Michael Shain

Photographer and reporter
Empire Valley Railroad line
Nationality: American
Biography: Lives in Queens, N.Y.        
Public Story
Empire Valley Railroad line
Credits: michael shain
Updated: 09/20/20
Archived as: 
In the basement of a prewar apartment building in Astoria is a fantasy world that moves to the sounds of long, sad whistles and grumbling engines.
Members of the Queens County Model Railroad Association have been gathering there every Friday night — more or less —in the basement for 60 years.
In the windowless room, they have created a section of the imagined Empire Valley rail line that supposedly runs from Allentown, Pa. through New York City, up the Hudson River to Kingston, NY, then west to Binghamton.
“It’s not every foot of track — just the high points,” said Dennis Gander, who, after joining 20 years ago, still thinks of himself as one of the newer members of the club.
The Empire Valley line is built on a chest-high platform that covers nearly all of the 1,600-square-foot, underground space that used to be the building’s coal room.
No one has calculated how many feet of track there is on the layout. But a model train, running at regulation speed, takes about 30 minutes to make one circuit.
All the active members’ names — 14 in all — are listed on a white board near the entrance. (“We lost two this year,” said Gander.) They are all men, but there was a time in the past when the club had two female members, said its resident historian, John McCluskey.
Because the group meets only once a week in a hard-to-get-into building, few outsiders get a chance to see the layout. The members kind of like it that way. When a reporter first called to ask if he could drop by and do a story on the club, the man who answered the phone replied no. “We kind of fly under the radar,” he said.
Members of the club pay $15 a month dues to cover the rent on the basement, which they say has not changed in years. The original owner of the building on 44th Street, a few blocks from the Sunnyside train yards, fancied the idea of a model railroad club operating in his basement when he was first approached about it in 1947 and charged a nominal rent. When he died, his daughter kept the rent low out of respect to her father’s wishes.


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