OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
• Train layout, Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel lobby Wednesday, July 17, through Friday, July 19, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
• Train Show (sale), Track 29 Building
Trading hall to contain 150 tables of model trains, parts and hobby accessories for sale from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 20
Al Kolis lost his father to a heart attack in 1992, the same day as his wife's birthday and their first baby shower.
The Howell, Mich., native coped by building a 300-square-foot train layout as a tribute to his dad.
Now, Kolis travels the United States as an ambassador hoping to spread the joy of building Lionel train layouts. He shows off his train set -- "made by the loving hands" of his father Alfonse Kolis -- on a travel-weary iPad wherever he goes.
"A part of me got ripped out that day, but my train layout became a memorial to my father," Kolis said. "It bonded my children to my father through me."
His organization, the Lionel Collectors Club of America, is making a stop at the Chattanooga Choo Choo this week for its 43rd annual convention. The nearly weeklong event is expected to generate about $500,000 of business downtown.
Most events will be for ticketed patrons only, but a public train layout, as well as a train sale at Track 29 on Saturday, is available to the public.
The 720-square-foot Lionel train layout -- with all the literal bells and whistles -- will beckon passersby in the Choo Choo hotel lobby until Friday.
Tiny train noises echo through the hotel atrium as guests check in, as well as a howling "hiss" every few seconds.
Chris Fonseca, a Chattanooga native who now calls Louisiana home, brought his son Daniel to the scale model exhibit. They stood in awe of a landscape that ranged from "mountain" to "downtown" to suburban Americana.
They were in town to see the Southern Railway 630, which backed up to the station Monday morning in honor of the Lionel collectors' visit.
Headquarters: New York City
Lionel Collector's Club of America
• Established: 1970
• Chattanooga convention attendance: 600
• Last visited Chattanooga: 1994
"We're checking out every railroad we can because there are so few in New Orleans," he said.
Fonseca was displaced after Hurricane Katrina in 2004. Since then, he has rekindled his interest in train sets with his young son.
"We got a big one we can fit in our house, which isn't very big unfortunately," he said.
Fonseca got his first train set from his father at age 5.
"Somehow, I never destroyed that stuff," he said. "Recently, my father found it, repackaged it and gave it to me all over again."
Fonseca's childhood set features "The General," a steam locomotive with infamous ties to Chattanooga. The General spent 60 years parked in Union Depot before the City of Chattanooga seized the train as it tried to leave in 1967. A 1972 ruling determined the locomotive belonged in Kennesaw, Ga., from where it was stolen during the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862.
Kolis said Chattanooga's rich rail heritage was one reason the collectors group wanted to return.
"Real trains are part of Chattanooga's history, so we're here partly for that," Kolis said. "We've got a lot of members who are Civil War history buffs."
Some convention participants traveled down to Kennesaw, Ga., to see the General as it sat Tuesday.
Other train buffs, like Roger Farkash and George Watson, stayed up all night Sunday unloading the hotel lobby attraction from a 53-foot truck and assembling it piece by piece.
"Although it looks delicate, it was designed to be rather rugged," Farkash said.
The two Dallas natives work for "Trainworx," a company that specializes in creating train layouts for trade shows and films. Their work was featured in 2011's "The Smurfs" during a scene at the legendary FAO Schwarz toy store in New York City, the home city of Lionel Trains.
"It was my hobby, and now I get paid to play," Watson said. "There's probably half a dozen different train organizations in the country, but this one is my favorite. I call it my 'warm and fuzzy group.'"
Their work, which would also last well into Monday night, drew children away from their parents in the hotel lobby, as well as curious adults from their duties.
"Man, is this cool or what," said Mark Smith, who was visiting on business from Knoxville on Monday night. "You don't get trains in front of people anymore. If they'd just come and see it, they'd be mesmerized."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.