Keeping Track

Model railroad buff lays the table for his lifelong hobby.

Barrie Heinzenknecht was just a boy when he started as a train engineer.

Well, he was small then, but so were his trains—O gauge, to be precise, richly detailed scale models of real trains he used to see when he was growing up in Long Island, New York. That’s where his father, John, gave him his first train set, extending a tradition that dated back to 1928, when John’s father, George, gave his son his first train set.

Cliffs Living sat down with Barrie and he showed off a 36-foot-long table filled with engines and cars on three-rail tracks that wind through and around small towns and a whimsical Christmas village.

“My father enlisted in World War II and was sent to Okinawa and, incredibly, came back, and then, in 1948, after he’d been back a few years — I was 5 years old — he started buying for me, every Christmas, a new Lionel train set.”

Barrie and his wife of 50 years, Donna, moved to The Cliffs at Glassy in 2002. Barrie had recently retired after 32 years with TAMS, an engineering and architecture firm. And Donna, a former high school teacher, had recently become a chaplain.

If you think model trains inspire magic, that’s not the only magic that chugs through their story. When they first looked at their house at Glassy, why, lo and behold, there on the lower/first level of the house…

“The realtor brings me down here, and I see this guy had his train running,” Barrie recalls.

“That was the seller,” Donna says, adding, “I think God meant us to be here because we first saw the Chapel and then we saw the train table. I mean, what’s the likelihood?”

Now you hear chug-chug-chug and the whoosh of steam and even people.

A male voice, using the old term for an all-clear, intones: “The conductor’s given us the highball.” And Barrie points to a passenger train, “When I slow it down, it says, ‘Now arriving at Such-and-Such station,’ and, ‘Watch your step getting off.’”

Half of the table features a winter village with items the couple purchased in Germany. The section he most cherishes shows a hamlet circa post-WWII: soldiers flirting with girls; a couple sitting in the backseat of a 1950s coupe; a campground; a “bikini beach,” as Barrie calls it, on the river where a father and son are fishing.

He’s especially fond of Plasticville, Lionel’s trademark town, whose pieces once belonged to his father: the Frosty Bar, the Plasticville Fire Department, homes, a gas station, market, and a church, among others.

“We want to get our church youth group here,” Donna says. But since the pandemic idled the trains, and because their five grandchildren couldn’t visit, the tracks now must be cleaned for the engines to run. “We are now getting it all running again to show other children and friends because kids (and adults now) don’t travel by train anymore.”

In the meantime, one can’t help but ask if the couple thought they’d found paradise when they first saw their idyllic home at The Cliffs with its extraordinary views and train table ready to roll. Says Donna, “We still are in paradise.”

This story was featured in Cliffs Living Magazine.  To see more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.


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