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Pastor says train display should be played with

CROSS LANES, W.Va. -- Things are rolling at the home of the Rev. Gary Nelson, where 10 trains travel a layout covering an area of 5 by 16 feet.

There are numerous miniature accessories, and flipping various switches can cause all kinds of commotion such as steam coming from an engine or skaters gliding across a pond.

While visitors are welcome to see the elaborate layout, there is one rule.

"This is not a train collection," Nelson said. "These trains are to be played with. This is kid friendly."

Nelson is the pastor of Cross Lanes United Methodist Church, 5320 Frontier Drive, where buses will be available on the half hour from 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 23 to provide transportation to his Nitro home for a Christmas open house.

While folks may enjoy the trains during this event, they are not just set up for Christmas.

"This is permanent," Nelson said. "I've been working on this for months. Every time we move, it gets taken apart and put back together. Since the 1970s, the display has been to West Virginia, Massachusetts, Virginia and back to West Virginia."

The trains have been taken along from one appointment to the next as he serves various churches and makes room in each new parsonage for the display. He arrived here in June, just before the fierce derecho, and officially began his post at Cross Lanes United Methodist in July.  

The display changes from time to time with pieces added or new switches installed so there are more for kids to operate. Nelson is currently seeking more detailed landscaping.

Some cars date back to his childhood.

"I got my first train when I was 6 and now I'm 57," Nelson said. "This is the Lionel my parents got me. This was my wife's train when she was a little girl. She only had sisters and no brothers. Her parents got her an American Flyer."

Some cars from these sets are currently running along the tracks.

As Nelson was growing up, there was a time he decided he had outgrown trains and gave his set to a neighbor.

A Mingo County native who grew up in Parkersburg, Nelson went to West Virginia University where he majored in biology with the intention of going to medical school. It was during a biology lecture that he could strongly feel God's presence and knew he would go into the ministry. He later earned a master's of divinity from Drew University and a doctorate from Boston University.

When he first began attending WVU, his parents gave him a train set because they believed it would be a good way to overcome the stress of college life.

"Dad and I built a layout," he said. "He once drove from Parkersburg to Morgantown to show me an engine he had purchased."

When the neighbor who had his childhood set learned of Nelson's renewed interest in trains, the Lionel was given back to him.

His dad also showed up to make sure the trains were boxed to travel along when it was time for a move.

Through the years, Nelson has enjoyed finding pieces to make the display more elaborate. His wife helped paint the buildings and has plans to place tiny tombstones in a cemetery.

Nelson and wife Patti, a critical care nurse at Thomas Hospital, are the parents of Tom, 32, who lives near Washington, D.C., and Rebekah, 28, of Maine.

They also have one granddaughter, Reese Victoria Nelson, who at 7 months old already loves the trains.

The trains are mesmerizing for all ages and Nelson enjoys sharing them.

Model trains of various sizes wind through mountains, tunnels and bridges and pass buildings along the way. There is an ice cream shop, restaurant, gas station, butcher shop, post office, toy factory, warehouse, a couple of churches and assorted other structures.

Flipping any of the 46 switches can activate lights or motion. A fire engine pulls in and out of the garage at the station. A helicopter flies. A merry-go-round moves. Cattle are loaded on to a train car. A miniature gentleman tips his hat to a lady while a nearby Dalmatian dog lifts his leg near a tree. In the Halloween area, a witch stirs a pot.

There is also a flurry of sound with engines chugging, whistles blowing and music playing.

Contact writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at or 304-348-1246.


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