HINGHAM — Most of us are not titans of industry. We cannot buy a railroad, or decide when the trains run.
In miniature, though, we can. We can move mountains — and build new mountains out of mesh and plaster, cut a tunnel, and lay the track for trains that carry raw materials destined for distant cities.
The hobby may be hidden in basements and little-known clubs, but hundreds of thousands of people across the country build and run model trains.
“It’s kind of a little fantasy of building your own empire in HO scale,” said train enthusiast Jack Foley, 57, of Scituate.
The National Model Railroad Association has 20,000 members around the world, and those members represent a mere 10 percent, roughly, of the people who participate in model railroading, according to Diane Shaffner, an assistant at the association’s library in Chattanooga, Tenn. When the group started in 1935, it established the standard gauges we know today, so an N-scale train from Chattanooga can run on an N-scale track in Boston or anywhere else.
Foley is president of the South Shore Model Railway Club, tucked into a discreet but cavernous clubhouse in Hingham. He had trains as a child, but set the hobby aside until his wife gave him an HO train (the most popular size) for Christmas about 18 years ago.
He dove right in. “It meant so much to my quality of life,” he said.
The 65-member club, operating continuously since its founding in Quincy in 1938, boasts a train layout of 2,000 square feet and growing, with plenty of room to expand.
Another club south of Boston, the Old Colony Model Railroad Club in Raynham, started in 1997 and has 18 members, according to club treasurer Dennis Ingalls.
On a recent Wednesday evening at the Hingham club, members were doing what they do: building tracks and scenery.
The layout is extremely detailed. Step inside, and you fall under its spell. Trains emerge from tunnels cut through hills. They snake behind industrial buildings, negotiate curves, and pass a farm on their way to the next town. If they travel far enough, they’ll reach Richmond Station and G. McDuff’s Lumber Yard, or a big, multi-track freight yard.
In a wood shop off the main room, Doug Buchanan, 68, of Rockland, cut wooden track beds on a band saw. He made closely spaced notches on one side, allowing the wood to bend for curved tracks. Onto those tracks, members lay individual matchstick-like ties.
Chip Mullen of Abington wore a magnifier over his eyes as he pushed tiny, L-shaped spikes into the wood to create the look of real spikes holding down the ties. Not far away, William Garvey, a retired Marine, dropped fine stone from a plastic spoon between the ties.
“It’s the best hobby in the world,” said Mullen, 66. “You get to study engineering, which I love; history, which I love.” People always have new ideas for artwork, and you get to spend time with others who share a common interest.
The “almost hateful political discussion” of the outside world doesn’t penetrate these walls, he said. “I come here to talk trains.”
The trains depict history, but they’re far from old-fashioned. Today’s model trains are computer controlled, complete with digital sounds that mimic specific engines and activities.
At one end of the club, stairs lead to a second-floor room equipped with computers. It has windows that overlook the tracks, like the lighting booth at the back of a theater. When the club runs trains, a dispatcher in the booth tells the engineers when all is clear.
Although many people of a certain age, especially men, remember receiving toy trains as gifts, the hobby didn’t start with tracks around a Christmas tree.
It started with adult men, around 1900, according to John Stilgoe, who is Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University and the author of two books on trains.
Those men were interested in two things: trains and electricity. Then, around 1910, a number of highly educated men in New York and Boston developed an interest in model trains because they were attracted to the metalwork — the civil engineering involved in building a track, and the mechanical engineering involved in building “rolling stock,” or locomotive cars.
Those men shaped how the hobby evolved, Stilgoe said. “They worked intellectually all day at a desk, and they wanted an outlet for their creativity.”
In the 1930s, the hobby flourished. Men who didn’t lose their jobs in the Depression could pursue model railroading relatively inexpensively, he said. New magazines devoted to trains emerged.
Women got involved after 1950, mainly painting scenery in the beginning, Stilgoe said.
Men still dominate today, but women do participate, and according to Shaffner, a few have achieved “master model railroader” status with the National Model Railroad Association and have spoken at its national conferences.
In the 1970s, when the energy crisis kept people close to home, trains remained popular. People turned to them for stress relief and reassurance, Stilgoe said.
Unlike model airplanes, which can crash and crumple in an instant, model trains are utterly reliable.
“People who like some predictability in their lives like model trains because the train is supposed to go down the track and come back,” he said.
Charlie Getz, president of the national group, said interest peaked in the 1970s and ‘80s. Since then, computers have begun to draw young eyes away.
Children do still enjoy trains, though, and the Hingham club is planning a Scout Night for Jan. 11. Children and adults are also welcome at the club’s seasonal open houses; the next one will be held Oct. 27 and 28.
Stilgoe said students who had trains or other constructive hobbies as children flourish in college, and Getz said it seems like there isn’t a model railroader who couldn’t build a house — a real one — from scratch.
But there’s more to it than smarts, Stilgoe said. “The best thing is that nobody cares what your religion is, what your politics are. If you have this hobby, you’re a friend from the start.”