Toy train of 70 Christmases ago inspires Schuylkill Haven man’s extensive model train display

Toy train of 70 Christmases ago inspires Schuylkill Haven man’s extensive model train display

December 24 – When he was 4 years old, John DiCello woke up on Christmas morning to find a model train set under the tree at the family home on West Norwegian Street in Pottsville.

Manufactured by Marx, it was a four car locomotive on figure eight tracks with a cardboard stand.

“I only watched it once and that was it,” recalled DiCello, 74, of Schuylkill Haven. “I was hooked.”

Seventy Christmases later, the simple 4′ x 8′ piece of plywood on which the Marx toy train was displayed has grown into a permanent 350 square foot facility that occupies most of DiCello’s spacious basement.

As the chief engineer of the DiCello line, he controls freight and passenger trains through a miniature world that reflects America in the first half of the 20th century.

A shrill whistle cuts through the air as a powerful locomotive, smoke billowing from its massive steam boiler, pulls long lines of anthracite-filled carriages like the Reading Railroad did when coal was king.

A gear car loaded with miners plunges into darkness at the entrance to a coal mine in Reading Anthracite.

A powerful locomotive rotates 180 degrees in a roundhouse, not unlike the locomotive that stood at the Reading dockyards in Saint Clair.

“My father-in-law worked at the Reading stores in Saint Clair,” said DiCello, a retired postal worker whose rich imagination has preserved bits of a world he knew growing up in Pottsville.

“When I was a boy, I used to visit my aunt on West Railroad Street,” he recalled. “I remember sitting on the porch and feeling the ground shake as a train went by.”


DiCello has used considerable carpentry and electrical skills to create an impressive model train display.

In the last 20 years in particular, he’s installed more than 3,000 feet of wiring that powers the 10 transformers needed to run seven separate trains – almost all Lionel O gauge – operated by the push of a button on one hand be set in motion. held console.

Union Pacific’s “Big Boy,” the largest locomotive ever built, and sleek diesels hauling the Pennsylvania Railroad’s passenger trains amble along elevated tracks that meander through an Americana landscape.

Trains pass towns with sturdy houses, majestic churches and red-brick schools – not unlike Tamaqua, Schuylkill Haven or Frackville. They are loaded with coal from tall hoppers, unloaded by cranes and refreshed at a water tower.

Commuters look out from a Canadian Pacific passenger train at a roller coaster, carousel and Ferris wheel at an amusement park reminiscent of Lakewood or Schuylkill Parks.

There’s even a fish train — yes, DiCello insisted there was such a thing — that pulls lighted tank cars filled with sharks and turtles.

DiCello is particularly proud of the snow-capped mountainside that overlooks the train tracks. Partly made from recycled Styrofoam, it took more than a year to build.

The mountain, DiCello said, was the darling of his late wife, the former Ann Marie Fronza.


DiCello’s Keller speaks railroad.

The expansive model train display is complemented by an authentic grade crossing sign on the wall, artwork of the iconic diamond-shaped Reading Lines logo and bar stools that read “Lionel Since 1900”.

Immersed in the miniature world he built, an ode to the powerful machines that fueled the industrial revolution, he spends hours tinkering and thinking about days gone by.

The smell of smoke, the hiss of steam, and the chug, chug of locomotives transport him to a place he once knew.

“It relaxes me,” DiCello confided. “It brings back the good years of my childhood.”

As big as it is, DiCello makes his train display even bigger.

He recently built a new wing with a roundhouse inspired by an aerial photograph of Saint Clair’s shipyards from the Reading Railroad archives.

Constantly coming up with new ideas, he recently turned his attention to Andy Muller’s Port Clinton-based Reading & Northern Railroad.

After 70 years, his passion for trains burns as brightly as the lights on the Christmas tree under which he spotted his first toy train set.

“My layout,” DiCello insisted, “will never be finished.”

Contact the author: [email protected]; 570-628-6007

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