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Thursday, July 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Model-railroad hobbyists gearing up for the national convention in Seattle
By Lynn Thompson
For months, members of the Swamp Creek and Western Railroad Association have been counting down the days to the national convention of model railroaders that opens Sunday in Seattle.
Working on their backs, beneath the scale-model layout of their fictional railway, they've soldered miles of new wires and built the hidden loops that allow their steam and diesel locomotives to double-back and begin the imaginary journey from an Eastern Washington orchard town over the Cascades and down to a bustling Columbia River port.
A black-and-white photo tacked to one wall of their headquarters a former baggage room at the Edmonds Amtrak station shows a 1950s-era waterfront with weathered docks in the real southwest Washington town of Raymond. A few feet away is the same, meticulously re-created wharf scene, built tiny-board by tiny-board, in the same scale as the model trains HO scale, or 1/87th life-size.
Ask the club members, all male and middle-aged or older, about the appeal of the hobby, and they'll tell you that the detailed re-creation of a convincing railroad draws on dozens of skills and interests from wiring and carpentry to painting and design, to photography and the history of real working railroads.
There's also a fair bit of the excitable boy in these men. Most got their start in the hobby with a Christmas gift of a model train. Now, whenever a real train blows past the Edmonds station, they drop their work and run outside.
Because these model railroaders are also typically fans of the real thing, the convention will offer excursions to working railroads, such as the Boeing Company's spur line that hauls airplane parts up the hill from Mukilteo to the company's Everett factory.
They can also take rides on the high-speed Spanish Talgo passenger train, or the historic Mount Rainier Scenic Railway that runs between Elbe and Mineral Lake near the national park.
"Seattle is an active railroad town. There's lots to see and do," said Fred Hamilton, executive director of the Renton-based Model Railroad Industry Association, in which 150 members will participate in the National Train Show, a public exhibition held each year in conjunction with the national convention. This year's show will be at the Seahawks Exhibition Center July 9, 10 and 11.
Aim to draw more fans
Kids raised on the warp speed and high-tech imagery of video games may find model railroads a little slow. And their working parents often don't have time to sit and help them assemble intricate models.
But the biggest change may be in the American landscape, where working railroads have been replaced by highways and planes.
"Young people aren't really exposed to railroads anymore. They don't ride the train to Grandma's house," Hamilton said.
The industry is pumping $1 million dollars over the next five years into a campaign promoting model railroading as the "World's Greatest Hobby." The National Train Show will feature free clinics for kids and a recently produced DVD on how to get started in the pastime. Local groups are also trying to recruit adult mentors to teach beginners skills such as track wiring and layout design.
Today's model railroader
Segner recently served as a guide to some of the local model train layouts that will be on view for convention members.
In an upscale Mill Creek subdivision, a spacious, contemporary home gives no indication of the obsession lurking in the basement.
Snaking around corners and past the laundry room is a painstaking re-creation of the Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad, which operated at the turn of the last century between the busy port city and the now-abandoned mining town.
The basement layout, six years in the making and still a work-in-progress, is the passion of Didrik Voss, general chair of the 2004 convention. Voss, a civil engineer who runs his own business, repeats a joke common among model railroad enthusiasts: In order to adequately pursue his hobby, he bought a basement with a house attached.
Voss researched details for the HO-scale model railway in historic photos and local library collections. A classic wooden railway trestle that once spanned the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County is re-created from more than 100 tiny basswood slats. Look closely at the cross beams and you'll find tiny bolts bored into place with a drill the size of a needle.
All of it, Segner explained, is designed to "have you feel like you're looking at the real deal."
While 99 percent of model railroaders are men, the exception is in the world of garden railroads, where husbands and wives form creative partnerships she typically tends the garden; he runs the trains.
Outside a house overlooking Lake Serene, just north of Lynnwood, a Civil-War era G-Scale model-steam locomotive an actual train is 22.5 times larger rolls past blooming Canterbury Bells and maple saplings pruned to bonsai.
Glenn Shadduck, like many of his fellow hobbyists, said he'd always aspired to have an "inland empire" in his basement. But when he turned 50 several years ago, he said, "My eyesight went bad and my thumbs got big."
His wife, Barbra, gives her account of their decision to spend about $7,000 terracing their steep front yard.
"I used to go with him to these train shows and bring a book, I'd be so bored," she recalled. But at one convention, she noticed members of the Puget Sound Garden Railway Society, half of whom were women.
In addition to making friends, she said, she expanded her interest in gardening and turned her front yard, which had always been a chore to keep up, into a scenic backdrop for the train.
The Shadducks' front yard is now encircled by 550 feet of track with features taken from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (known to millions of Monopoly players as the B&O). Unlike the "indoor guys," as he refers to the smaller-scale modelers, Shadduck said he's not as finicky about detail.
"Out here, you have to deal with real rain, real squirrels," he said.
Paul Scoles, widely considered one of the country's best scenery and equipment modelers, is one of only 335 people in North America to have earned the title of Master Model Railroader, bestowed for lifetime achievement by the NMRA.
For 10 years, Scoles and his wife lived in a townhouse above Richmond Beach. It had a nice view, but no room for trains. Now, his Shoreline rambler includes a 22-by-46-foot basement where he's re-created a Northern California railroad circa 1895.
Scoles, who by day works at reviving a struggling music-production studio in Ballard, moves rapidly along the railroad scenes. It doesn't seem possible that this tall, restless man has the patience to meticulously construct each small building in a frontier town, or the tiny pilot house complete with ship's wheel, compass and interior lights on a historic freight-car ferry.
By his account, the hobby's pursuit has an almost Zen-like quality.
"I'm intense, yes," he said. "But I come in here and forget my troubles. It calms me down."
Scoles points out some of the framed photos he's taken of his own and other layouts that have graced the covers of numerous model-railroading magazines. The photos are a marvel of illusion and suggest something of the hobby's appeal.
Taken in windowless basements, along 3-foot wide scenes built atop plaster and chicken wire, the human scale vanishes and the trains in the miniature world appear to thunder past, smoke billowing, through a timeless landscape of rock buttes and towering redwood trees.
"It absorbs you," Segner said.
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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