Every Christmas for the past seven years, Gary Coleman has been setting up a models of the Polar Express and other trains for the public to see but his fascination with trains started in childhood.
“There used to be model trains under my Christmas tree every year,” he said. “Dad always made sure the train was set up on Christmas Eve. I thought Santa had done it.”
Seven years ago, Coleman set up his model trains for public viewing at the Westend Center. “There was plenty of room and there were windows for people to look through but there wasn't any traffic there after dark,” he said.
He found other venues but it wasn't until three years ago that he started setting up the trains on the first floor in The Depot Restaurant & Lounge in Palmer Lake. When visitors come in to see the trains and make donations, this year for Wounded Warrior USA, they receive a copy of a ticket for the Polar Express that entitles them to a free hot chocolate upstairs in the restaurant.
“We really like it when the kids make the actual donation,” Coleman said. “Besides the free hot chocolate, donated by The Depot's owners, each kid also gets a bell like in the movie.”
Most of the trains are actually owned by Coleman's son Travis, who has Down Syndrome. “His birthday is in November and every year I give him something for the trains so we can play with it later,” Gary Coleman said. “He's really big on birthdays; he doesn't even start to talk about Christmas until after his birthday. He helps me set up every year.”
Like many real railroads, this year's model-train exhibit is running late. Instead of opening on Dec. 5 as it usually does, this year it will open Dec. 12. It closes on Dec. 30.
“I have everything set up except the Polar Express train,” Coleman said.
Most of the trains are N-Gauge, which Coleman said is becoming a very popular size for model train aficionados.
“The Polar Express is O-Scale,” he said. “It's the Lionel Train size I played with as a kid. I use five and a half sheets of plywood to set it up. I also depict scenes from the movie.”
“The Polar Express” is a Caldecott award winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg published in 1985. In 2004, the book was made into an animated movie starring the voice of Tom Hanks. The Polar Express steam locomotive in the book and the movie is modeled after a real locomotive that ran on the Pere Marquette Railway system, which operated in the Great Lakes area from 1899-1951.
“Lionel started out with the locomotive and a couple of cars,” Coleman said. “Every year they add more cars. I even have the one with Tom Hanks' voice calling `All aboard!'”
The trains will be open for viewing at The Depot, 11 Primrose St. in Palmer Lake, on Wednesday from noon-2 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday from noon-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
For more information about Wounded Warrior USA, visit www.WoundedWarriorUSA.com.