AUGUSTA — Nathan Davis stood silently for several minutes at a large table in the lobby of the Maine State Museum watching as a 14-car freight train passed in front of him. As the train went around a carnival display, Nathan’s face inched closer to the tracks. Finally, after about four loops, Nathan hit a button on a nearby console and the train’s engine let out a high-pitched whistle.

Davis smiled widely.

The 5-year-old boy and his father, Jim, who are from Palermo, spent time at the museum’s annual holiday train show Friday morning, and Jim Davis said it brought back memories of when he was a young child.

“It’s so enjoyable to see the new trains and the old trains and hear the sounds and see the sites,” Davis said. “It’s a male bonding experience, and it’s something he and I can enjoy together.”

Davis and his son were among the many families checking out and marveling at layouts from the Maine 3 Railers O-Gauge Model Railroad Club on display in the museum lobby. The Great Falls Model Railroad Club typically attends, but could not this year, so the Maine 3 Railers added some layouts and displays on both sides of the lobby.

The train show continues from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Admission to the show and museum is free.

The group — which has about 120 paying members — featured a “Polar Express” layout this year, the first time they’ve done a design centered on a specific theme. Usually, member Jeff Jacobs said, the layout has a Christmas and holiday focus, but there is no central story.

“There’s a magazine we all read, and it had an article about ‘The Polar Express’ and how to make a very compact layout,” Jacobs said. “Then I saw how striking it is and how tiny it is, and it had all the vision in there.”

“The Polar Express,” a popular children’s book that became a 2004 animated movie starring Tom Hanks, tells the story of a young boy questioning Santa’s existence and his journey to the North Pole on the titular train.

Anthony Johnson, of Waterville, came to the train show with his young son, Dennis, and said he can picture himself in that story with his son.

“There’s just something about seeing the Polar Express moving around the town and being able to share it with my son around the holidays is something special,” Johnson said. “It really means a lot to me, and I know that even though he’s only 4, it’s something he’s going to remember.”

The Model 3 Railers travel to various places throughout the state, including nursing homes, libraries and hospitals. One of the unique aspects of their layout on the right side of the lobby is the freight train with cars of Maine businesses and companies.

There are cars from Maine fixtures including Reny’s, Moxie, Hancock Lumber, Central Maine Power and Maine Lobster. Jacobs and Conrad Berthiaume said this year’s car — Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections — will be released in the next few weeks.

After passing the carnival display, which had bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, carousel and tilt-a-whirl, the freight train heads down the line and around Mickey’s Village, which is full of Disney characters and scenes every child happily recognized.

Joanna Stonesifer and her children, David and Zoe, enjoyed the different layouts and displays throughout the morning. They spent a considerable amount of time at the interactive logging train display, where children can help control a logging train as it makes its way through a logging town.

She said her father had a model train set-up when she was a child, so being able to share those memories and make new ones with her children is special.

“For David, it’s about the movement and the gears and how the train works, and he likes being able to manipulate things,” she said. “They just like watching them go around.”

Museum Director Bernard Fishman said there’s something about trains going around a Christmas tree that holds a place in people’s hearts and memories. He said it’s remained a popular hobby that has sustained itself for decades, and he said it has its advantages.

“If you’re building a train set, it’s much more interactive and doesn’t involve a screen,” Fishman said. “It involves thinking and planning and touching, and I think that’s very valuable.”

Fishman grew up in New York City and said he has always envied those people who were able to have large train layouts because he didn’t have enough space in his family’s apartment.

“It’s still a compelling and exciting activity for people,” he said. “It has thought and motion and planning and touching, and it has a connection to many different ages.”

As the freight train passed again, Nathan Davis tried to hand at controlling the engine’s bell. As the train announced its arrival with a “ding ding ding,” Nathan looked at his dad. They smiled together.

“It’s just great,” Davis said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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