Back to Attractions

Now boarding!

Next stop: Tacoma’s Model Train Festival

Choo-choo-choose the Washington State History Museum’s Model Train Festival. Photo credit: Christian Carvajal

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

At 25 by 95 feet, the Washington State Historical Society's model train exhibit is the largest in the state, boasting a mainline run of 250 feet. Its construction began in 1996 before the Washington State History Museum building was even finished. Freight and passenger cars from four railroad companies run concurrently at 1:87 scale, passing such mid-1950s Tacoma landmarks as Stampede Pass, the Asarco plant and tunnel, Meeker and Neely Mansions and the Milwaukee freighthouse and trestle. The longer a visitor looks, the more details resolve into miniature reality: animals, period-perfect cars and trucks, a Boy Scout camp, even what Paul Rising's scenery department calls "a heated hobo discussion." Train schedules are arranged to be historically accurate, though compressed to fit museum operating hours.

A dispatcher, station masters and yard masters consult a customized car-card system to keep the system running on time. Bob Stumpf and his civil department keep the roadbed in working order, Al Babinsky's equipment department maintains a stable of five automatic trains over hundreds of "smiles" (scale miles) a day, and Al Zimmerschied's electrical department oversees the AC electrical control system's 11 power districts and auto-control block detectors. All this takes place under the guidance of a nonprofit club, Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers, whose decades of effort will be honored alongside that of many other organizations at the Washington State History Museum's 23rd Annual Model Train Festival. "We really look forward to the festival every year. It has become an annual holiday outing for many families," says lead program manager Molly Wilmoth. "The museum is filled with the sounds of trains and excited visitors."

The festival opens Friday, Dec. 21, with a members' celebration at 5:30 p.m. An Operation Lifesaver exhibit will emphasize public safety around railroad crossings. That weekend, paid admission to the museum includes photos with Santa, himself a noted lover of steam locomotives.

The exhibit's major layout work was completed by 2001, but PSMRE craftspeople continue to make upgrades. That explains the new freight-train simulator and an impeccable reproduction of Tacoma Union Station. "You'll step up into the simulator," explains facilities director Mark Sylvester, "and see a screen that looks as though you're on a track, similar to a video game. You get to learn the controls and how to start and stop the train. This will give drivers a sense of how much distance it takes." Other exhibitors include Boeing Model Railroad Club, Kitsap Live Steamers, Mount Rainier N-Scale, National Model Railroad Association, Pierce County Lionel Train Club, Telegraph-Morse Code Club and the Tacoma chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

On a recent visit to the museum's permanent display on the fifth floor, we snapped a photo of miniature Union Station but will save that as a surprise for holiday visitors. We also talked to two artisans working on the station miniature and mistakenly referred to their grand museum display as a "model train set." One craftsman was quick to politely but firmly set us straight. "It's not a train set," he clarified, "it's a layout. A set comes in a box." He should know; he's been working on this exhibit for 23 years. He carries a wealth of Puget Sound lore some PhD. historians have forgotten -- and he looks dapper in his vintage, striped-denim engineer's cap to boot. If that's not enough, he also runs his own 1880s-themed layout at home. All aboard!

23RD ANNUAL MODEL TRAIN FESTIVAL, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily, Dec. 21-Jan. 1, 2019, closed Dec. 24-25, Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, free-$14, 888.BE.THERE,

Read next close

News Front

An empty kennel

comments powered by Disqus