Frank Huegel of South Tamaqua has seen many trains, planes and ships in his military career.
A Boston native, Huegel spent 20 years in the U. S. Navy's Heavy Attack Air Squadron, which included three deployments to Vietnam, Cuba and the South Pacific. The extensive travel help Huegel, a machinist, to cultivate his interest in railroads, ships and aircraft. However, it was trains that always captivated his imagination.
"I've seen trains all over the world. I'm fascinated by steam trains," he says.
Huegel settled in Maine, marrying the former Arbor Seidlinger. But Huegel and his wife found their way to Pennsylvania where Huegel lived for two years before joining the military. He now lives in West Penn Township, not far from Stonehedge.
The 68-year-old Navy career veteran is reaching into his military past to help engineer the rebuilding of the Tamaqua Anthracite Model Railroad Club display. The 1,000-square-feet HO gauge tourist attraction is headquartered at the corner of West Broad and Nescopec streets. It runs off two separate power supplies and is large enough to run six trains concurrently.
Huegel, the club's current president, says the display was begun in 1993 when Paul Kern served as the club's first president. Huegel wasn't involved in those early days.
But seven years ago, friend Bill Gaddes of Lake Hauto invited Huegel to join the Tamaqua model railroad club and Huegel embraced the opportunity. He's thankful to Gaddes for introducing him to the project, located in the basement level of the former Masonic Temple.
"He's a founding member here. He showed me the layout," says Huegel, who worked for 14 years at Bath Iron Works in Maine after retiring from the military.
The idea of a model train display took Huegel back to 1960 when he built his first display while serving in the military.
"That one was very primitive compared to this," he says.
Tamaqua's popular L-shaped, HO train display is being completely overhauled by a small crew of volunteers, a six month project expected to be unveiled during the Tamaqua Summerfest on Fathers Day. It includes one section measuring 20-feet by 40-feet, and another 10-feet by 20-feet.
The new display will be unusual in some ways. It will include the mountains, lakes and tunnels so prevalent in northeastern Pennsylvania, along with another airport, new rail sidings and a quarry. But it also will feature a large waterfront scene, and many aspects of shipping and marine life more common to the New England area.
"I wanted a small Maine village," Huegel says, noting that he lobstered for a time along Bailey Island. Huegel even built a large container ship for the display, and a maritime railway, an engineering fete used to maintain boats.
"They would pull out oyster boats, then block them up, strip the hull down, and then paint them."
Club members use imagination and a variety of raw materials to create the various scenes in the display. Among the materials are real coal and rocks, sheetrock, plaster of paris cloth, styrofoam, wood glue to build mountains and valleys, and even roofing ice and snow shield to create roads.
The club welcomes young members. One of the newest is Josh Vacula of Tamaqua, currently building a coal mine scene. Members hail from all points, including two who drive from Coopersburg, south of the Lehigh Valley.
Many of the members have their own private railroad displays at home and are fans of various full-size railroads, too, says Huegel.
"I have a preference for Great Northern, with its big, heavy bull equipment, all painted yellow and green. I fell in love with their snowplow engine," says Huegel, who saw the train in Butte, MT.
"Karl Jens is big into the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Paul Kern likes the Reading."
It's the striking beauty of the railroad scenes of the past and present that inspires club members to recreate the same drama in miniature.
Huegel says the hobby focuses on trying to make the display as realistic as possible.
"You can spend hours just on the detail."
The shared passion of model railroads bonds the men and provides countless hours of enjoyment.
"I could spend every day here, all day long," says Huegel.
Kern is the club's vice president. Francis Gonzalez serves as treasurer and Gene Lutz is secretary. New members are welcome, including those with interest in all gauges, not only HO.
The group has about twelve active members but would like to increase membership, perhaps tripling it. The general public is invited to stop by and become familiar with the activity. Club members meet every Thursday evening. Those interested in trains, model trains of any gauge, scenery, design, carpentry or any related field are welcome to become active with the project.
More information is available by calling Huegel at (570) 386-2517.