By Ross Markman
The tiny skunk with the hand-painted white stripe sits among the zinc trees, laser-cut plastic houses, and sports cars of today and sedans of yesteryear.
In the middle of it all, a 14-by-17-foot railroad track wraps around the miniature town. The whirring of model Amtrak trains old and new echoes throughout. It's an impressive site, even for the nonenthusiast.
The model is the work of the Pacific Junction Railway Club, a group of about a half-dozen Havre residents dedicated to building the town and equally passionate about trains.
This weekend, the club will host a Saturday Run at the Havre Railroad Museum on Third Avenue. The exhibition is free to the public and will feature Northern Pacific trains, the handiwork of club members Eldon and Barb Mooney.
"Everybody likes trains," Eldon Mooney said. "The first thing a lot of people do when they walk through that door is want to touch it."
Mooney, 68, knows his trains. After working as a switchman for Northern Pacific in Billings for 31 years, he moved to Havre in 1987, where he took a job as a brakeman with Burlington Northern. Mooney, whose love for trains began as a child, retired in 1996.
"I started doing model railroads in 1974. I just did it as a hobby," he said.
Eldon married Barb in 1966. The passion for trains was contagious.
"It's a fun family hobby. It's something to do together," she said. "You take a blank piece of paper and build something out of it."
While Eldon does all the electrical work on the track, Barb, 60, is busy piecing together the many buildings scattered throughout the fictional town. She also spends hours painting the many animals that live in the area, from bears and skunks to ducks and geese.
The hobby, Barb Mooney said, is a way for her husband to stay involved with trains, a way to continue his lifelong passion.
"It's just a fascination with the small trains, the details and the layout," she said. "It was his occupation working on the big railroads. We just kind of evolved into it."
The railway club has spent more than $2,000 on the track and town's construction and they're not done yet. The group meets for two hours every Tuesday night.
"There's so much more work that can be done on the tracks and around it," Barb said.
If there's work still to be done on the project, odds are the Mooneys will be the ones doing it, said Bob Henderson, president of the railway club. The couple, Henderson said, is the force that drives the exhibit.
"It was Frank DeRosa's vision to have a railroad museum, but it was the Mooneys who made it real," he said. "Eldon's just down there all the time. It would still be very primitive without him."
Henderson, a doctor at Northern Montana Medical Center, designed the layout of the track. The work, he said, is tedious but fun.
"It depends on your point of view. If you're the person doing the work, it's kind of fun," he said. "It's a great diversion."
Henderson, like Eldon Mooney, worked on model trains as a kid. He picked up the hobby again as a medical resident while living in Albuquerque, N.M., and then again when the railway club was formed in Havre.
"I think everybody likes model trains whether they know it or not. It's just fun to watch them run," Henderson said. "The detail down there is so good. It's so easy to get lost in that little world."
Which brings us back to Eldon Mooney.
Monday afternoon, he stood in the center of the model town, watching the trains circle the track. A half-dozen children and their parents looked on.
"I've always enjoyed model railroads. Actually, I like railroads period," he said.
The small group smiled collectively.
"What we like about this hobby is if you get disgusted with it, you can walk away from it and come back later," Mooney said.
He paused and studied the Amtrak train as it disappeared into the manmade, miniature tunnel only to reappear two seconds later.
The retired railroad worker is pushing 70 in age. The childlike gleam in his eye suggests otherwise.
"It never goes away," Mooney said.