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Arriving at the corner of Ashland and Iowa in River Forest, it seems like any other suburban intersection. Green bushes and towering evergreens abound, keeping prying eyes away from gigantic houses.
On some summer days, however, you may sense something out-of-the-ordinary coming from the southwest: bells clang, a horn blows, wheels bounce against a track, the smell of diesel fuel wafts over the bushes that surround the one-acre property and, on the corner, a barrier at a white and black train crossing comes down while red lights flash.
Behind the bushes, a man with graying hair and a gentle countenance named Alan Smiley will have a blue cap on while he crouches in the back of the red and yellow engine of the A. Smiley Co. Railroad. His 15-inch-wide train runs on 700 feet of track-4,000 railroad ties-around a massive ivy-covered stone house hidden behind numerous trees. Behind the engine come the passenger cars, which his wife Nancy helped paint: a yellow car with elephants on the side, a blue one with lions, a green one with tigers, and a red one with zebras.
On many an afternoon, these cars are filled with children from the neighborhood.
"Kids in the neighborhood love him and call him the Train Man," says Nancy. "Kids just drop by and ask to play with him, and he does!"
One afternoon last week, his grandchildren were in town from Burbank, Calif. They "assume everyone has a train in their yard," Nancy jokes.
The view from the train is beautiful. At the beginning of the line sit a cool blue pool on the right and a massive stone deck on the left. Smiley built both of these, as well as the entire railroad, all by himself.
A few yards away is a train barn and a 60-foot-long brown arbor that arches over the track, complete with hanging vines and lights that look like they were pulled from the ceiling of a mine. Pine trees stand on the right side 8 feet away from the track, and on the left is a grassy meadow. Chugging forward, the train passes over rocky mountain granite and river pebbles, a base Smiley finished installing in 2004.
Then come two bridges. The first brings the train over another pool of water, this one with six waterfalls. The bridge is made out of concrete and steel pillars, and can support a 10-car, 10,000-pound train. After the train passes over that bridge, it clicks and clacks over a wooden trestle bridge.
Once it curves onto the Ashland side of the property, the track weaves in between tall maples. "'Why are you staggering the maples?' my wife asked me years ago," Smiley recalls. "She didn't know about 'the plan!'"
Smiley didn't start building his train until 1998, spurred on by learning that he had diabetes. But, he says, he "always envisioned having a little train.
"I never had a train as a little boy," he says, "and I wanted to be able to run my railroad anytime I wanted."
As the train rounds the corner and puffs its way to run parallel to Iowa, crossings go down at the entrances to the driveways, bells clang, whistles blow, and horns bellow. A green light flickers on to the left, the cars pass a rainbow fan on the right, and the pool reappears, while benches with animals come into view to the left.
Smiley insists his years of hard work building the railroad, laying ties, constructing switches, and jackhammering concrete to make way for the track were no act of altruism. "It was for me," he says. "I just wanted to be able to have fun."
The couple seems to enjoy having children from the neighborhood come over and play. In addition to the railroad, the Smiley residence is home to 73 stuffed mountain game. Between the train and the animals, Nancy Smiley smiles and says, "if you are ever on a scavenger hunt, you know where to go."