Federal Way man, grandson work together to build garden railroad

Fred Konkell turned his Federal Way yard into a garden railroad with the help of his 15-year-old grandson, Zachary Zielinski. - Joshua Lynch/The Mirror
Fred Konkell turned his Federal Way yard into a garden railroad with the help of his 15-year-old grandson, Zachary Zielinski.
— image credit: Joshua Lynch/The Mirror

The garden railroad in Fred Konkell’s Federal Way yard is an example of the avid hobbyist’s hard work — and a strong relationship with his grandson.

Konkell, 64, and his 15-year-old grandson, Zachary Zielinski, have worked together to build the garden railroad since Konkell retired in 2002.

It has grown to become an impressive sight with more than 600 feet of railroad track, realistic sounds and landscaping that includes a water feature — all in a model industrial town.

The pair named their project Pacific Northern Railroad. It is an accurate replica of a typical railroad around 1960. The name was inspired by Northern Pacific Railroad, where Konkell’s father worked many years ago.

Konkell won’t reveal how much money he’s spent on the project over the years, although it is clearly a large investment.

“I’d hate my wife to ever see that figure,” he joked. “I have very few vices, so this is the one.”

It’s not the cost of the hobby that’s important, but the quality time spent between grandfather and grandson, the pair agreed. Zielinski, a student at Kennedy High School in Burien, spends nearly half of every summer at his grandfather’s house listening to country music and working on the railroad.

“It’s a catalyst for us to be together. The trains are things but the relationships that we’ve created are, at least from my perspective, the highlight,” Konkell said.

Zielinski talks to his grandfather about things that he perhaps wouldn’t talk to his parents about. And when the elder man offers advice, Zielinski listens with an open mind.

“I don’t have to be responsible as the primary disciplinarian. He doesn’t have to hide anything from me,” Konkell said. “If I have advice to give he probably knows it’s for his well-being... It’s received with a different set of ears.”

Zielinski nodded to affirm his grandfather’s observations.

“He’s cool. He’s my best friend,” he said. “My character wouldn’t be as it is today if it wasn’t for him.”

The railroad is a never-ending project, Zielinski said. He and his grandfather have limitless ideas for renovations and improvements to the track.

Their next goal is to make the trains capable of picking up and delivering items throughout the industrial town like a real railroad would.

They are currently preparing their project for the 2010 Garden Railway National Convention in Seattle.

The work on the railroad provides constant gratification and moments that will be remembered for a lifetime, Zielinski said.

“When we get a certain part done, sitting back and looking at it, those are really the capturing moments for me,” he said. “The quality of our work really reflects on how strong our bond is.”

Contact Margo Hoffman:

To see Konkell’s garden railroad, visit the Puget Sound Garden Railroad Society’s Public Days event on Aug. 16. Tickets are available at Furney’s Nursery, 21215 Pacific Highway South in Des Moines. For more information, call (206) 878-8761.

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