Louis Crisci is an electrical engineer by profession, but Sunday he was acting more like a train engineer.
When smoke started to drift from the controls of the model train exhibit at miSci, the museum visitor was quick to dive beneath the black cloth hiding the display’s inner workings to investigate.
He and Upstate Train Associates member Dave Halverson fiddled with the wiring while Crisci’s kids prowled nearby.
“I think the problem is over here,” announced his 5-year-old daughter, Madalena, pointing to a corner of the elaborate setup, where miniature children frolicked on swings and seesaws.
When her father failed to address her claim, she and her 2-year-old brother, Jacob, gleefully joined their father under the train table and were promptly shooed out.
The power was briefly cut to the elaborate 19-by 27-foot display and the trains came to a stop, but 4-year-old Elias Edrington of Albany continued to orbit the exhibit, eager to get a peek at the Polar Express.
“Come over here! Look!” he shouted to his mother. “Look! It even goes on the other side!” His eyes scanned the tracks and came to rest on the locomotive he had been searching for.
“I like the train moving,” he declared impatiently, peering through the protective Plexiglas surrounding the display. “When’s it gonna move?”
Even when the display is down for repair, visitors seemed to find the exhibit fascinating. Run by volunteers from the Upstate Train Associates, it has ushered in the holiday season at miSci — formerly called the Schenectady Museum — for about 15 years. The display debuted Saturday and will be open weekends through Jan. 20, as well as during school vacation week.
The stars of the exhibit are O gauge model trains, known to many as Lionel trains. They travel on two large, concentric, circular tracks and a dead-end line, which border an amusement park, a farm, a small town, a train yard and a playground.
Skaters twirl on a frozen pond, cows line up to board a cattle car, and Thomas the Tank Engine chugs along a short track that circles a Christmas tree.
Club volunteers worked for about seven hours to bring the entire scene to life, estimated Halverson, 81, who was staffing the exhibit Sunday and anxiously awaiting backup support from a second volunteer.
More volunteers are necessary to keep the club and the exhibit afloat, he said.
“Half of our members are over 80,” he explained. “The younger kids really aren’t that into the trains. They’re into the computers and the digital phones and all that.”
Louis Crisci, who had emerged from under the train table and was fiddling with a push button that he suspected was part of the electrical problem, appeared to be a prime candidate for the club.
He and his kids love the train exhibit, he said.
“She’ll play with the computer,” he commented, gesturing toward Madalena, “And she’s relatively proficient at surfing the Internet and that sort of thing, but we actually try and get out and look at real things from time to time and they still seem to be excited about that.”
Greta Traynor, 5, who was at miSci viewing the trains with her grandmother, Barbara Traynor of Slingerlands, walked around the exhibit with interest, but then ran off to play on a nearby computer.
“Technology is capturing their imagination all the time,” said her grandmother, shaking her head. “But it’s what’s happening. You can’t get away from it.”
Things were different when Mark Breslin, 74, was a kid.
Now president of the Upstate Train Associates, he has been involved with the group since 1969.
“I’m the only charter member left,” he said with a chuckle, his eyes scanning the exhibit in front of miSci’s Suits-Bueche Planetarium on Sunday afternoon.
He pointed out some of the vintage highlights of the display: a train engine that dates from the 1940s, a coal loader from the 1950s and a 40-year-old drawbridge.
Growing up, he always associated the chug and whistle of a model train with Christmastime.
“My brother and I used to wait for Christmas to see what Dad would buy to add to our layout. It was all O gauge like this,” he said, pointing to the exhibit. “I think he enjoyed it as much or more than we did.”
Less than a half-hour after they had been stilled, the trains at miSci came back to life, their whistles calling as they circled the tracks. Young museum visitors, eyes bright, pressed little hands and noses to the Plexiglas, eager to catch a glimpse of the Christmas magic Breslin remembers so fondly.