Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Photo Essay: Tiny Villages at the LA County Fairgrounds

I've tried to care about model railroading and miniature railways, but I just can't get excited about a tiny train that I can't hop onto and ride myself.



Besides, most model train displays are squirreled away in some dark, dusty back room—not out in the open like the Fairplex Garden Railroad.



A staple of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona since 1924, I somehow missed it every time I've gone to the fair—even though it's the size of a football field and on display out in the open all year long.



It's actually been in its current location—by Gate 1, a stone's throw from the Fairplex RailGiants Museum—since 1935.



But if you pay attention to the details, you're easily transported to the site of a traveling circus...



...an Old West town...



...and anywhere that the railroad might run through...



...as long as it relates specifically to California.



The Fairplex Garden Railroad doesn't just have a bigger footprint than your typical model railroad...



...but the tracks (all 10,00 feet of them) and the rolling stock—the trains themselves—are bigger, too.



This is known as a G-gauge (or "garden" gauge), which is designed literally to be displayed and run all year long...



...in your garden, backyard, or what have you (as opposed to your living room or basement).



On the Sunday I finally got to visit (as its public run days are only the second Sunday of the month), I got there a little too close to closing time.



The sunlight was fading fast, and the volunteers were already powering several of the running trains down.



One of them apologized to me for the empty tracks and trestles...



...and urged me to come earlier next time...



...but I assured him that I was more than entertained by the environments.



This wasn't just a train set to me—it was a whole other world in miniature, ripe for exploring.



Apparently there are a lot of scenes that only come out during the fair, but I was pleased as punch to see a depiction of the long-gone Echo Mountain House, the White City hotel at the top of the Mount Lowe Incline Railway.



I've stood there, by those concrete footings, which are now in ruins. And although I'd never seen this "lost city" completely intact, I recognized it right away.



At the Fairplex Garden Railroad, I got to see other locales that I haven't yet been able to visit in person (like the Mission San Luis Rey)...



...and some settings that may be inspired by California but are, at heart, fictitious in nature.



Of course, the scenery of the garden railroad has chained over the last 90-plus years, just like the region from which it draws its inspiration has.



But it's been running continuously here, with the exception of the World War II years (1942 to 1947, when part of the county fairgrounds were being used as part of the Japanese internment / war relocation effort).



And you can visit it all year long, not just during the fair (though that's the only time you get to see it at night).



I quite prefer it as a ghost town, when you can hear the rattle and whir of electrified trains running along track...



...and you can get a good look at the faces of the denizens of the garden railroad...



...those folks that merely watch the trains go by...



...and never actually get to ride them.



Though, I suppose, even if they did get to ride the rails...



...they wouldn't really go anywhere, at least not for long.



They might cross the Golden Gate Bridge, fleetingly...



...or time-travel back to the Harmony Borax Works and the 20 Mule Team of Death Valley circa 1885...



...but soon enough, they'd find themselves right back here, in Pomona.



Even if all 40 trains were all running at once (which can be done), none of them would really go anywhere but in circles.



And that's why the Fairplex Garden Railroad volunteers have paid such meticulous attention to every piece of shrubbery and each replica of every local business.

The Fairplex Garden Railroad may have darted out as a static display that was nothing more than a diorama, but in the decades since, it's become a living thing.

And like any living thing, it's a work in progress.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Tiny World of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Photo Essay: Tiny Trains and Landmarks Made of Trees