At 18 months, Jake Sussman loved train videos. In the years to come he read Thomas the Tank Engine, saw historic steam locomotives at the Smithsonian, and dreamed of building a Lionel set.
Soon after his family moved to Westport in 2007, their basement flooded. His parents — David and Lauren — built a small table for model railroads, then told him to do the rest.
He certainly did.
“This is my world,” Jake — now 17, and a junior at Forman School in Litchfield — says as walks downstairs. He shows off the astonishing HO model railroad layout he has built — track by track, train by train, tiny tree by tiny tree — over the past 5 years.
“When I got the table, my mind went crazy,” he explains. “I drew up plans. I got a subscription to Model Railroader. And I just started building.”
For his bar mitzvah, his parents gave him 6 sessions with Marc Rosenblum. The owner of HobbyTown USA in Fairfield was eager to share his passion with a rare teenager who seemed interested.
“I was 13. I had no idea what I was doing,” Jake admits. “Marc gave me tips on electrical work. Now I’ve got hundreds of feet of wire. He told me how to weather the cars and buildings, to make them look old. He taught me how to get the tracks aligned, the tunnels right, and make all the details correct.”
To say Jake’s 14 foot-by-11 foot layout (with a 4×5 extension) is “detailed” is like saying Martha Stewart thinks “homes should look nice.”
Using plaster, crumpled newspapers, paint, powder, some purchases as HobbyTown and a spectacular amount of ingenuity, Jake has crafted hills, towns, a coal mine, ruts where cars have ridden on dirt roads, smoke coming out of chimneys — an entire world that he controls with a few flicks of a switch.
“I love the feeling of watching trains disappear into the mountains, and then reappear,” he says. “When I come down here, I get lost for hours.”
He does far more than watch his trains rumble, of course. He’s always tinkering — adding a tiny figure lounging against a car here, realigning tracks to prevent derailments there. “I’m constantly looking for ways to make everything flow better,” he says.
It’s a work in progress, with 2 goals in mind. Jake wants to be the youngest person profiled in Model Railroader.
And he wants to inspire other teenagers to get into model railroading.
Why don’t more people his age do it?
“It takes a lot of time and patience,” he says. “And kids don’t want to be judged by doing something different. But I love this. I love the endorphin rush, the sense of accomplishment, and calling it my own.”
“Most kids today — adults too — want instant gratification,” Marc of HobbyTown says. “Building a train layout is a long-term thing.”
But the skills Jake needs — architecture, electrical engineering, woodworking, painting, problem-solving — last a lifetime.
This is not Jake’s only hobby. He’s captain of Forman’s cross country team, and does triathlons. Clearly, though, model railroading holds a special place in his heart.
And — besides a bit of help from Marc — Jake has done this all on his own.
“I’ve done nothing,” his father says. “It’s his venture — his working, his learning, his making mistakes and fixing them. We just support it.
“There are 2 things I want my children to have: passion and resilience. This” — his hands sweep across Jake’s painstakingly created, compellingly creative landscape — “shows he has both.”