A Love Letter to the Oglebay Train Room

They say nothing lasts forever, and everything changes. You hear it your whole life. And there are many things you wait with mild to severe anxiety to change — from the small, everyday things to the bigger life-changing things. A brief reminder, a voice saying, oh yeah, things won’t always be like this. Your loved ones won’t always be here. You won’t always be here. Your children will grow out of their innocence and into adulthood; your dog will grow into old age way too fast before your eyes. Your hair will turn gray, your favorite band will break up, and your favorite car will break down.

But there are other, even smaller things that are such a part of your life that you can’t imagine them not existing.

Things that have been a constant from youth to middle age that you take for granted. They have always and will forever be there. And when you are suddenly faced with the reality that, no, nothing truly lasts forever, not even THIS, it’s like a hard punch to the gut.

This happened to me the last time I was at the Good Zoo at Oglebay, when I walked into what should have been the model train display room and found that it was, poof, gone.

Read Laura Jackson Robert’s feature story: What’s New at the Good Zoo at Oglebay

I have a long history with Oglebay Park. I grew up in Cameron, W.Va., where I still live, and my earliest connections to Oglebay were linked directly to my father, who played all of the park’s yearly festivals as a member of a popular local bluegrass band. From the Mountain Moon Coffee House to the summer amphitheater concert series to the wildly popular OglebayFest, Dad was there keeping impeccable time on his upright bass. And so was I — running around in front of the band in circles with the other kids in the Glessner Auditorium every October, and later singing along to all of my favorite songs from the audience when I was a young adult. There was even a festival that used to take place in the Good Zoo called Farm Days. What I remember from this event was a chance to walk all over the zoo visiting my favorite exhibits (the otters) and watching a woman dressed in Colonial-type attire make apple butter in a huge barrel right before your eyes — all while my father played on the stage with the Good Zoo train full of happy kids running behind them.

When I visited the Good Zoo as a kid, I would always save the model train room for last, which was a tradition I continued with my own children when I visited the zoo in recent years. When I was really little, I would beg my mother to carry me up the hill from the red barn where the camels (at that time) were kept, back to the main building, because climbing that little hill seemed impossible to a child whose legs were already tired from seeing all the other wonders of the zoo. When we opened the door to the main building, the cool air conditioning would hit you in the face, and at the same time you could hear those trains whirring around on their tracks as you rounded the corner into the room, and it was … magical. It was magical from the first time I remember seeing it, to the last time I showed it to my two young daughters.

Kelly and her two daughters enjoying the trains at the Good Zoo at Oglebay.

A few weeks ago, we switched things up and went to the train room as soon as we got downstairs. My brother was in town from Massachusetts with his family, and visiting the Good Zoo is a yearly destination with his children during his week home in West Virginia. But when we turned the corner and saw that the train room didn’t exist anymore, it was incomprehensible. Was this a mistake? Where were they? The red pandas now take up residence in what was once the magical train room. And who doesn’t love red pandas? They are beyond adorable. But I did not see the red pandas that day because I was in shock. My brother and I just stood there looking at each other, totally oblivious to our children running around.

Subscribe to Weelunk

I’m 37 years old, and that train room has always, always been there waiting for me. But not on this day. There was a zoo employee in the room. I remember saying something to my brother like, “Wait, wait, maybe they just moved them somewhere else in the park,” as I approached the employee. I asked in a quiet voice, “Where are the trains?” He said they were gone. He said they were, overall, in pretty bad shape. I think I muttered, “I can’t believe it.”

Where did they go?

Now images of the trains and little tiny pine trees in a dumpster somewhere filled my head. Was I the first one to ask him this question? Or is it more likely that I was the 100th person to ask him this question, and it was becoming annoying? Or was my asking of no consequence to him whatsoever? My zoo trip, which had just started, suddenly felt like a trip to the funeral home instead of my usual journey to one of my favorite places in the Ohio Valley. I looked at my 2-year-old daughter and realized she’d never know this train room. She would never remember it. We walked out into the sunlight, stunned.

I know now that it’s not just me who will be greatly affected by the removal of the trains. There are existing pins about the train display on Pinterest; videos of it on YouTube; and you can still find it listed on a website of Wheeling Attractions as the largest “0-gauge model train display” in the state. I have friends who tell me the train room was their child’s favorite part of the zoo, and many, many friends my age who grew up with the trains and can’t fathom why they have been removed. There is probably a reason — maybe I can even go so far as to say a good reason since the act was actually carried out — for the removal, but being a regular patron who loved that room, I will never, ever understand that reason. Even if the cost to keep it running was deemed not worth it in the long run, I have a feeling many people would have donated or volunteered to save the trains.

As we walked farther into the zoo, my 10-year-old nephew suggested that maybe we should start our own model train display and then sell it to the Good Zoo since they no longer have their own. His comment was innocent and sweet, and it did spark an outlandish idea in my brain. Maybe I should turn my basement into an amazing model train room and, with the flip of a switch, it would come to life and entertain family members and friends for years to come!  But am I behind the times here? Are things like miniature trains considered outdated now? Do they take too much time and attention to detail, and it’s just one more example of a pastime of a former generation that is being pushed out by the fast-paced world we live in today? Is it time for me to accept that I’m getting older, my hair is turning gray, things will change, and the staples of my youth will eventually disappear?

What I do know is there is a special room in my mind for the Oglebay miniature trains that will always exist. I’ve had 37 years to perfect it. I can close my eyes and see it all. My favorite, the little kid on the tire swing that would move back and forth very slowly, is there. The playground with the swing set and merry-go-round. The riverboat in the water circling around the mountain. The airplane; the carnival; the steel mill that was so painstakingly put together; the water mill that really turned for you right before your eyes— it’s all there.

And the trains. Those lovely trains will always be there in my mind, zipping back and forth with memories of children running along in the room, trying to keep up, waiting with excitement for their lights to emerge from the darkness of the tunnels. Thankfully, when these memories potentially fade from the room in my mind, I can go to YouTube and hear that wonderful train room sound that I grew up with again. I can show my 2-year-old these videos, along with my own photos I’ve taken over the years.

Oglebay is a local treasure through and through, and I love it and always will. I’ll try my hardest the next time I’m at the zoo to pay attention to the red pandas and not focus on the past and what that room once was. And I’ll try harder to finally accept that things do change. But I will always wonder, why did the trains have to go?

Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, W.Va., and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.