November 13, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha area owes much to the railroad industry. The city’s history, and indeed, the entire history of the railroad are spiked with significant links throughout.

It comes as no surprise then that the Omaha area has a thriving culture of railroad enthusiasts. They collect model trains, meet regularly to share stories, memories, and swap items.

Some even enjoy what is called “rail fanning,” which is going out on location to see actual train operations in action or going to a train museum. “Rail fanning is watching trains,” says John Moore of Omaha. Moore adds, “The Omaha-Council Bluffs area is just as good as Kansas City for rail fanning.”

Says Moore: “…the UP Main Line by the Durham [the old Union and Burlington Stations] is always a great place. There are so many great places to rail fan throughout the metro. Millard along Industrial and Bob Boozer is one of my favorites, good chance to see loaned power from Norfolk Southern, CSX, and even the Kansas City Southern. Fremont, Blair, Ashland, Missouri Valley, and Gretna each have much going on or through. Don’t forget about all the great museums and train stores! BNSF’s Havelock Shops and Dobson Yard are a short drive down to Lincoln and never disappoint.”

Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders

Moore goes rail fanning with fellow members of The Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders. They are one of the area’s most active clubs for railroad enthusiasts. It has about 110 members of all ages and backgrounds. A member-at-large, Moore says, “Our members range in age from 7 to 80. The membership is mostly older, although some are in their forties, and we have some teenage guys, too. Some members bring their grandkids to the meetings.”

The Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders have a 5,500-square-foot train room inside Mall of the Bluffs. It features 10 large, model railroad layouts of various scales. The train room is open to the public on Saturdays from 11-4 p.m. On Saturdays, members are on site to operate the model trains, help visitors with questions about trains, or just socialize. In addition to other activities, they hold monthly meetings and an annual train show in June.

Omaha’s Train Hobby Shops

Rod Lilley started Train Time Hobby in 2005. Located on South 84th Street in LaVista, Train Time Hobby caters to modelers of all ages, with its selection of trains from wooden Thomas the Train sets (young children enjoy these) to realistic scale 
electric models.

Lilley says the train collecting culture is “strong in Omaha with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. A lot of guys are still active or retired employees.”

Lilley says, “Many collectors started when they were younger. As you get older, you have more time on your hands, and you’re looking for a new hobby. I get a lot of guys who come in here who need a hobby. They’re ready to do something they remember from 
their childhood.”

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John Moore, member of Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders

Across town at 81st and Maple streets in Omaha, David Mrsny owns and operates House of Trains. Mrsny along with his brother Richard, bought the business from his father Leonard, who founded it in 1938 as Kenwood Model Railroad Supply.

“Omaha is one of the bigger markets anywhere,” Mrsny says, and goes on to list about a half-dozen clubs devoted to the hobby, not to mention about the same number of annual train shows in the area.

In the late 1990s, Burt Reynolds walked into the House of Trains. Says Mrsny, “A Lincoln Town Car pulled up, and he got out wearing sunglasses, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat.” Mrsny cites several other model train hobbyist celebrities, including James Joseph “Jim” Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart are also known to have collected train models.

Mrsny started collecting trains as a youngster. “When I was little you had a 4’x8’ layout. If you were really in to it, you had two.” Mrsny says nowadays, collectors are not satisfied with having a small railroad collection—they want more trains!

Collection of a Lifetime

One of these zealous collectors, Ron Bond of Bellevue, has an entire train layout room in his home’s finished lower level. A hallway leading to the 1,100-square-foot room is flanked by custom-built display cases holding some of Bond’s showpiece models.

Bond’s wife Suzanne shows patience and understanding for his hobby, as she herself is a collector (although she enjoys vintage glassware instead of model trains).

Bond’s massive layout comes to life with realistic backgrounds and scenery modeled after his hometown of Downingtown, Pa. “It took 13 years to build the layout,” says Bond. “Most of it was done three years ago. Two guys in the [Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders] club helped out, Francis McGovern and Larry Galkowski. Danny Botos did the wiring.”

As Bond operates the trains, reaching across an array of controls, he has the timing of a modern DJ. He hopes at some point to upgrade his system “before his Social Security runs out,” he says with a laugh.

A framed picture hangs on the wall of Bond’s home; a child’s drawing of a locomotive pulling several cars. “I drew that picture in second grade, 1943-1944,” he says with a proud smile. A rail fan for a lifetime.