‘Ernie’s Trains’ Add Joy to the Season

Bianco and display
'Ernie's Trains' transforms a Mackay home into a tourist attraction every holiday season. John Bianco presides from the garage, open to chatting with passersby. Photos by Dave Weinstein

Who doesn’t love the great holiday season traditions? Trick or treating! Stuffed big birds! Potato latkes! Hanging stockings and Christmas caroling! Choo-choo trains?

G-Scale model trains are indeed a Christmas tradition in the mid-century modern tract of Monta Loma, which mixes Eichler homes with modern homes by other builders in the city of Mountain View.

There, since 1977, a simple Mackay tract home becomes every holiday season an attraction for neighbors, visitors from elsewhere in the Bay Area and beyond, and has even pulled in people from many foreign countries while they are visiting family in the area.

Inside display
The trains run from inside Bianco's house onto boards installed in front. The home's interior becomes part of the display.

“I’ve had people from Santa Cruz, I have people from Gilroy, really, who read about it in the newspaper, you know?” said John Bianco, who assembles the ‘Ernie’s Trains’ display every year with the help of his two sisters. “Come up!”

Ramfery Rodriguez, who stopped by one evening in late November, said it is something he has been doing since  1991 or ’92.

“We keep on coming every year,” he says. “It’s a tradition to come here and visit.”

“Thank you so much for doing this for the neighborhood,” he told John.

Another visitor that evening who lives just down the street, Nicole Babaoglu, brought her young children, Ada and River. Nicole had no choice. “We come every night because he’s obsessed with trains,” she says of her son. Indeed, when it was time to go he put up a fuss. The tradition of Ernie’s Trains has inspired a tradition inside her own home, Nicole says.

  Trans storage
Rail cars and locomotives are stored in several of the home's locations, and are pulled out every night. John has enough stock to run different trains every night.

They have surrounded their own Christmas tree with model trains.

Ernie’s Trains start running when it gets dark and keep running till about nine every night (except Mondays, which John reserves for watching football), from Thanksgiving to the day after Christmas. The home is at 2387 Adele Ave.

All are welcome, and attendance on a given night ranges from a few dozens to 250 or more, John says. The most special night is Christmas Eve, when the driveway is lined with luminaria, lights in paper bags.

The tradition got going in a roundabout way, as described by John, who was born a few years after his parents, Ernie and Lucile, bought their brand-new Mackay home.

His dad remembers going to department stores during the holidays in Des Moines and seeing train sets as part of the display.

Nicole Babaoglu and her children gaze at the display. They stop by most nights.

Later, Ernie and Lucile stopped off at the exuberant Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo while traveling to Los Angles, John said, “and they had their tree up inside the ballroom, and they had one of these trains running around the tree. And my dad made the comment to my mom, ‘Some day when I'm rich, I'm going to buy me one,’ you know?”

Lucile recounted her husband’s desire to young John and his cousin Dennis, who knew a local model train store. “And so the following year, I went there and bought my dad what they call the starter set,” John said.

The next year the first display went up. Things grew from there.

It wasn’t just model trains that entranced Ernie and his son. Ernie used to ride freight trains with friends who worked for the railroad, socializing in the caboose. And Ernie as a boy would enjoy the trains passing by on the tracks just beyond his house.

“I used to sit on the fence and watch the trains go up and down, the passenger trains. And I remember very vaguely the last of the steam engines running up and down, pulling the passenger liner,” John said.

  Neighor lights
Other homes get into the spirit in Monta Loma, including this one across from the home of Ernie's Trains

The display is different every night because John owns well over 100 locomotives and railcars, which he frequently replenishes from train swap meets. “Whatever comes out, I try to buy it, if I like it.”

The setup every years “takes 25 days,” he says. “I start the day after Halloween.” He removes furniture from the living room, sets up a tree, runs the trains on boards through cutouts in the front window, and puts down wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of gravel to support the dual outside tracks.

“There's twenty-five hundred pounds of gravel on that end. And there's thirteen hundred pounds of gravel on this,” he said, “and they get poured out every year.” Friends help, he added.

Why do it, John?

“It’s tradition now. It’s the kids coming up, the young kids talking to you and asking you questions. And I don't like to go anywhere during the Christmas season, so this gives me a reason to stay put. I do this, and everyone has fun, and we go along."

“And every once in a while, I end up with a freight train derailment.”


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