By STACIE FANELLI
In Michael Humphreys’ backyard are a covered wagon, a water tower, a livery stable, a totem pole, a sawmill and hundreds more relics of American history. Running through a miniature, imaginary town are his pride and joy: working locomotives built to scale.
Humphreys’ toy train collection, 20 years in the making, came to fruition eight years ago when he moved his family to Fair Haven, fenced in his yard, leveled the ground and built a railroad garden running half the length of his 60 x 35 foot yard.
“Basically, I’m a designer,” he said. “I’m making a theatrical effect.”
The “Fair Haven and Frog Bay Railroad,” as his daughter named it, is the setting around which two electrically charged tracks lie. Its pond is home to 14 goldfish and two frogs, its waterfall gushes throughout the year and its landscaping, down to the tiny spruce trees, is 100-percent natural.
“There’s not a piece of plastic in here,” Humphreys said.
Having lived in Fair Haven since he moved to the States from London more than 30 years ago, Humphreys is big on keeping his hobby local. Many of his locomotives were purchased at Red Bank’s Hobbymasters and the old Prown’s general merchandise store, before it became a window-and-doors specialist. Every plant comes from Sickles Market in Little Silver.
Growing up in London, Humphreys had plenty of Matchbox cars. But his passion for toys and trains, gardening, history and electronics didn’t meld until he had children of his own. It all started in the early ’90s when, on a whim, he picked up a train set at the toy store for his six-year-old son.
“He didn’t care,” he said. “He probably thought it was cool for a while, but he didn’t really get into it. I did.”
The trains Humphreys collects now aren’t made for kids. They’re the kinds that run along the ceilings of fancy restaurants for months without stopping. Between the power needed to run the trains and the cost of each car about $1,000 that kind of mileage can be more costly than gas for an automobile. But he said the nearly $12,000 collection is comparable to more mainstream hobbies.
“If you think about the guys who go play golf every weekend, who never see their families,” Humphreys said, “it costs them at least $10,000 a year in equipment and fees and membership stuff.”
The most recent additions to the garden came for free: several caterpillars that happen to be attracted to the fennel plants he surrounds the yard with. His hope is for the area around the railroad to become a haven for butterflies in the near future.
“Nature is a beautiful thing,” he said. “It’s all about the arrangement for visual interest.”
Humphreys set up the track so that one locomotive passes over another on the raised track or on the miniature working bridge that stretches across the pond. That might look like an ocean, and the goldfish like enormous orange whales, to a train full of miniscule passengers. He also arranged a tunnel on one of the track’s loops so that the train looks like it’s coming straight at the viewer.
“It’s just neat to look at them like that,” he said. “It’ll be even better when I get some new projects going.”
Sure, weeding and tinkering are ongoing projects themselves, but Humphreys has not-so-miniature plans in the works, too. That includes the installation of working lights in the passenger cars and inside all the buildings to create ambience the way someone else might try with a tiki torch.
What he’s most excited about, though, is attaching a fingernail-sized camera to the front of the first car, hooking it up wirelessly to a TV and riding alongside the conductor as best he can.
The serenity of the railroad garden is found in the slow pace of its upkeep, Humphreys said, though he admitted it might be a bit higher-maintenance than a lawn. He expects to spend many more years developing the intricacies of the world he’s created.
“There are a lot of plans on my mind,” he said. “Will I do them quickly? Nope. What fun would that be?”