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Durango a model train mecca

Hobbyists have much company in a town that railroad built

Jim Richards operates one of his trains by remote control as it passes through a replica of the Canadian Rocky Mountains that is part of the extensive model railroad system he has built in the basement of his home. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Jim Richards operates one of his trains by remote control as it passes through a replica of the Canadian Rocky Mountains that is part of the extensive model railroad system he has built in the basement of his home.

Many proud subcultures thrive in Durango: rock climbers, marijuana activists, vegetarians, pet owners, banned-book readers, organic-food proselytizers, gun aficionados, hunters and people who frequently write letters to the editor of certain local newspapers.

But, perhaps, its most passionate subpopulation is model-train “maniacs,” who say Durango is their mecca: Not only is it home to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Soundtraxx, the world’s leading model-train sound company, based in the Durango Tech Center, it also has the San Juan Car Co., which manufactures O-scale narrow gauge freight cars. Model railroaders meet in numerous tight-knit clubs, organize Durango’s Railfest, religiously subscribe to hobbyist magazines such as Model Railroader and cover their basements, ceilings and gardens with elaborate tracks.

For the kid in everyone

And according to model railroaders, they are everyone.

Leslie Doran, who, along with her husband, Art Sherwood, is a member of the San Juan Large Scalers Club, said, “There’s huge age range. We have members in their 80s – we had a member in the 90s, but he recently passed away – and our youngest member,” Joe Weigman, “is 7 years old,” Doran said.

They’re a determined bunch. Andy Saez said it has taken him years to lay by hand the 4,000 feet of track for his live steam railroad, which encompasses his garden. His train is so large it can carry 20 people and is visible from U.S. Highway 550.

Meticulous detail

Duane Danielson, a retired stockbroker who lives 10 miles north of Durango, said he owns one of the five best layouts in the country and has written extensively about the construction of his 86-by-45 foot layout for O Scale Magazine.

“It represents the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern, from western Montana to east Washington from the 1930s – that was the classic era of steam and the first part of diesel. It’s my grandpa’s railroad, and that’s what I like about it,” he said. The layout, which spans his basement, is so behemoth that Danielson stores Christmas lights beneath it.

While Danielson’s friend Jim Richards concedes that Danielson’s layout is “spectacular,” he hopes his own “Athabaska Railroad,” which is still under construction, will prove as stunning.

Richards said model training was not child’s play.

“We don’t just take trains and try to run them ’round and ’round, we duplicate as meticulously as possible the real world of railroading,” Richards said.

Right now, Richard’s Athabaska railroad fills his basement. “It’s 55-by-30 feet with additional 25-foot rooms for staging. It’s an imaginary railroad; it only exists in my imagination, but it’s set in the Canadian Rockies. In my imagination it runs from Edmonton to the Pacific seaport Prince Arthur, named after the fabled British king.”

Richards knows precisely what cargo is trafficked on his imaginary railroad. “It holds grain, oil, coal, intermodal containers and highway trailers – there is some passenger traffic, some general traffic – and the trains are quite long,” Richards said.

Richards said building the Athabaska railroad required not just money, years of patience and ardor, but wide ranges of technical expertise.

“There are just so many facets to the hobby. There’s the engineering aspect, building the freight cars, passenger cars, structures such as stations, often from scratch, which means you’re literally working from the ground up. Then, there’s the electrical aspect – a lot of guys’ control systems are amazingly sophisticated. Then there’s the scenery, it’s extremely artistic and can be astoundingly realistic. And then there’s the historical research that goes into it, making sure that you have all the details, the track size, exactly correct,” he said.

Durango’s pull

Paula Berg, who owns Oscar’s Café with her husband, Bruce, said Richards’ commitment to model training is far from unusual in Durango.

“You’d be amazed at the number of grown, mature men here who love these trains in their basements. I really do think it’s something in the blood. I mean these guys – it’s crazy how much they love trains,” she said.

In Oscar’s, a G-model train circles the ceiling. “Actually, we moved here because since 3 years old my husband has always been a nut for trains, and the (Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) is one of the last steam engines in the country. We even bought our house by the tracks,” Berg said, laughing.

Something about trains

Nationally, train obsessives boast distinguished alumni, including Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra and Neil Young. They also boast rare devotion. Darius McCollum, a New York resident, has been so enamored with trains that since age 15, when he illicitly drove the E train to the World Trade Center, he has spent more than a third of his life behind bars for transit-related offenses.

Dr. Mason Miner moved his model train from his home to his office when his last child was born. “We needed the bedroom,” he said regretfully. Though he’s been building model trains since childhood, he said when he went to a meeting of the Durango Model Railroad Club, “compared to some of these guys, I’m really low key. Some of them are unbelievably into it,” he said.

The first interactive game

Ray Schmudde built an HO-scale, modern-era layout in a spare bedroom.

“I tell my wife it keeps me out of bars and chasing women,” he said. “The catch with this hobby is that it’s never finished.”

Schmudde acknowledged that if your model train layout was historically inaccurate, some enthusiasts could be critical. “Can we be obsessive? Yes. Is everyone? No,” said Schmudde.

Al Harper, who owns Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said he “wasn’t a model train fanatic,” though he also owns the seventh largest collection of Lionel gauge model trains in the country.

“Model railroading is for kids of all ages. We talk about interactive games on iPads and computers, but model trains were probably the first interactive game,” Harper said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

Jim Richards adjusts the speed of a train by remote control as it passes the Athabaska Station, part of the extensive model railroad system he has built in his basement outside of Durango. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Jim Richards adjusts the speed of a train by remote control as it passes the Athabaska Station, part of the extensive model railroad system he has built in his basement outside of Durango.

Jim Richards constructs a railroad bridge in his home outside of Durango. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Jim Richards constructs a railroad bridge in his home outside of Durango.

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