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

layout."

 

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,

too.

 

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.