The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Model Railroad Layouts

THE THOUSANDS OF KNOWN AND unknown model railroad layouts across the nation range from small modules that can fit in the back of a station wagon, to large fixed garden railroads, with miles of outdoor track. Most model railroad layouts depict fictional landscapes, evoking types of places, or historical periods, or “freelanced” depictions of prototype places. Very few show actual places in a literal way. Some layouts are created by single individuals over decades of devoted and inspired work, while others are the cooperative effort of members of small, regional model railroad clubs. Others are created by professionals for museum displays. 
At the high end of museum layouts is a $1 million+, 3,500-square foot HO layout called the Great Train Story, in the transportation wing of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It is loosely based on the 2,200 miles between Chicago and Seattle. The layout, which was created by museum staff, includes interactive buttons that allow visitors to animate scenes, as well as dramatic lighting that switches to “nighttime mode” every half hour. There are a number of these well-funded and professionally built railroad layouts at science and educational museums around the country. Many of them focus more on buildings and streets than on the railroad and non-urban landscape.
5342 View of the Great Train Story at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. CLUI photo

Landscapes come to the fore, it seems, especially at the highly crafted indoor layouts built by regional model railroad clubs. These layouts, built for no commercial gain and often as a team effort, often depict the region where they are based, drawing on local and direct experience of the full-scale sites. These clubs are usually open to the public in some way, even if it’s only on an occasional open house day, while the rest of the time club members are at work on their respective portions of the layout, whenever they have time to do so. 
Most clubs maintain public access, in part, to encourage others in the community to get involved as builders, especially younger people, as it seems the membership in model railroad clubs, and indeed model railroaders in general, are mostly middle-aged men, and are decreasing in numbers. This attrition has left many large layouts unfinished, abandoned, or destroyed when their lease or free use of space ends. Model railroad clubs sometimes become non-profits, to help with fundraising, and establish relationships with local historic organizations or transportation museums. 
5343 The layout at the Golden State Model Railroad Museum in Richmond, California. CLUI photo

If the layouts are fully evolved and complete, then the club house itself sometimes can become a museum, open to the public, if they are lucky enough to find the support to make it happen. Such was the case at the Golden State Model Railroad Museum, in Richmond, California, one of the great club-built regional railroad layouts, now open as a museum. It’s actually home to three layouts, at three separate scales: N, HO, and O, each depicting a different region in California and the West. It is housed in a 10,000-square-foot shed, next to San Francisco Bay. The layouts were built and are maintained by the East Bay Model Engineers Society. 
The majority of model railroad layouts are the work and vision of a single individual working in their basement, attic, or shed, over their lives or retirement. In some rare cases, their obsession can become a career and a way of making a living. 
5344 Northlandz, the largest indoor model railroad in the USA, is open to the public as a museum, and is still tended by its creator, Bruce Williams Zaccagnino. CLUI photo

At Northlandz, in Flemington, New Jersey, Bruce Williams Zaccagnino started building his fantasy layout in 1972, and it now has more than eight miles of track over 52,000 square feet, and is the largest model railroad landscape in the USA. This is an epic manifestation of an individual’s vision and lifelong labor, open to the public as an attraction with paid admission and a gift shop.
Another personal model railroad that may become a grand visionary layout, open to the public, is the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, proposed for North Adams, Massachusetts. Though still in the design phase, this recently announced project is the brainchild of Thomas Krens, responsible for expanding the Guggenheim Museum to places previously unknown to such things, like Bilbao, Spain, and Las Vegas. 
If built as currently planned, it would relocate a layout that is currently in the basement of his house in Williamstown, into a 700-foot-long building designed by Frank Gehry. The model railroad layout would be integrated with a collection of dozens of scaled models of modern architectural landmarks from around the world (including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain). If it happens, it would likely be the largest model railroad layout in the country, if not the world. 
Once in a while more modest privately created railroad layouts find their way out to public locations, moved in pieces to an old train station being converted into a local historic museum, for example. This happened with a N-scale layout of the Willard railyard, in Willard, Ohio, built over decades by local resident and former railroad employee Roy Edler, inside his double-wide trailer home in Willard. After it was completed, it was carefully removed (much to his wife’s relief) and installed in an old boxcar, as part of a historic railroad display assembled and maintained by the Willard Historical Society. 
5345 Roy Edler’s layout of the Willard railroad yard, on display in a rail car in Willard, Ohio. CLUI photo

Normally individual model railroad builders work in relative obscurity for their entire lives. Though their work may be enjoyed and visited by friends, relatives, or the occasional model railroad club members, it is typically a solitary task. 

Model railroad makers do this not for attention, but for some personal need, to get their mind around a landscape, shrinking it down to a manageable scale, in order to see it. Who knows, ultimately, how many model railroad wonders exist yet to be discovered, or destroyed. ♦