The World in His Garage

By Gary Linehan March 15, 2016 07:36
Gary Gober with his labor of love

Gary Gober with his labor of love

One of Gary Gober’s earliest memories is hearing a train whistle blow.

Just 5 years old in 1945, he can still hear the high-pitched cry of the steam whistle and chugging sounds of the locomotive as it pulled into the Southern Pacific’s Richmond station along the northeastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

That singular experience launched Gober’s lifelong fascination with trains, ultimately leading him to construct the Big Trees & Bailiwick Model Railroad, an elaborate three-level layout covering 500 square feet in the Groveland-area home he shares with Becky Sniffen, his partner of 40 years.

The name Bailiwick refers to a special domain, Gober says, while Big Trees pays tribute to the natural scenery surrounding him.

The BT&B has 500 feet of track, 45 operating locomotives, 280 freight cars, 10 passenger trains and more than 400 human figures, along with tunnels, six passenger and freight stations, a 13-foot-long trestle, a beach and a lighthouse.

There are populated towns, roadways, industrial centers, a Greyhound bus station, a baseball park, a used car lot, farm animals, animated billboards and panoramic mountain ranges. The entire layout can be lit for nighttime scenes.

“There is so much detail that people come back three months later and think I’ve added something new,” Gober says.

One track is dedicated to an eastbound train and another to a westbound train, each picking up freight cars and passengers in such miniature locations as Gobersburg, Sniffenville, Friendtown, Utterback, Bishop, Point Lucas and Promontory. “They’re named after friends and co-workers, people I’ve known and places I’ve been,” says Gober, who taught high school English and choir in Cupertino for 30 years. “It’s kind of a memorabilia thing as well.”

model-trainsFN00047-Sp16-editedModel railroad hobbyists like Gober are dedicated to re-creating a working rail system in minute detail. Some layouts are known as prototypes, which focus on the actual places, times and objects of one particular rail line, while the BT&B is a composite of several lines, known as a “freelance” layout.

“I include several different eras,” Gober says. “The scenery is mostly from the mid- to late 20th century, and the trains cover four decades, from the 1950s through the 1980s. It’s a little like The Twilight Zone.”

Among the authentic rail lines included in the layout are the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, Western Pacific, Santa Fe, New York Central and Amtrak. “They’re the railroads of our culture and history,” says Gober.

He and Sniffen, a retired accountant and computer consultant, bought their Pine Mountain Lake home in 2001 and moved there full-time from Santa Clara County in 2005.

Space for a railroad layout was a major factor in the selection process, which included a dozen prospective sites in PML. The entire lower level of their home – then encompassing a two-car garage and large bedroom – now houses the model railroad.

Gober began building the BT&B immediately upon purchasing the property, laboriously transferring a few key sections from his last layout in Campbell. Fifteen years later, the line is essentially complete.

“They’re never really finished,” he says of most model railroads. “You’re always adding details to bring the scene alive. You don’t like to be finished.”

Though Gober’s entire construction process took years, there is no way to tally all the time invested.

“You can’t see the hours that went into any of this,” he says. “It’s impossible to say how long it takes to design something, and even a relatively small thing can take hours and hours to build. But it’s part of the flow of my life – when you’re doing this, all the other stress and strain fade to the background. If it were only work, you wouldn’t do it.”

Sniffen notes that building a model railroad requires the skills of a carpenter, electrician, model maker, artist and visionary.

“I’m not a carpenter by any means, but I love the smell of wood and working with it,” Gober says. “As an electrician, I just know the basic stuff, but I get a kick out of it – especially if it works.”

Gober designed and shaped all of the scenery from scratch, while the buildings were constructed from kits, then individually painted and weathered. The train cars and locomotives were purchased complete, then customized to look weathered. Miniature cars and people also came from hobby shops.

Model Railroader magazine published one of Sniffen’s photos of the layout in November 2013.

Few people besides family and friends have seen the railroad in its entirety. Regular visitors include members of the Big Trees and Bailiwick Model Railroad Club, including PML neighbors Paul Sperry, Kurt Petersen, Mike Wedekind, Bill Kiesling and Patrick Kelly. They meet informally every two weeks for operating sessions and camaraderie.

“I’m thankful to have their help,” Gober says. “I can run this thing alone, but without partners there’s a lot of running around, so it takes longer. It’s also fun to talk the talk, and by the time you’ve hooked up the cars and moved things across the country to their final destinations, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and been somewhere.”

Club sessions can run from three to four hours, he says.

Later this year, the couple plans to host a series of free open houses, starting with local community groups. “We definitely want to do some sharing of it, and we’re exploring the best way to do that,” Gober says.

The BT&B is an HO scale railroad, meaning it is half of O scale, the most common model railroad gauge in the United States through the early 1960s. One-quarter inch of O-scale track equals one foot of full-size railroad track, so in HO, one-eighth inch equals one foot, making every inch of HO track equal to eight feet.

Gober’s 13-foot-long trestle would measure 1,248 feet in full scale – close to a quarter-mile.

Born in Albany and raised in Richmond and San Pablo, Gober turned 75 in February. The memory of his first encounter with trains as a 5-year-old remains vivid.

“My babysitter walked me a couple blocks over to the Richmond train station,” he recalls. “I could hear the steam whistle of the Southern Pacific’s San Joaquin Daylight passenger train coming up from Los Angeles, and that was it – the live steam from the engine, the red-orange color of the cars, all the people going places. I was absolutely hooked – I couldn’t get enough of it.”

He began running through the house making whistle sounds and chugging his arms like drive rods, warning his family not to get burned by the steam.

His grandfather, who had been a dining car waiter tending Hollywood celebrities aboard the Southern Pacific, later ran a shoeshine stand and sold cigars. He would bring home empty cigar boxes which young Gober strung together into a train that eventually stretched from one end of the house to the other.

He got his first electric train set, a Lionel, as an 8-year-old. “I took it apart and put it away for about year, then I decided I didn’t want to break it up any more. I was blessed to have a mother and stepfather who were supportive, and when I was 10 years old, I had my own garage to build in.”

Any scenery in those days had to be made from scratch. “You had to come up with your own ideas,” he says.

“I used dough and water to make mountains that I painted green, and then I noticed some holes started appearing. Rodents were eating up the doughy hills, so you learn as you go along.”

Painted oatmeal boxes and toilet paper rolls served as industrial tanks, and dried coffee grounds provided the soil.

After moving to a bigger home during high school, he built a bigger railroad. “I scratch-built a cathedral and a priest came over to bless it,” he says. “We ended up in the newspaper.”

During his teenage years, Gober regularly rode the Santa Fe’s Golden Gate Streamliner from Richmond to Los Angeles to visit his father and stepmother. Graduating from Richmond High School in 1958, he attended Contra Costa Junior College and San Francisco State College, majoring in music with a minor in English.

He worked in the warehouse of the Richmond Export Co. before completing his graduate studies at Cal State Hayward and beginning a 30-year career at Cupertino High. He retired in 1999, but kept busy conducting two adult choirs for the Peninsula Musical Arts Association in Foster City, and led the combined group in concert at Carnegie Hall in 2005.

By then he had already moved to Tuolumne County full time, so for six months he drove to the Bay Area twice a week to rehearse the singers. Gober also joined the Columbia College Community Chorus and sang under director John Carter for seven years.

Gary and Becky survey their model rail realm

Gary and Becky survey their model rail realm

The BT&B now fills much of Gober’s time, but he insists it is not his entire life. “You can have a passion for something, and that doesn’t mean there’s no room in your life for anything else,” he says.

Gober is grateful for Sniffen’s support of his hobby over the years – and her willingness to park outside, just as he does.

“I’ve asked Becky more than once if she misses not having a garage and her answer is, ‘Most people just have junk filling up their garage, and I have a whole world in mine,’ ” Gober says.

Anyone interested in starting a model railroad of their own can follow the beginner’s guide on the National Model Railroad Association’s website, They can also visit train shows and hobby shops, consult Kalmbach Publishing Company’s extensive line of books, “and of course, if they know a train buff, just ask,” Gober says.

The hobby involves a significant investment of time, space and money but offers immeasurable rewards in return, he says.

“You’re reliving your world, building what you loved to see,” Gober says. “If you’re not doing something that’s profound to you, why would you do it?”

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Gary Linehan March 15, 2016 07:36
Write a comment

No Comments

No Comments Yet

Let me tell you a sad story. There are no comments yet, but yours can be the first!

Write a comment
View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*