model train

Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club president Steven Watkins reset the clocks on the tower of Union Station, which was built to scale to the original architectural plans.

Ever wonder what it would be like to be a giant towering over the Northwest landscape? You can find out firsthand at Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club, where even children loom like Godzilla looking down on all the iconic sites of the Gorge, from Union Station to Multnomah Falls to Crown Point.

“That’s one thing that we’re always talking about, walking across like King Kong or Godzilla, doing the whole Tokyo bit: It’s hilarious,” said Cynthia Leonard, the club’s vice president, with a laugh after crawling through a Portland street, her shoulders level with the tallest buildings.

Founded in 1947, the club is the biggest model railroad in the Northwest and one of the oldest in the country. Housed in a north Portland building constructed to look like a train depot (and given to the club by Kaiser Permanente in a land swap of sorts), the model has served as the site for music videos and commercials, and according to members, draws big-name model-train lovers like Neil Young and Rod Stewart when they pass through town.

“There’s no way in the world I could build something like this in my house. Couldn’t afford it,” said Isaac Harpole Jr., the club’s chairman. “So you join up with everybody else, you come down here and have a blast.”

When the full majesty of the railroad gets chugging in its 6,500-square-foot room, it’s clear how far model trains have come from a circular track in the basement with a stop and go button. Thousands of feet of track run through hand-built re-creations of Gorge towns, from Portland to Wishram, along bluffs and mountains that ring the room, through forests and clearcuts, and across recognizable bridges like the lower level of a Steel Bridge that raises just like the real thing.

Walking through the room is like taking an 80-mile road trip in five minutes. And everywhere, trains are chugging through the landscape, blowing air horns and steam whistles.

30 people to operate

The full model takes around 30 people to operate, from individual conductors arrayed throughout the setup to dispatchers buried deep inside it who control the switches that move trains from one track to another.

“The nice thing about this club is that there’s a whole variety of people,” Steven Watkins, the club’s president, said of the 130 or so members who meet up every Tuesday night, but also have keys to come in whenever they want. “We have some people that all they want to do is run trains. They don’t want to do anything else. And there’s the opposite, like in my case, where I just enjoy doing the scenery.”

The club chose to set the model in the 1950s because that was a golden era when steam and diesel locomotives overlapped (and when cars still went to drive-ins, like the one in the model with a working screen that shows classic movies). Members make most of the scenery themselves, from buildings to trees, working off photos. One of the model’s biggest structures, Union Station, was actually built to scale according to the original architectural plans, and a new re-creation of the re-creation of Stonehenge on the Washington state side of the Gorge was made using dimensions off Google Earth and a 3D printer.

For Leonard, no detail is too small.

“This is a new animation we put in this year,” she said during a Tuesday night meetup, as she placed a small figurine of a woman into a backyard next to a group of adorably tiny chickens, each of which was pecking up and down, in reaction to a magnet spinning underneath them.

The magnet is one tiny thread in an intricate web of electronics and soundscapes that course through the model like a low-voltage circulatory system. Every single building, street lamp and car headlamp plugs into the system, resulting in thousands of feet of wiring and a model that pulses with life.

Train nerds

It’s a constant process of tinkering and upgrades that feels like you crammed all the Christmas presents for 130 train nerds into one giant room. They’ve recently upgraded the track from analog to digital, so operators can control any train from anywhere in the setup, and they’re constantly trying to make the scenery more accurate by adding things like the native fishing platforms at Celilo Falls.

This emphasis on new technology and change means the club continues to attract new members.

“The stereotype is old, retired white guys,” Leonard said. “There’s quite a bit of truth to that, but the hobby is expanding.”

“My father used to wake me up and say, ‘Train’s going by,’ and I’d get up and watch the train. I did that to my grandson, and look what he’s doing now,” said Harpole Jr. shortly before ducking through one of the doors leading into the model, where his grandson, 13-year-old Demarion Brown, was rewiring the Hood River buildings.

“I have to go to the power room and turn on the layout, flip a switch that turns on the building lights, and then in Hood River, all these lights should light up and this whole board should light up,” said Brown, pointing at the numerous wires running into an electrical board he had been tinkering with over his head.

Sure enough, after flipping the switch and heading back up into the model, the stained glass windows in the church and the sign on the drug store started to glow, earning Brown a fist bump from his grandfather.

Members put in thousands of hours each year with one big moment in mind: November, when they open the doors to the public every weekend for their annual fundraiser.

Families filled the room on a recent Sunday. Kids jumped from one side of the aisle to the other to peer keenly at every miniature and squeal as the trains barreled past, while parents and grandparents pointed out local sites.

“My brother really likes trains; I like the cool stuff, the scenery,” said 10-year-old Tealia Jud, who comes every year with her family and 5-year-old brother, Oliver. “I like Multnomah Falls because it’s made of fluff and looks so real.”

It’s nearly impossible to take in every scene and detail, so club members have written up a scavenger hunt with some of their favorite items, plus sci-fi Easter eggs they’ve hidden throughout the landscape, such as Bigfoot, dinosaurs and the Dr. Who Tardis.

“It’s kind of just as a little wink and a nod to the fact that this is a hobby,” Leonard said. “It’s not work; let’s have fun.”

Just as the beauty of the Columbia Gorge has been preserved for generations to come, the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club looks to drawing in these emerging train lovers to keep their model railroad running full steam into the future.

“That way we constantly have younger members coming up through the system, learning how to do things,” said Harpole Jr. “So that it comes their time, they get to take over as we move on off into the sunset: ride on the back of the caboose and down the track.”

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