ANAHEIM HILLS — Maybe it's the 1/24 scale model steel railroad bridge you first see when you approach the hilltop house, or the 3/4-mile of accompanying G-gauge track that nearly surrounds the place, running past little towns, around mountains, over rivers and through tunnels into the house. Maybe it's the way those tracks and others continue through nearly every room, or the way the kitchen dining area is filled with little trees being painted and plaster houses being constructed by Cliff Springmeier, who was casually flicking his cigarette ash on the floor.
Certainly this, you say to yourself, this is a bachelor pad.
I had been pestering Springmeier since March to allow us to view his railroad setup, which local hobby shops maintained was the most extreme in the county. And every month Springmeier would politely put us off, saying he and friends were working on it nonstop and it just wasn't ready to be viewed.
It \o7 still\f7 isn't ready, and won't be for years, but he did finally relent, allowing us to see the creation in progress. It's pretty scary.
Springmeier, 60, has indeed been working on the railroad all the livelong day. Since he sold off his $60 million-a-year plastics distribution business in 1989, he's passed the time away on his trains from 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (with a couple of hours off for an afternoon nap) seven days a week. It's not a solitary activity: He has seven people helping him, of about 15 he says have greatly contributed their time and skills over the years.
With that time and human effort, one could build some awfully nice houses, and Springmeier has done that as well, designing and building, among others, a $2.5-million manse in Orange Park. But that was easy going compared to his railroad project.
"I don't know anybody who would be insane enough to do this," he said in a rocky chain-smoker's voice as he began a tour of his place.
Most of the rooms are dominated by oak platforms containing locomotive worlds in various states of completion. Some hold towns and switching yards, nearly finished but for details such as gravel and painted-on rust. Another holds a plywood framework for an extensive mountain railroad layout. Even though it will be out of view when completed, the wood is gracefully sawed and sanded like a finished product. As a backdrop to the scenes, the walls are painted in cloud patterns.
"Take a look under here," Springmeier suggested, motioning to an open panel at the base of one layout designed to have six G-gauge trains running simultaneously. Beneath the tableaux on the plateau was a low, cedar-paneled chamber that would have looked like a midget Finnish sauna but for the tracks covering the floor and the immaculately neat electrical wiring bundled along the rafters. Two of the tracks ran up to a pillow leaning against a wall.
"This is the engine yard. I can store 23 engines and trains under there and electrically bring them out onto the railroad. I bring them into the yard, (the pillow was covering a hole in the wall) and can have them end up back on this layout or on another in the garage," he said.
He has video cameras and monitors to track the trains outside, and his various control panels--bearing colored charts resembling London Underground route maps--are linked by voice-activated intercoms. Once outside, the trains go over remote-controlled drawbridges and iron trestles sturdy enough for Springmeier to stride on and around mountains in the back yard. One of those, when finished, will house tiki torches and a smoke generator to simulate a volcano.
He had to rebuild the other mountain after it exhibited some volcanic traits of its own last Thanksgiving. A ruptured fire-pit gas line had caused natural gas to accumulate inside the concrete mini-mount, and it exploded, taking out a section of scenery and several of his house's windows.
It has been reconstructed now, and one only realizes how much work remains to be done outside when ushered up a stairway to the train room in his garage attic. As he opened the trap door to the room, Springmeier said, "For this one, you have to go 'ooh' and 'aah' even if you don't mean it."
The prompting wasn't necessary. The low-ceilinged room contains a breathtakingly detailed HO-scale miniature of railroad-adjacent life, with 347 buildings and 2,500 tiny people (all hand-painted), an 11-foot trestle made from 6,000 pieces of wood and a combination of realistic and fanciful scenes of American life from 1850 to 1920. Because the only door is in the floor, the 800 feet of track and surrounding scenery entirely circle the room.
There's everything from Indian battles to a mining-town toxic pond with dead foliage, all rendered in eye-straining detail. If a tiny character is fishing, you're sure to find a far tinier bobber floating on the plastic water surface. Turn off the room lights and the scenes are lit by their storefronts and street lights.