This feature originally ran in the 2008 Winter Issue of Cape May Magazine. Bob’s Canal Toy Train Tour is no longer open to the public.
It is a fantasy land with tiny worlds within worlds.
This toy train tableau of miniatures is a giant. The display covers 600 square feet, but the landscape, its population, buildings and transportation systems are diminutive, created not in inches, but millimeters.
“It’s all about the romance of the railroad,” says Bob Heimenz, the creator of this toy train extravaganza that he shares with visitors at holiday time.
It is then that he opens the door to his special world – Canal Toy Trains – above his two-story, blue-gray garage on Batts Lane, just a short hike from the Cape May Canal. Families, especially the children, are welcome to visit the trains weekends from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, noon to 4 p.m. “The joy is watching the children,” says Bob, sitting on his conductor’s stool. “One little boy comes back every Saturday. He just stands there, transfixed, moving from one village to another. It reminds me of when I was a boy.”
The scene features 16 towns, villages, industrial sites, an airport and a complex train yard. Thousands of little lights sparkle over the vignettes. Tying it together is the rhythmic clickety-clack of six trains traversing mountains, byways, bridges and tunnels. Train whistles echo off the hills of a New England farm community and a Pennsylvania coal town. This intricate land of Lilliputians strikes awe and curiosity even among the most blasé.
The winter wonderland surrounds an Alpine ski lodge with boys and girls careening down the slopes. A Victorian snow village, reminiscent of Cape May, is alive with ice skaters gliding over glistening ponds, children sledding and a horse pulling a carriage. Twinkling lights decorate trees, gingerbread houses and gazebos. There’s a playground in constant motion. A gentleman lifts his hat, children swing, a man gardens with a pick and a dog lifts his leg.
It is whimsical and magical. There’s a carnival with a tiny carousel, roller coaster and Ferris wheel, all of the little mechanisms synchronized, the colorful lights inviting another look. Nearby is the 1950s village with a drive-in, The Frosty Bar, the Starlite Diner and cars with fins. In the freight yard, American Flyer cars haul Heinz Food Products, Pacific Fruit and coal aboard a Union Pacific gondola. Lionel trains from several generations transport gravel, automobiles, grain and tankers. The locomotives hiss and sputter to a halt at the red and green lights on seven interrelated tracks at the big signal junction.
This lifetime hobby was born on a Christmas morning more than half a century ago. Bob was eight years old, and under the tree he found what he ordered from Santa Claus – a Marx train. “My father always set up a train display at Christmas,” says Bob. “My wish was for my own so I could operate it myself. I ran my first train for six years, until it fell apart.” He still has some pieces of that dream train. His vision was that one day he would operate a holiday toy train display rivaling those he saw in the big department stores in his hometown, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“I got myself a paper route,” says Bob. “By the time I was 11, I was buying my own trains. My grandfather worked for a distributor, so he got me a break with 40 percent off. We were kind of poor. That helped.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad ran through Lancaster. More than a dozen trains a day traveled from New York and Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Chicago and points west and back east. For most children in the 1940s and ‘50s, the sound of a train set off daydreams about adventure and faraway places with strange sounding names. A trip on a train opened vistas for mostly rural, small-town Americans that defied the imagination. One could sit in relative comfort and watch the world go by, experiencing different landscapes and cultures. Viewing life by train was a lot more personal, glamorous and gritty than by plane, hop-scotching clouds at 35,000 feet.
“My first train ride was when I was about five,” says Bob. “Every summer Lancaster featured the Grocers’ Special. It was sponsored by grocery store owners and was the big excitement of the season. Families – there must have been 200 people – climbed aboard the Special. It was powered by steam engine and we were off to Atlantic City for a day at the beach. We packed our lunches in boxes and ate on the beach or boardwalk. Shoobies, we were. It’s the only time we ever got to the beach.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad remains Bob’s favorite. He has collected many of the line’s passenger cars, engines and cabooses with their trademark burgundy color. They clatter around the tracks stopping at the magical villages along the way.
The Pennsy pulls up to a Bavarian village and eases to a stop. This village is populated with authentic stucco-and-beam houses and shops. “I made these little buildings from kits before I could drive,” says Bob. The structures are so intricate, the tiny beams each placed with a tweezers and glued in the stucco. It is unfathomable that a teen would have the patience and hand-to-eye skills to build the entire old European setting with the smallest of tools.
“My father was a watchmaker,” says Bob. “He worked for Hamilton watches and I used his precise watchmaker implements for my projects.”
One train led to another and Bob built his own display during his teen years. His layout was becoming so complex that he stumped himself and needed additional electrical knowledge to meet the challenges of his trains.
He decided to go to electrical school. His education in circuitry enabled him to add more tracks, trains, lights and switching gear. And the bonus was that he became a professional electrician. He worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light for several years, eventually supervising 500 men building sub-stations. He never gave up playing with toy trains.
His electrical career led him to Niagara Falls, New York, and one fierce winter night, tinkering with his trains, he decided that 30-inch snowfalls and blizzard winds were not for him. He researched and found that Cape May County was the fastest growing area in the United States. He was ready to go into business for himself and he figured Cape May was the perfect place: plenty of potential business and mild winters. Thus was born R&J Electric. That was 30 years ago.
Bob and his wife Carol outgrew their home in Fishing Creek. She needed more room for her expanding art studio and he was still on a mission to outdo the department store toy train displays that infatuated him when he was a boy in Lancaster.
They fell in love with a ramshackle property in a country setting on Batts Lane in Lower Township. The 1847 farmhouse was falling down. Bob and Carol combined their artistic and building talents creating an environment for their his-and-her passions: painting, gardening, toy trains and nurturing wildlife.
Carol’s studio is on the first floor of the garage where each week several artists from the St. Barnabas art group gather to paint together, preparing for their annual summer show.
On slow winter days Bob and Carol work together making little snow trees from dried weeds and finding new ways to recycle materials into miniature works of art for the train display. They melt down lead from old pipes Bob collects. They pour the liquid lead into tiny molds creating miniature people and animals. Carol paints them in rich soft colors to populate the villages.
Bob, at 66, is slowing down his R&J Electric business. But his hobby speeds on track.
It’s only August, but already he is planning for the 2008 holiday display. He experiences the same problems in miniature that a real railroad faces. Locomotives break down, wheels wear out, tracks and electrical systems demand maintenance. Bob crawls under the display table and examines the wiring and transformers. “We’ll be adding more lights this year,” he says. “Our bill goes up about $150 a month at Christmas time.”
The boy with the dream train, now a grandfather, throws the switch, sits on his conductor’s stool, silently transfixed, as the Pennsy chugs out of the station, rolls across the big bridge alongside the 1950s farm and climbs the mountain to a holiday at the Alpine ski lodge, with happy whistles along the way.