Who says there are no trains or train tracks in Switzerland County?
A journey down the narrow stairway into the basement of Bill Sullivan’s small home in Vevay will debunk that myth, because his elaborate display covers nearly the entire area, and weaves its way across the entire country.
“There’s a hobo camp right there next to you,” Sullivan says as he points to an area of the basement as the locomotive makes its way around the perimeter. “Then there’s a mountain lion out there by the old house. That’s supposedly Arizona. Over there are the Redwoods, and it’s going across the bridge right now. There’s fishermen down there. There’s an outhouse over there and a guy’s in there. A bear’s coming up behind him, but he doesn’t see it, because he’s busy reading the paper. There’s campers. I’ve got a band over here playing music. I’ve got a trash truck over there with guys emptying trash cans. There’s all kinds of stuff.”
Sullivan said that he’s been working on the set up since he moved into the house in January of this year, and he pays particular attention to the little details of each scene and piece – right down to the rakes and shovels in the hands of the workers.
About a week ago, it was all finished enough that he allowed family and friends to view his creation, but he stops short of saying that he finished it.
“I won’t ever get it done,” he smiles. “There will always be something to change or add to it.”
Sullivan says that the entire set up runs down each side of the 30-foot basement, and each of the four extensions is eight-feet by 11-feet. There are backdrops on the walls to help add to the overall environment, and the train runs through a wide variety of towns, cities, and different parts of the country as it weaves its way back and around and through tunnels and under bypasses and over bridges.
He doesn’t have a close guess as to how much track is there,
The train that is running on the tracks is just one of the many engines that Sullivan has in the display, with a range of other diesel engines sitting quietly in the train yard, waiting their chance to come alive on the tracks.
The towns and cities light up, too; as music plays from Mel’s Diner and the lights of the church buildings shine. There are model cars on the streets, ranging from modern to antique; while semi trucks work in the industrial area of the display.
So what makes a person commit all of this time to setting up such an elaborate display?
Sullivan, 64, says that he’s always been about overcoming odds. He had brain surgery in 2012, and that led to some critical discussions with his doctors.
“Technically I’m supposed to be in a wheelchair,” he says. “I said, ‘nope, I’m a Vietnam veteran. I’m going to let this happen to me. My hand shakes, so doing all of the wiring was a little bit of a bear, but I’ve done it all myself.”
Sullivan is related to the Hite families here in Switzerland County, and is the grandson of James and Catherine Hite, longtime residents here. He was born in Rising Sun, but spent much of his adult life in California before moving here at the beginning of the year in order to be closer to his family when his aunt fell ill and then passed away.
“I picked this house out because of this basement,” he smiled. “I knew I could put my trains down here.”
Moving in during January, he immediately started on the construction of the display, and he continued even when the power went out in June, causing water knee deep in the basement.
He pauses for a moment as the train makes its way past, smoke coming from the engine. “I’ve got a lot of work in this, as you can see.”
Sullivan collected all of the buildings over the years, and he also built some of the display himself, including the boys clubhouse near the campground complete with the “No Girls Allowed” sign.
“And I had to get an IGA,” Sullivan said, pointing to his model-sized grocery store, “Because we’ve got an IGA here.”
Sullivan had some of the display when he lived in Northern California, and as a contractor, he built his own building to house the display – but moving here allowed him to fully bring out all of his pieces and hook them up so that they would all work together to form the overall affect.
Sullivan said that his grandfather was a conductor for the railroad in California, and in appreciation of all of his work, the railroad company named “Sullivan’s Curve” – a portion of track in that area – in his honor when he passed away.
“Dad, when he came back from overseas after World War II, he started me on all of this,” Sullivan smiled. “I’ve been in trains ever since. Trains have always been my lifestyle. I don’t smoke or drink or mess with drugs. I put all of my money in trains.”
The train moves through desert scenes; through tunnels carved through mountains that also separate different areas of the country; and through a big city and a small town.
“I wanted the town to look like Vevay as much as I could,” Sullivan said. “This is what I’ve been doing all of this time. You see a lot of trains around Christmas time, so I thought I’d like to share what I’ve done with everyone.
The train powers down, and the engineer reports, “We’re going off duty. Out.”
But for Bill Sullivan, it’s just time to pursue other interests for awhile before returning to his amazing creation.
“I’m pretty proud of it,” he says as he surveys his work. “There sure is a lot to see.”