September 4, 2013

Model train town has a story

Plattsburgh man has elaborate railroad line in his attic


PLATTSBURGH — Richard Harland Jr.’s model train set and environs represent 50 years of collecting and 10 years of work.

“The time and energy I put into this is priceless,” the Champlain Street man said.

The train set and the fictional town of Harland, Iowa, that fills his attic is worth about $8,000 and measures about 20 by 25 feet. He estimates about 450 people would live there.

“I’ve always had a love affair with trains,” he said.


Often, people design model railroad towns after their own location, he said, but he created Ramsey from scratch, though the railroad line is named Erie Lackawanna after the one that ran through his childhood hometown of Elmira.

Harland’s father, Richard Harland Sr., also collected trains, and the younger man remembers a train set around the Christmas tree every year. At 14, he received a race-car collection as a gift, and his hobby grew from there, as he added houses, buildings and roads.

“We didn’t have computers back then,” he said.

Although, he added, the hobby has kept up with technology. Ramsey has working traffic lights and flashy billboards.

He acquired most of his father’s collection, though not the steam engines, as Ramsey’s trains are moved by diesel engines. 


Harland Jr. also created a written history for Ramsey, including a back story of the founder dating back to the American Revolution, fur trading and American Indians.

“It’s totally my imagination,” he said. “I like to think it’s like any town in America.”

He envisions the town as a place he’d like to live, where everyone knows each other and treats one another with respect and decency regardless of color or beliefs, a lesson he learned while living in Europe during part of his 20 years serving the Army.

“It’s a simple life,” he said of Ramsey. “That’s the way I would like to see the world, with everyone getting along.”


The town has residential neighborhoods, churches, restaurants, a car dealership, a funeral home, an airfield and an amusement park, among other facilities.

Although he has received some pieces as Christmas or birthday gifts, Harland Jr. mostly buys parts online. He said he used to spend hours at Vermont Toy and Hobby before it closed.

Most pieces have been intricately put together and painted under a magnifying glass at a desk in the center of the attic.

“I could be up here all day,” Harland Jr. said.


Currently, he’s adding two bridges, repairing a Ferris wheel that his cat knocked down and replacing transformers that moisture has corroded. 

Repairs are always needed, but the temperature in the attic isn’t always suitable for working on the tiny pieces.

“You have a short time frame of when you can work,” Harland Jr. said. “I’m in no hurry; I like what I’ve got so far.”

Harland said some people who have model railways set up for a long period of time often tear them down and start over.

“I’ve thought about it a few times,” he said. “There will always be something I can add to it.”