New Wilmington Globe Leader December 16, 2004
The Underground Railroad Shoppe
By David Hughes
Globe Leader Publisher
Lou Palumbo has a lot of good memories about his
childhood: the aroma of bacon and eggs served on the
family's annual train excursions to Chicago; the
baseball field and used car lots that dotted his
Taylor Street neighborhood; the days when steel mills
belching fire and smoke signaled plentiful jobs and
prosperity in New Castle.
Twenty-five years ago, Palumbo opened the Underground
Railroad Shoppe on Wilmington Road in Neshannock
Township, and ever since then he's labored to recreate
that world he remembers so fondly.
Palumbo does a brisk business throughout the year
selling and repairing model trains and accessories. In
November and December the pace picks up noticeable as
the Christmas holiday approaches. And while it's the
holiday business that pays the bills throughout the
year, it's those other months that Palumbo enjoys
most, because that's when he gets to work on "the
The layout is Palumbo's alter-ego world, built on a
42-inch high platform in the back room of the
building. It has fifteen trains running on seven
different levels. Although it's a complex track
layout, each train is independent of the others. There
are no switches. The layout the 75-80 animated
accessories including the largest animated amusement
park (21 rides) in the tri-state area. There are
lights on the streets and in most of the building and
two independent sound systems–one for train sounds,
one for the amusement park. And this tabletop
environment is all planned by, and mostly built by,
Lou Palumbo himself.
The layout is open to the public during the holiday
season. Adults pay $1.00, kids get in free; everyone
who enters gets a chance to enter the annual Lionel
giveaway. Palumbo hires high school students to run
and supervise the layout during the busy months. When
all the trains are running and all the lights are lit,
when the overhead lights are dimmed and the sound
systems turned on, it's easy to be transported to a
different place and time, almost to the point of
sensory overload. Kids, and their parents, too, are
enthralled by the experience.
Every year Palumbo adds to or changes parts of the
layout. It's a never-ending work in progress. He
claims there's no 3 by 5 inch space that's not
utilized, and careful inspection proves him correct.
His hobby, he explains, takes him (and others as well)
back to the days of his childhood.
"We want to go back to a simpler time," Palumbo
explains. In his world there are no terrorist, no
prisons. "There's no sickness in Lionelville, no use
for a hospital other than to give lollipops to kids.
And no jail, either," he adds. "I took it out."
"Unreality is what you want to create," Palumbo
maintains. And that's ex actly what he does.
Lou Palumbo's world is on of small towns, stores, and
shops–a world where people know their neighbors. A
place where people can buy doughnuts, watch a ball
game, eat in the local diner, buy a car, live, work
and play. It's a place filled with Palumbo's treasured
memories of the days past as well as some wistful
scenes of things that may yet come.
He even created a farm in one corner of the layout, an
idealized place for this city boy and his wife Marcia
to live. While Marcia hangs the wash on the
clothesline, Loud relaxes in a hammock, admiring his
trees, fields and animals. This brand of
tongue-in-cheek humor is repeated in other scenes,
While it would be nice to think that Lou Palumbo is a
shrewd yet altruistic businessman, that's not exactly
the case. True, his layout brings in viewers who may
become customers, entices buyers with ideas of what
possibilities exist with a train layout. But in
reality, Palumbo says, "It's for me first. For me, the
fun is in building it, not so much in running it."
When he enters his layout room, Palumbo enters a world
he's created for himself, a world as he would like it
to be. And in that world, trains are important, but
perhaps only secondarily.
"The trains," Palumbo concludes, "are the ribbon that
ties the package together." The ribbon may be pretty,
but it's what's inside the package that really counts.
The Underground Railroad Shop is located in the Frank
A. Palumbo Building, 1906 Wilmington Road.