Rumbling train tracks and a blaring horn mean that the Crescent Lines are approaching a rural Louisiana town. A chugging freight train comes into view, passes a cluster of cabins in a campsite and then vanishes behind thick trees covered in delicate moss.
The scene may sound ordinary, but what makes it unusual is that this train's colorful boxcars are less than 6 inches long, and those cabins can probably fit into the palm of your hand.
The Crescent Lines is a miniature railroad that connects New Orleans to Shreveport, and then goes over to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Each inch on the model train equals 87 inches on a real train (an HO scale layout, in technical terms).
The fictional railway transports both freight and passengers, and is run by The Crescent City Model Railroad Club, an organization with 30 members ranging in age from 14 to 85.
“Everybody comes from a different background, but they’re here to have fun and run trains,” said Ken Mason, the club’s president.
Soon, a Polar Express locomotive will cross a petite Christmas village on the route as the Metairie-based group conducts its holiday-themed open houses.
The club, which formed in 1956, began hosting the seasonal shows in the early 1990s.
“We did ‘Holidays on the Crescent Lines’ because everybody remembers the trains running around the Christmas tree,” said Ken Gaudet, the train master.
At a recent open house — the club holds them throughout the year — members and curious guests watched the trains follow the twists and turns of a mainline track that measures nearly 400 feet in length and circles the inner perimeter of the clubhouse.
The trains rolled past miniature versions of mountainous landscapes, old warehouses and underground caverns, and townspeople, frozen in time, seem to go about their day.
Visitors milled around the tracks, studying the clever details such as little Ford Pinto cars and pickups lined up on a locomotive that transports automobiles, and a construction site complete with bulldozers and cranes.
Young children searched for items on a scavenger hunt list, including a John Deer lawn mower, a falling hiker and a two-headed calf grazing near a radioactive waste facility. (The set designers have a sense of humor.)
Tommy Naquin, the club’s vice president, pointed out more interesting "finds" during an interview.
“There’s a white alligator in there,” he hinted, motioning to a marsh with water made of a shiny, resin-based concoction.
“This is our version of a spillway,” he added, revealing two long bridges, as the simulated roar of a torrential downpour began, complete with thunder and lightning flashes.
Later, he discreetly pointed out a beach occupied by nearly naked vacationers, standing only about an inch tall.
“On occasion, a figurine will disappear,” Naquin whispered with a chuckle.
Although the tiny towns are fictional, they’re modeled mostly on real cities, he said.
Finding the right pieces requires research. Distressing the boxcars to give them a weathered look is time-consuming, and placing the objects is tedious, but it’s also all cathartic.
“One of the main things you learn is something I didn't have a whole lot of — patience,” Naquin said. “You can’t hurry with any of these things. If you goof up, you can go over it again, but we tend to be perfectionists when it comes to that.”
But they also have fun.
“Besides just being a model train club, it’s a social club,” Mason said, adding that the members sometimes get together outside of meetings. For example, a handful of them recently went to watch "Murder on the Orient Express" at the movie theater.
“There’s camaraderie,” Gaudet said. “Everybody has different interests, but when we’re putting something together, everybody gets involved. It’s almost like family.”