By Sean Barron
Eleven-year-old Blake Marcum is too young to remember the daily operations at the Mahoning Valley’s once-thriving steel mills, but he enjoyed a small re-creation of how the area’s most central industry functioned.
“It’s a hobby we’ve had for quite a long time,” the Austintown Middle School sixth-grader said, referring to collecting model trains.
Such authentic trains were the main attraction for Blake and brothers Alec and Clayton, 4 and 9, respectively, who came Saturday to the Youngstown Model Railroad Association’s annual open house at Four Mile Run Christian Church, 751 Four Mile Run Road.
The event continues from noon to 6 p.m. today, next weekend and Dec. 7 and 8.
The three boys watched intently as a network of trains went to and past a steel-mill display. The attraction featured replicas of the former Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. complexes, serving as a reminder of what many consider to be the Valley’s golden age of steelmaking.
“They absolutely love the trains,” said the boys’ grandmother, Elena Marcum of Austintown, who added that the youngsters also have fun as “train chasers,” meaning they enjoy following trains while in a car.
Part of the steel-mill portion, which continues to evolve, is a train that transports coke to blast furnaces. The exhibit also features buckets that take ore, coke and limestone to furnaces, where the materials melt and are taken via bottle-shaped train cars to open hearths and eventually converted to steel, explained Don Lakin, a 26-year YMRA member.
Also part of the mix are small train cars filled with what looks like coal that are modeled after those used at Sheet & Tube. The simulation shows how the coal was cooked in ovens, then doused and cooled with water before use, he noted.
Lakin and Ed Williams also were in charge of operating the controls in the steel-mill portion.
“Once you get everything wired up, it’s not that hard,” said Williams, a 25-year YMRA member who also works for Wheatland Tube Co. in Warren. “You just have to pay attention.”
Williams, who also worked for Youngstown Sheet & Tube as well as Sharon Steel Corp., said the exhibit brings back many memories.
Memories also abounded in a section that has a simulated layout of downtown Youngstown and includes a likeness of Central Square combined with model remnants of the past such as the Palace Theater, the Town Diner, the Dollar Bank building and McCrory’s 5-and-10-cent store.
In addition, a model amusement park reminiscent of Idora Park greets attendees.
On several occasions, railroad association members dimmed the lights to give attendees a sense of what the mills looked like at night. Several youngsters, such as 4-year-old Jacob Dwenger of Stow, barely flinched, however, as his attention seemed focused on the trains passing by.
“Yes!” an excited Jacob said when asked if he has model trains at home.
Accompanying the youngster was his grandfather, Herb Peterson of Uniontown, who retired from the popular Hartville Hardware in Hartville.
Despite an emphasis on the past, the open house also has new offerings such as an engine terminal, more signals, scenery changes and animated signs that resemble neon, noted Jim Pope, the association’s president.
“We keep adding new equipment all the time,” said Pope, who noted that a new section is to open.
The open house also features a replica of the former New York Central Railroad station that was on Wilson Avenue on Youngstown’s South Side. That building, which was razed in the 1960s, housed the association’s first meeting in 1958.
The 30-member YMRA debuted in April 1957 with eight members, two of whom are still part of the club, and its first formal open house took place Dec. 2 and 3, 1961. The group moved several times over the years before settling at its present location in 2009.