The Garfield-Clarendon Model Railroad Club has been around in some form since 1947, back when Chicago was still a major passenger-railroad hub. In the course of its long history, the club has built five model railroads, first in its original home in the Garfield Park fieldhouse, then in the Clarendon Park Community Center. Work on the current railroad, the Garfield Central, began in 1974. It now comprises 1,500 feet of track and nine stops, ranging from an isolated mining outpost to a small city, all set in a rolling landscape that resembles Appalachia. “The nearby hills are dark green,” a club member named Wally Lloyd wrote in the 1992 membership guide, “but they get bluer and bluer as they get farther away. If it’s not raining now, it soon will be, or it just quit. The time is a while ago, not the distant past, but not today.”
The Garfield Central barely fits into the room it’s allotted in the Clarendon Park Community Center. The trains run at eye level behind a Plexiglas wall. There are bridges and tunnels, rivers and trees, farms and fields, freight cars piled high with coal, and tiny passengers waiting at the depot, all rendered in exquisite detail. There’s even a McDonald’s. It takes about half an hour for a train to make the complete circuit. The club’s “operating nights” occur the last Friday of every month, in which visitors are encouraged to stop in and check out the the action. Watch long enough and you might forget you’re really standing in Uptown.