Area’s steel-making roots recreated

REMEMBERING THE PAST — Steubenville resident Larry Caniff recreated the area’s steel heritage in a larger than usual train display, complete with two blast furnaces, two coke plants and all that goes with it in a 4,000-square-foot showroom at 248 N. Fourth St.

STEUBENVILLE — Larry Caniff is using bits of wood, paper and household cast-offs to recreate the Upper Ohio Valley’s steel-making roots in a downtown showroom.

Caniff, a Steubenville resident, is a train buff. While he’s done his share of smaller models, his expertise is G-scale — which means everything in his 4,000-square-foot train world is scaled 1:29. It’s also handmade, since years ago he figured out he could make his allowance go a lot further by crafting his own buildings and accessories.

His work, one of the world’s largest privately-owned, one-owner G-scale set-ups, is currently on display Fridays and Saturdays through Christmas from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 248 N. Fourth St., Steubenville, across the street from Westminster Church in a building with a “Trains” sign pointing the way. Admission is free, but he does accept donations to help defray the cost of utilities.

Caniff said he got his start “just like any other little boy.”

“My dad bought my first train set at the HUB when I was 10,” said Caniff said, now 67. “When I got a little older, I (moved up to) HO-scale — that’s the most popular size and readily available, there’s nothing you can’t get in HO. I started doing HO when I was about 15, I’d take my allowance and go buy buildings. My dad suggested that instead of spending my money buying buildings, I buy the materials and make them myself.”

Caniff said about 90 percent of the buildings populating his train world are one-of-a-kind, things he’s made himself from scratch after studying pictures of the old mills that were such a big part of life in Steubenville, Weirton and Bethlehem Pa. He also talked to old-timers and even toured mills when he could to measure things out so he could keep everything in perspective.

He’s crafted two coke plants, two blast furnaces, even the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge — his version is 21 feet long. There are other unique, true-to-life touches, like the Sixth Street water tower crafted from popsicle sticks glued to a seven-inch paint bucket.

“I could have bought a cheap little one for $200,” he said. “But I probably don’t have $5 in the one I built.”

He’s never taken the time to count all the buildings along his train track, “but I can tell you how many trees I’ve got — 2,000 — surrounded by 1,300 feet of track and about 40 switches.”

The trains run, too, although Caniff said he “could care less” about that. “They do run, because that’s what guests want to see. There are no wires, so everything runs totally by remote control.”

He uses whatever materials he can find: He’s salvaged pieces of old, cast-off artificial Christmas trees — 35 of them — to build wooded areas and add landscaping touches. He flipped old, rounded landscaping lights over to make ladles that would have held molten steel in the real mills; vents in one of the buildings were crafted from old razor blades.

“I use whatever I can find,” he said. “Nobody would ever guess those are the four legs of a stand for an artificial Christmas tree. Nobody would ever guess that thing on top is one of those fiber-glass things on the counter in stores that hold lottery tickets.”

The landscape is strewn with kitty litter, shredded mulch and paper bits, because, “that’s the world, litter and everything else.” He makes his pieces “look rusty and dirty, because that’s what it was.” Life wasn’t all steel mills, so he also has a mining area, a farm area, a riverfront and the bedraggled outskirts of a town. There’s even a Mail Pouch barn, a pack of dogs, streets being paved, water lines being repaired.

“All it takes is imagination,” he said. “I see the same things, but I see (them) differently.”

At any given time he has two or three buildings under construction, which allows him to work on one while the paint or glue dries on another. Some pieces take two or three day to finish, others are much more intricate. One is made from a sheet of plexi-glass he sketched his design on, then took to M&M Hardware to get cut out. He’s currently working on a 25-foot train yard, though he’s still got a lot of work to do on that.

He began building the display, which currently measures about 55 feet-by-75 feet, three years ago. He’d had a part of it set up on his back deck for a time, “but it got to be too much,” Caniff said. “It took 12 tarps and 100 bungee cords” protect it for the winter.

That’s when his long-time friend, Dr. Pat Macedonia, offered him use of his building downtown. He said without the doctor’s encouragement, it wouldn’t have happened.

“Without him, this wouldn’t be possible,” Caniff said. “I wouldn’t have a place big enough.

“He told me, ‘You don’t give yourself credit,” he added. “I see it every day, but the last couple of weeks I’ve started hearing people say how nice it is. Little kids, they see the trains run and don’t (notice) the other stuff. But their parents, grandparents, they all know what the mills are or worked in the mills.”\

Caniff said after the holidays, he’s thinking about opening the first and third Saturdays of each month.