Ralph DiFebo's model train and mural layout in Forest Park. Provided photo

It’s understandable that Ralph DiFebo would have railroading in his blood. He grew up on Park Avenue in River Forest, with the Soo Line running through his backyard. Ralph received his first Lionel train set as a Christmas present when he was 5. He’s been building model train layouts ever since. His current layout has murals that serve as backdrops. A photo of Ralph’s layout recently won first prize in a contest sponsored by the mural company.

Ralph’s layout is 100 square feet in size and contains 75 feet of track. It has many realistic features, such as a functioning sawmill that appears to turn logs into planks. It has searchlight towers with revolving lights. It’s most prominent feature is a large mountain with a tunnel running through it.

The mountain perfectly matches the one in the Nordic Harbor mural behind it. It’s the same size, shape and color as the one towering above the Norwegian fishing village. It also complements the mountains in his Alaskan Landscape mural. Ralph has been making mountains since he was a kid. He used to construct them from papier Mache but his current mountain was constructed using concrete.

Building a model train layout is an art form, he says. You start with a box of track and have to figure out how to lay it out. He learned problem-solving and a little bit about engineering and electrical wiring. Ralph’s layout features four transformers for powering multiple trains, as well as the lights.

His Soo Line locomotive is equipped with a headlight, so the layout is even more spectacular at night. But he always wanted to add depth to the layout. Rather than having a mural hand-painted on the walls behind it, he went with Murals Your Way. It’s a family-owned custom wallpaper company based in Hopkins, Minnesota. After receiving the rolls of wallpaper, Ralph had the murals professionally installed.

He then submitted a photo of his layout to the company’s 2021 Photo Contest. Account Manager Amy Fisk said the company received many submissions from home and business customers. Ralph was one of the 10 finalists. People then voted for their favorite photo on the company’s Facebook page and Ralph won in a landslide. His prize is a $100 AmEx gift card.

Fisk said quite a few customers purchase murals for their model railroad layouts, but Ralph’s is unique. It shows his creativity and think-outside-the-box approach. The layout remains a work in progress. There is always more work to do and more features to add. For example, he added a red-roofed house to match the houses in the fishing village.

Ralph can spend hours on his train set. It gives him solitude but can also be social. He invites friends over to tinker with the machinery.

“It’s a never-ending project. Very labor-intensive,” he said, noting that has more time for it now that he’s retired and has sold several of his properties in Forest Park. Kids love coming over to see his train set. They’re eye level with the track so they are even more impressed by the passing trains.

Ralph believes kids today would benefit more from a train set than video games. Joshua Lionel Cowen would agree. He started Lionel in 1900 and believed train sets prepared kids for adulthood.

“They ignite the imaginations and hearts of children and adults,” he said.

Ralph keeps working to make his layout realistic. The trains running along the Soo Line embankment first fired his imagination. Now he has built the concrete embankment where the Green Line and Metra trains run.

Only his embankment isn’t falling apart.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.