Dad travels 6,000 km to help son fix model train at Yukon's Transportation Museum

The executive director of the Yukon Transportation Museum is getting help from his dad, a recently retired electrical engineer living in New Jersey, repairing a model train that's been on display for decades.

The old White Pass model train diorama has been at the museum since 1997.

"I would love to see this train be able to run" said 32-year-old Sean Ridder, the museum's head. But the high cost of hiring someone with the right expertise to fix it meant the repairs weren't happening.

Then Sean's dead, Jerry Ridder — who just so happens to have that expertise — retired from his job.

A plan for Jerry to fix the train on a volunteer-basis started to take shape about a month after the 68-year-old retired. The father and son corresponded about the repair by email, phone and text for about six months — with Sean in Whitehorse and his dad in New Jersey, a distance of nearly 6,000 kilometres by road.

"He's been building the [C++ computer] program in New Jersey, and you know, it quickly outstripped my capacity to understand it," said Sean, who has a bachelors degree in political science and economics.

A computer program controls the Yukon Transportation Museum's model train.
A computer program controls the Yukon Transportation Museum's model train. (Sean Ridder)

In early June, Jerry came to stay with Sean and spent two weeks working at the museum on the train.

"My role is to modernize this train system so that it actually runs two locomotives again, rather than just one," said the elder Ridder.

While he says it has been meaningful to contribute to his son's workplace, the repair has been anything but straight forward.

"Certain switches don't work. You know, the wiring is quite a bit different than what I was expecting."

Witnessing a parent's expertise

Jerry worked as a field engineer on large energy projects when Sean was growing up, and was frequently away from the family for weeks or months at a time, Jerry said.

Working far away from his family meant he didn't have many opportunities to show his kids what he did at work.

"I would send pictures, they would come visit once in a while, but … [Sean] would never be able to see the intricacy of things I have to do," Jerry said.

Over the past two weeks, as Jerry has been troubleshooting the model train at the museum, Sean said he's been grateful to witness his dad's expertise up-close.

"You can understand maybe that your parents are great at something or experts at something, but if you don't see it with your own eyes ... you don't really have a full understanding of how someone is so great at something," he said.

"It's really amazing to be able to see that with my own eyes."

After two weeks, Jerry is heading back to New Jersey on Monday, the day after Father's Day. Sean said they've completed the first phase of repairs, and he's learned enough to continue the work — though not without dad's help from afar.