Once Branch grew up and had kids of his own, he wanted to share his love of trains with his children. During that time, he continued to collect trains up until his oldest son accidentally lost his prized Santa Fe.
“Now, my son did away with my electric train. ... [He would say] ‘Daddy, can I take it to so-and-so’s house and run it?’ He kept carrying it here and there and here and there,” Branch said. “He’d probably left it somewhere and didn’t bring it back, and the next thing I know, it was gone. That’s the way he did. He always wanted to pick it up, take it somewhere and run it and play with somebody else. So, that’s the way it got gone.”
Surprisingly, an interest in horses led Branch to start collecting trains again. After he retired, Branch had two Tennessee walking horses that he would show in Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. Unfortunately, he had to quit the equestrian events because he was getting older and started falling asleep at the wheel when he would drive in from shows late at night.
With the extra time on his hands, Branch decided to begin collecting his trains again — which has been ongoing for the past 10 years.
On Thursday afternoon, Branch sat in a room lined with windows that look out over the community and down the railroad tracks.
“I always have liked trains. I don’t know why, I live right beside a railroad track,” Branch said with a grin. “I ought to despise them, but I don’t. I just love trains.”
And, his face shows his love for them. When Branch flipped the switch and punched in the code for the electric trains to start running Thursday, his smile lit up the room like a bottle rocket.
He has purchased trains from different cities within Alabama and surrounding states. Currently, there are 32 trains he has “on track” with at least 20 engines that are not set up on the tracks, including eight varieties of Santa Fe engines.
Branch held an 8753 dark maroon, Pennsylvania electrical engine up to the camera Thursday. He then explained in detail about the inner workings of the locomotives.
“That’s where the current runs. This wheel here is the ground wheel, and this one operates the motor for it to run,” Branch said. “This one is the same way but it gets its power from the front, but it’s got the engine on the back. That’s the gear.”
Some trains — whether they are engines, cars or cabooses — can range from $10 up to thousands of dollars. Branch lifted a heavy, black Pennsylvania engine from a shelf that he said costs around $2,200. He pointed at another dark Pennsylvania engine, but it only cost about $1,000. What makes a difference in the prices are the numbers that are painted on them.
“If you bought this back in 1955, you wouldn’t be looking at but $300. There’s something about it that really makes it more valuable. You can have one just exactly like it, but if it doesn’t have that 2332 [number], that determines the price of what it’s worth,” Branch said. “This one here is 2352, that’s where the difference is at. … That’s what determines what they’re worth, by that number.”
Approaching the room where he keeps his collection, one would think they had been transported into a train wonderland. There are signs depicting each train and model. The depot is located toward the back of the room. There are miniature railroad caution signs that flash red, tiny houses and cars that line the interior of the tracks and bridges. It is a diorama amateur collectors would dream of.
Not only does Branch enjoy his model trains, but he also takes pleasure in riding trains whenever the opportunity arises.
“I rode that Excursion [train] that comes through once a year around August, but anyway, we came right through here and went through Parrish then turned around and went back to Birmingham,” Branch said. “About twice a year, me and my wife ride the Amtrak from Birmingham to New Orleans.”
He and his wife, Loudelia, have been married for eight years, and ironically, she retired after working with the railroad for about 40 years.
Branch says he will never get rid of his collection; however, he does donate tracks and trains to the McWane Science Center in Birmingham every now and then. He was in a train club for two years in Vestavia where he made many friends. Some still visit with Branch where they talk, laugh and, of course, run the trains.
“I learned a lot from over there with them at that train club. I know they learned a lot from me, but I learned a lot from them, too,” he said.
Branch’s love for his hobby runs deep in his veins. He says Loudelia jokes with him often about selling the trains after he is gone, but he doesn’t plan on handing them down to his children or grandchildren because “they don’t care anything about this,” he said.
“I just like it. I like dealing with them. During the day, I don’t have anything to do. I might just come here and start running some of the trains, and time passes off so fast when I do that,” Branch said with a smile.
When asked what his dream job would be if he could work for a railroad company or at a train station, Branch didn’t hesitate when he said “a communicator. They sell the tickets and tell them what track to get on. Then, I can see them [the trains] come in and see them leave.”