Sunday, March 23, 2014

Photo Essay: The Tiny World of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

I've been to some museums and fairs and festivals that have got old trains on display. And I've ridden a few tiny trains in my day.

But never have I witnessed such a detailed, small scale world of cities, neighborhoods, lifestyles and landscapes as depicted at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.



Maybe it's for kids. Maybe it attracts only the most die-hard trainspotters and railway hobbyists. But you don't have to even have ridden a train ever to be able to appreciate the granularity with which the model train enthusiasts and artisans recreate real scenes from real places, at times on a microscopic scale.



The museum is one of the largest indoor model railroad displays in the world...



...and although the individual HO and N scale layouts are among the largest of their type...



...they are tiny reproductions of real world places...



...depicted with incredible detail.



In some cases, cities and towns are built exactly to scale, with buildings, roads, and of course trains in their exact real location in relation to one another...



...real life activities reenacted by tiny people.



In other cases, the model railroad artisans take some creative license...



...placing the right buildings in the right cities, but not exactly replicated in precise detail...



...and perhaps not exactly as it really happened (see: pool-swimming shark).



Even more fascinating are the landscapes...



...particularly those of the San Diego Model Railroad Association...



...which has reproduced the San Diego & Arizona Eastern, an HO scale (1/87th actual size) model of "The Impossible Railroad"...



...which connects San Diego with El Cajon and El Centro.



This is the same railroad that I actually took from Campo, CA...



...through the tunnel to Tecate, MX — a trip that's been suspended because of a fire in Tunnel #3 on the Mexico side.



That trip is when we first heard about the Carrizo Gorge and the Goat Canyon Trestle near Anza-Borrego, a true engineering marvel that now can only be accessed via a jeep trail and strenuous hike (which I have not done yet and for which I would seek an expert companion).



Thanks to the La Mesa Model Railroad Club...



...visitors also get to explore the Tehachapi Pass and witness a train making the Tehachapi Loop, a rare occurrence in real life.



The museum also houses a Toy Train Gallery...



...featuring operating trains of Lionel type 3-rail O gauge...



...full of lights, bells, train whistles, and even smoke.



We were on a special tour that allowed us to go behind the scenes...



...get really close to the models...



...and inspect their every detail from the other side of the glass...



...where the model railroad enthusiasts operate the trains and build the sets.







Some of the landscapes are just made from layers of cardboard and newspaper...



...covered in a thin plaster and some paint...



...while others add chickenwire and other support structures. Some also have trap doors accessible from underneath, so they don't have to walk on top of the displays.



All the tracks are made by hand with tiny, delicate materials.



Extra trains, or new trains waiting to be added to the displays, are housed in storage below...



...though some actually make an unseen journey down there along tracks, looping around to reemerge onto the public display.



Each model railroad club has their own control center, some actually using real equipment from real railroad operations.

I actually had no idea how cool this place would be, but I was with a group and just went along for the ride. I've been to San Diego plenty of times, and it's never occurred to me to go.

But I'm glad I did. Sometimes it's good to just blindly say yes. Sure, why not?