enclave is not one Bentley has welcomed.
“I preferred [the neighbourhood] the way it was,” he said. “There was a lot of people that worked down here. If you went to the bank on King and Dufferin on payday, there were lineups at every teller.”
Layout to be dismantled, moved
Due for the buzz saw, then, is the Central Ontario Railway, the club's massive O-scale layout that features some 6,000 feet of track. Its intricate scenery runs head-high in places and includes painstakingly built bridges, harbours and mountains. Kilometres of wire run beneath the layout and a dispatcher — working from inside a glassed-in control room — uses computers and a closed-circuit TV system to oversee the work of his engineers.
The club has 22 members; it's a group Bentley describes as “a big family.”
The layout is set in what railroaders call the transition era, the postwar period when diesel engines began to replace steam.
Some parts of the layout, such as the buildings, will be saved and resurrected in the club’s new location. Most of the layout, however, will not survive the move.
“We cannot save the layout as it is,” said Bentley. “We will try to save sections of it. It will be like taking a bowl of spaghetti, and spreading it all around, then getting the individual pieces and knitting it back together.”
New location in the works
The club is close to signing a lease for a new home. They don't want to reveal the location until the deal is complete, but it is not in Liberty Village. So, like the real rail lines that served the area years ago, the club will pull up its tracks and be out by April.
Even if the move to a new location goes well, the club won't have trains running again for at least two years while the new layout is built.
To help pay for moving costs, the club will host its final open houses this weekend and throughout February. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children. They club is also seeking donations.
The club is located at 171 Liberty St. but it’s a bit tricky to find. For more information and a step-by-step guide to their door, visit www.modelrailroadclub.com.