Bob Bradbury grew up poor. So poor that he didn't receive birthday or Christmas gifts. He had to find his own amusement and often did at...

Share story

Bob Bradbury grew up poor. So poor that he didn’t receive birthday or Christmas gifts. He had to find his own amusement and often did at the train tracks near his parents’ Danville, Ill., home. Steam trains would stop there and shed some cars before climbing a steep grade. He became fascinated by the girth and breathy power of the machines, and the rugged expertise of the men who harnessed them.

That was about seven decades ago. A longtime preacher who led four Seattle flocks, he has weathered five heart attacks and leg problems as he has aged. But when he steers his trains, he lives the nickname his grandchildren gave him: “Choo-Choo Bob.”

Bradbury conducts traffic at a console in the middle of a web of multileveled tracks that wrap around his basement, exit through a window, traverse the well-coifed backyard of his Magnolia home and return to home base. He watches and listens as an Amtrak train, with bells clanging, eases into the station and a coal train makes the long determined haul up a rise. He operates Union Pacific, and Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern, and others, including the Sounder. Commuter lines, cross-country liners, workhorses, you name it.

“I’m a bit prejudiced toward passenger trains,” he says, standing next to tracks that rise as high as 7 feet upon a network of wood roadway he has made. “But I love freight trains, too. And I love coal cars. And oil cars. And box cars … “

This week, save 90% on digital access.

All aboard!

This toy-train passion began with a 1961 Christmas gift. A parishioner at a church Bradbury was leading in Illinois gave his 6-month-old son a Lionel train. Bradbury bought some track, mounted the three cars and caboose on a circular track on a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood and let the train chug below the Christmas tree. The whining locomotive mesmerized the crawling boy. It also mesmerized his father.

He smiles at the memory: “It was my first train, too.”

When the family moved to Seattle, he set up the tracks in the basement for his son and daughter. The routes began at the 4-foot-level because bookcases stuffed with theology books served as supports for the layout. Eventually, the tracks and trains expanded. And, eventually, his kids grew up and wanted the space for other things.

So the trains disappeared until 1992, when his son, Todd, said he should put them back into motion for the grandchildren. Again, Bradbury started laying tracks atop his bookcases and, sure enough, the grandchildren would stand by the basement window, staring as a train made its outdoor journey and waiting for that moment when it chugged back inside.

Working on the railroad

Bradbury promised his wife he wouldn’t spend his pension on toy trains, so he got ushering jobs (and still does it for the Seattle Symphony); built routes with scrap wood; and bargain-shopped at Goodwill, the Salvation Army and sale events for most of the trains. He did fall into what he calls “a foolish lapse” to pay $1,000 for a Lionel Empire Builder. Collectors would have never run a train that expensive, but Bradbury does.

In fact, he is the opposite of a collector. He believes toy trains should not be kept in a box so they can appreciate and be resold one day. Toy trains are meant to be run.

“I’m an operator, not a collector.”

And that’s clear as his trains travel around his basement and backyard. He breathes in the whistles, panting and clanging of his lines. Round and round go freight trains and passenger trains.

Bradbury was once a proud member of the Toy Train Operating Society, but other demands forced him to drop out. He had no idea, until he counted a few weeks ago, that he has amassed 700 feet of track in 32 routes inside and outside his house. He was stunned to realize he has 19 engines and 200 cars, especially since he stopped buying them more than two years ago. He did pick up a miniature version of the Sounder, the local commuter train. It runs up and down a retaining wall in his backyard, much to the delight of neighbors, especially kids.

Staying on track

And between his ushering job and getting the rest the doctor has ordered, there are days the trains sit dormant.

“There is a part of me that wants to put it all away, but I’ve got to keep my brain alive; I want to stay away from Alzheimer’s and dementia,” he says. “I need something to provoke me. With this, I get involved with electricity and reading about both real and play trains. I feel creative. The stimulus helps keep my mind going. I will enjoy a train layout for a while and then feel the need to change it.”

He still has that black coal engine, the 1961 gift. He was offered $900 for it, but it’s not for sale. And he has stopped buying trains. He has enough, and he’d rather give his spare money to the Plymouth Housing Group.

Bradbury battles fatigue, a fragile hip and other complications, but the world changes a bit when the trains are running. He becomes a bit of a kid again, excited at how well it can work and, at times, so joyous that he seems on the verge of giggling. He loves showing off the trains to neighborhood kids.

This Christmas, he is giving a 5-year-old neighborhood boy a Wabash train because the boy’s grandfather and great-grandfather were train men, and he’s seen the look in the youth’s eyes when the trains roar down the track. He knows that look.

Richard Seven:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.