FRISCO, Texas (AP) – Andy Wartman dabs maroon paint followed by a mix of pink and gray on the seams that connect the mini rock formations of New Mexico. A bit of dark green foliage goes into the crevices.
The Dallas Morning News reports within minutes, his handiwork blends in with the surrounding scenery of a massive model train layout being rebuilt here at the Frisco Discovery Center. A grand opening in June is planned for the Museum of the American Railroad’s new exhibit, aptly named TrainTopia.
That means there’s little time to waste for Wartman and his crew from the Cincinnati-based American Eagle Rail Group. The four-man team specializes in building and rebuilding model train layouts. But never have they seen one approaching the size and scope of this one donated by the Sanders family of Dallas.
Valued at more than $1 million, the G scale model layout spans more than 2,500 square feet with multiple precision trains running on different tracks. Stephen Sanders started collecting model trains when his family lived in Corsicana. When they moved to Dallas years later, he continued to expand. Robert Reid Studios of Fort Worth built the model layout to his specifications.
The U-shaped layout features many of the Sanders family’s memories preserved in miniature. It starts in the mountains of Colorado, where Sanders attended camp as a boy. It then shifts to New Mexico, where he and his wife often traveled. The working roundhouse serves as a bridge to the oil fields of West Texas, where his family is based. Then there are scenes from the family’s time in Corsicana and a Palo Duro drive-in with a working movie screen. The exhibit ends with a 1950s-era street scene from downtown Dallas.
Sanders died in 2013 of lung cancer. His wife, Jane, and their daughters donated the entire collection to the Frisco-based museum last year.
Wartman admits that when he saw the custom-built train layout in the room above the Sanders’ garage, his first instinct was to turn and run. But the more he looked, the more doable the job became. His team ended up cutting the layout into sections and lifting the pieces out through a second-floor window with a forklift.
The donated collection and its monumental move were featured in a recent episode of the Fox Business reality show “Strange Inheritance.”
With all of the pieces now in Frisco, the main tasks involve filling in the gaps between the sections and reconnecting the miles of wiring that make the trains run.
“We’re working in phases,” Wartman said as his brush strokes transformed the hardened spray foam between sections into vibrantly colored cliffs. “It looks unbelievable when done.”
Still in the works is a new 7-and-a-half-foot-wide section to help fill the model train’s new, larger space. And in honor of the exhibit’s new home, a mini Frisco scene is in the works.
All of the pieces that bring the scenes to life – from the woman in a blue dress with her luggage to the guy hauling a crate of Spud King potatoes – must still be returned to their rightful home. Each piece was photographed before the move and tagged with a unique number to ensure its correct placement.
The museum exhibit replicates the hand-painted backdrop in the Sanders’ home with the help of extensive computer artistry printed on vinyl panels. Special LED lighting will highlight the exhibit as it cycles from daytime to nighttime.
The move would not have been possible without a $300,000 donation from Amanda and Brint Ryan of Dallas. Theirs is the museum’s largest private gift to date. And it covers the majority of the costs to get the Sanders’ exhibit ready for the public.
“It is important to Amanda and me to preserve a piece of American history and share it with future generations,” Brint Ryan said in a prepared statement.
And the model train exhibit will pair nicely with the museum’s life-size locomotives, passenger cars and other railroad memorabilia.
“This will help show in miniature what our big trains did in real life,” museum president and CEO Bob LaPrelle said.
The life-size pieces are open for guided tours on a limited basis as the museum continues to build out its rail yard behind the Discovery Center. And once the indoor exhibit opens, it will be added to the museum admission price and incorporated into school field trips.
The model train layout has taken longer than anticipated to complete. But the finished exhibit – with a few surprises still to be announced – will be well worth the wait, LaPrelle said.
“We want to really do this right,” he said.