The train whistle hooted in Eric Struck's backyard as 15 railroad cars made their way out of the station, wheels chugging around the curves. On a brisk fall evening, Struck sniffed the air as the smell of wood smoke drifted from a neighbor's barbecue.
"I'd rather smell a steam engine," the Barron Park tile setter said, surveying more than a hundred model train cars and engines in his garden railroad yard.
Each April Struck opens his backyard railroad to the public, the history of Western railroads spelled out on the sides of box cars and engines: the Southern Pacific; Niles Canyon Railroad; Feather River Canyon. He has a collection of replica Pepsi Cola train cars with designs dating to 1900; coal cars and log carriers; and the Garlic City rail car used to ship Gilroy garlic.
"My goal is to show the fallen flags of railroads," he said.
Each year dozens of visitors and school kids come to visit the railroad, which is open through Nov. 28. Struck sticks a railroad-crossing pole at the edge of his property to let people know when the garden is open.
The railroad tracks wend their way over bridges and along trestles over makeshift gorges, and eventually enter a replica Sierra town. The garden paths are lined with railroad spikes, including some from the local Southern Pacific line that once ran through Barron Park.
"We had a spur here that went through the Mayfield Cutoff from California Avenue to Santa Cruz," he said, noting the time when the area near California Avenue was the town of Mayfield.
The rail line ran from 1907 to 1962, with two passenger trains, one in the morning and one at night, and some locals. Those trains stopped two years prior to when Struck was born in 1964, but his love of trains has been lifelong.
"I've loved riding Caltrain since I was 2 years old," he said.
Struck recalled that his father always took the Peninsula Commuter Rail -- the precursor to Caltrain -- to and from San Francisco. His dad worked for the railroad as a train master during World War II.
People would wake up to the first train at Matadero and Laguna avenues as it pulled into the little station called Neal where there is now a little hump on Laguna on the northwest side of the street, he said.
Growing up with stories about the railroad, he started leveling the backyard in 1981, adding sand and gravel and laying track for his G-scale trains, which are 1/32 scale (also called three-eighths scale, as three-eighths of an inch on the model represents 1 foot on a real train). They are larger than standard train models.
Struck salvaged spikes and tie plates that hold track together from the old Laguna/Matadero site, and he's picked up other railroad memorabilia as rail lines have abandoned right of ways. A line of dated railroad nails in a fence mark the years his family members were born, from his father in 1913 to himself in 1964. There are old gas-signal lights, early signs and a collection of trains he has purchased from specialty shops that make limited editions, such as the All Aboard Junction in Gilroy.
One thing there aren't many of anymore in real railroads: the little red caboose.
"They're pretty much gone in California," he said, although there are still some in Oregon and Washington states that are used to shuffle crews in cold weather.
When he's not entertaining visitors at his home railroad, Struck travels to garden railroad shows, where he meets up with other enthusiasts. There are many clubs around the country. He is a member of the Diablo Pacific Short Line organization, whose members host exhibitions and attend conventions to display their trains.
What attracts Struck to the little trains most is the thrill of collecting, he said. He has more than a hundred cars on display, and many more stored. His favorites are the Pepsi Cola cars, each with a different design and artwork on the sides. These are replicas of trains that were once in service, he said.
Train collecting is also a way to capture some of the romanticism and history of the West. Railroads defined its expansion and made it possible to ship goods long distances.
"Where Frys (Electronics) was was a cannery," he said, referring to Bayside Cannery (later Sutter Packing), which was once one of the largest fruit and vegetable packers in the world. Perishables were transported in cars that were refrigerated with blocks of ice dropped in through a chute. And of course, Struck has a couple of those replica cars, too.
IF YOU GO
What: Barron Park Garden Railway
Where: 748 Kendall Ave., Palo Alto
When: Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Nov. 28; reopens April 16, 2016
Cost: Free, donations accepted