University City

Model railroad layouts are never finished

Some people make mountains out of molehills. Jerry Shepardson makes them out of strips of cardboard, green foam and old sheets dipped in plaster.

They're part of an elaborate model railroad setting Shepardson has built with his own hands over the years. It would leave most model railroad enthusiasts in awe.

The first floor of his Mallard Ridge home may resemble present-day Charlotte, but in his basement it's western Virginia's coal country in the 1940s, when railroads were a vital part of the American landscape.

Trains running along the 500 feet of track pass through lush green countryside, around entire towns, into tunnels, even over long and narrow bridges, where glass windowpanes stand in for the water below.

Shepardson doesn't quite remember when the railroad bug took hold of him. Like most kids, he said, he remembers getting a model train set under the Christmas tree one year. When his father wasn't playing with it, he sometimes would get the chance.

To him, railroads represent a time when the benefits of the industrial age were in full swing, and so was American ingenuity.

"A locomotive like this weighed a million pounds and pulled monstrously huge trains, and they had no computers," said Shepardson, plucking an engine from the track. "It just amazes me that they were able to build such creatures."

People talk about high-speed rail now, he said, but it's really nothing new: "In 1930s we had trains running 120 mph with steam."

Shepardson's trains aren't the kinds that run on steam. They're not the kinds of trains passed down from Grandpa, either.

Director of technology with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for more than 30 years, Shepardson uses high-tech engines, each with a computer board in it that's controlled by a laptop computer.

"What's happened with the hobby is, as us boomers age and become a little more financially able to buy stuff, the market has turned into very highly detailed stuff," he said. "So a lot of the older stuff we've gotten rid of, because the new stuff is so much better detailed and runs so much better."

Shepardson has no idea how many trains he has in his collection. He doesn't know if his layout will ever be quite finished, either. He's been tinkering with the display off and on for the past 22 years.

Hop the rail at Miss Bettie's Diner in town and ride it for a few yards, and you'll pass right by the new meat-packing plant he's working on, its icehouse still under construction. Further down the line, he's putting the finishing touches on the sign for Bailey's Electric, named after his wife.

"Anyone who tells you their model railroad is done is probably lying," he said. "They're just never done."