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Museum features model trains galore

Museum features model trains galore

October 03, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

MERCERSBURG, PA. - A brick icehouse built in 1840 on the campus of Mercersburg Academy houses "a very well-kept secret," according to Henry Steiger, former fire chief and former mayor of Mercersburg, and a 1942 graduate of the academy.

The John B. McFadden Model Railroad Museum is home to a large collection of Lionel trains that belonged to McFadden, along with other model trains and railroad memorabilia.

"There's an antiquity connected with (the icehouse) that was appropriate for the collection," Steiger said.

Born in 1915, McFadden lived next to Mercersburg's Cumberland Valley Railroad Station all his life and began collecting model trains in the 1920s, Steiger said.


Only one building remains of the station, and it now houses Romeo's Pizza.

McFadden apparently was secretive about his collection, Steiger said. The layout included 200 feet of track, 80 Lionel engines, 200 pieces of rolling stock and accessories, but his mother thought he had only one set, Steiger said. The museum includes photos of McFadden's trains as they were laid out in his parents' attic.

"Over 40 years, John built a rather significant collection of Lionel trains," Steiger said. "He held menial jobs, but he could save money because he had no car and no wife."

McFadden rode a bicycle everywhere he went, venturing as far as Gettysburg, Pa., to buy model trains, and to Orbisonia, Pa., to ride the East Broad Top Railroad.

He was well-known around Mercersburg, Steiger said.

"John was unusual because he had a learning disability," Steiger said.

When McFadden became ill with cancer, he and his friend and employer, Donnie Martin of D.L. Martin Machine Co. in Mercersburg, decided the collection should remain intact so that others could enjoy it. After McFadden's death in 1973, Martin donated the trains to the academy with the provision that they be on display to the public twice a year.

Steiger became superintendent of building and grounds at the academy in the early 1970s, "so it fell to me and Avery Cook, head of the grounds department, to get the trains set up. I retired in 1987, but I'm still up there with the trains."

Alumni have contributed more trains to the collection over the years.

"The room is getting full," said Steiger, 81, whose own old trains are housed there.

Attached to the icehouse-cum-museum is an old stable full of model trains and railroad items not from McFadden's collection. Robert Davis, a 1924 alumnus from Clarksburg, W.Va., created the layout and buildings in that room, and donated several HO-scale Shay brass engines.

Also in the museum are marker lights from freight trains and train yards, an 18-inch brass locomotive bell, lanterns, maps and tools such as a car mover and a track pin puller.

James Barnes of Chambersburg, Pa., assists Steiger by consolidating, documenting, keeping inventory of and arranging the trains.

"I make sure the engines match the tenders, and that they are associated with the proper equipment," Barnes said.

Barnes said he is trying to make the display more interactive for children. Now, children can blow a train whistle and operate the milk car, which unloads milk cans.

Steiger said not many academy students visit the museum.

"They're busy, their time is restricted, and trains are not in their background," he said. "In my estimation, trains are the only way to travel."

Upon Steiger's retirement, the academy presented him and his wife, Janice, with tickets for a train trip from Martinsburg, W.Va., to Colorado. The Steigers also have seen parts of Canada, Mexico and Europe by rail.

The museum is open Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. or by contacting Steiger at 717-328-3511 for an appointment. The museum phone number is 717-328-6355, and its Web site is

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