Provo • Train bells sound from a Highland home as Jim Smeltzer cruises on railroad tracks through his driveway atop a green locomotive. Though having many bells and whistles of its own, the train is far from full size — roughly 13 percent as big as the real deal.
Since 2004, the Smeltzers’ land surrounding their home has been a model railyard. Jim’s love of trains, however, spans much further back than that.
“I’ve always had a love of trains,” said Jim, 84, who was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. “Back when I was a little kid, every day my grandfather would take me for a walk. It was two blocks to the train tracks, and a train came back every morning and went out every evening. He’d take me down there and we’d watch the train go by.”
Today, Smeltzer is a trustee of Utah Live Steamers Railroad Club, a group of model-railroad enthusiasts based in Utah County. The group typically builds trains and track the same size as Jim’s, a scale of 1.6 inches to 1 foot or a ratio of 1:8 the size of a full-size train.
Mike Hansen, who co-founded the club in 2007, said the train-loving group was initially created with the intent of building a train park within Utah Valley.
Hansen’s passion for locomotives also began young. “It started at the age of 5 with my parents and my brother, Jeff, riding the Heber Creeper,” he said. At age 8, he began cultivating a dream to open a train park himself. Hansen continued to fuel his love of trains through later becoming a locomotive engineer, fireman, conductor and brakeman for today’s Heber Valley Railroad.
Upon co-founding Utah Live Steamers and beginning the search for a place to open a train park, Hansen encountered mixed interest from cities. Around that time, Saratoga Springs was in the midst of the eight-year process of creating Shay Park, a railroad-themed community park. Hansen had heard of the park and eagerly pitched his idea to the city.
“We basically came in at the last inning,” Hansen said, laughing.
Shay Park’s name has to do with the history of railroads in the area. “A lot of these communities were built because of the railroad,” Hansen said. “At one point, you could get on a train here and go anywhere in the country.”
The Salt Lake and Western Railway, one of several area railroads settled by Mormon pioneers, once went directly through where Shay Park now stands. The sloping grade for the former railroad in the middle of the park is now a walking path with a bridge above the model-railroad tracks. Steam-powered Shay locomotives were often found running along the Salt Lake and Western Railway, hence the park’s name.
Now visitors can ride on a train where a railway once stood — albeit a much smaller train and a much shorter ride.
Hansen said his dream could not have come true without the efforts of sponsors, especially the Bank of American Fork, contributors, donors, club members and support of the city of Saratoga Springs, especially its mayor, City Council and employees. The model railway, however, is still in need of additional sponsors.
One person who helped Hansen realize his dream was Jim Smeltzer, who goes by his first name, Paul, to those in the group. Although he explained with a laugh, “I go by Paul, Jim, PJ, hey you, whatever.”
Some of the group’s railroad switches and stands, railcars and safety cars have been crafted by Smeltzer, who has a metalworking shop of his own at home.
Despite having an affinity for trains at a young age, he trained his hands in metalworking on things with more firepower rather than horsepower.
In 1946, 13-year-old Smeltzer passed for 16 when he was hired to sweep the floors and put finish on gun stocks at a local gunsmith in his hometown of Fresno, Calif. His knowledge progressed as he worked, and he eventually learned how to create a firearm from scratch.
“The day I turned 16, I joined the California National Guard — I told them I was 18,” Smeltzer said. “They didn’t check anything. It was no problem, until Korea broke out.” Then, officials checked his age and kicked him out of the Guard. He rejoined at 17 with his father’s permission and put his metalworking skills to use as an armorer for the 49th Division of the California National Guard.
“The day I graduated from high school, I quit and went to work for a foundry,” Smeltzer said. “I learned a good bit about foundry practices. I made parts for Korea.” Not long after, he volunteered for the draft and joined the 82nd Airborne Division.
At age 23, Smeltzer got married and opened a metalworking shop of his own.
In February 1960, Smeltzer joined the Fresno Police Department. In April that year, his father took him to see an old friend of Jim’s who had just opened a gun shop.
“As we walked in the front door, Elmer looked up, opened a drawer, pulled something out, threw it and I caught it. It was a set of keys; he says, ‘Come back to work for me.’”
So, Smeltzer began making guns again in the day and working for the police department at night. Working two jobs, he recalled, “In my free time, I could work on things at home.” In addition to guns, Smeltzer had the know-how to make a plethora of equipment from metal.
After 14 years, he quit the police force and moved his family and metalworking shop to Highland.
Once in Utah Valley, Smeltzer began working for a local company and made fewer guns and a more of a little bit of everything.
“I like to build stuff,” he said. “I don’t care much what it is. If it’s interesting, I’ll do it. If it’s not interesting, you can take it someplace else. If I can learn something from it and make it worthwhile, then I’ll do it,”
Smeltzer does not have a degree related to metalworking, but holds degrees in criminalistics and criminology and certificates in refrigeration and welding. He’s primarily learned his craft through hands-on experience.
“I was doing what I wanted to do. I never figured I’d make a lot of money. I never have made a lot of money, but I’ve enjoyed my life,” he said.
Throughout the years, Smeltzer worked for various companies and built countless creations. He later retired, deciding that he would take in work as it came in his own shop to pass the time.
In 2004, a trip to Tooele opened up new projects.
That year, he and his wife attended the annual railroad museum opening in the city. The museum had several small-scale railroads for visitors to enjoy, so his wife said, “If you build all this other stuff, why don’t you build a train?”
And so, Smeltzer came to pair his childhood love of trains with his skills as a metalworker.
Now, Smeltzer spends his time with his family, reading, working on the computer, riding his train on the tracks he built in 2004 and of course, working in his shop — though he admits he works slower than he used to. “Spend an hour or so in the morning, an hour or so in the afternoon, and do what I want to do,” he said. “I’m going to keep my hands in the shop.”