These model trains are bound for new home

Southwest Washington Model Railroaders hold final open house at location they've outgrown after 45 years

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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When Bill Wheeler first joined the Southwest Washington Model Railroaders in 1998, he recalled how he and fellow train enthusiasts met in a small room behind Safe Harbor Church on East Mill Plain Boulevard that was almost entirely consumed by a model-train track.

Since then, he said, the club’s train enthusiasts continued adding to the layout around the 625-foot track using chicken wire, papier mache and plaster cloth (used to make casts for broken bones) to build painstakingly detailed model landscapes.

“It’s never done,” said Wheeler, a past president of the club. “That’s the beauty of it.”

On Saturday, the club held its last annual open house at its current location where the public could admire the handiwork of its members while catching a glimpse of the region’s railroad-oriented past. The club has outgrown the 15-by-35-foot space it’s occupied since 1972 and will be moving into a larger space at Memorial Lutheran Church said Mark Haley, the club’s current president.

Haley said the space will allow the club to offer more community partnerships and events.

At the open house, onlookers streamed into the slightly cramped room to watch the model trains chug along a track through detailed landscapes that included a prairie where a model cowboy on horseback chases buffalo, a logging camp, a train yard and others. The track (which would be 10 miles if built to scale) included backdrops of mountains, waterfalls and a 1950s-era streetscape where model firefighters rescue a cat from a pole, workers paint a wall, cattle low from a slaughterhouse and scofflaws break into a tank car of beer.

“There is a lot of rail history that helped build this area and this country,” Haley said. “This is museum quality.”

Laura Warmuth of Vancouver came out because “the little guy likes trains,” she said, referring to her 5-year-old son, Luke.

“It’s really, really cool!” he exclaimed. He excitedly pointed to a yellow train that was fixed with a small “engineer’s camera” that broadcast the view from the miniature locomotive on a screen above. “I see it on TV!”

Corbin Keller, an 11-year-old from Vancouver, also came out. He said he’s thinking about joining the club to learn more about creating models. When asked about what appeals to him about trains, he replied, “I don’t know. I just have liked them since I was 3.”

Wheeler also said that his fascination with trains began at an early age. But he and Haley said the demographics of train enthusiasts are changing and the club, which has 40 members, is about more than just catering to their hobbies.

Haley said that the club wants a wide variety of people to feel welcome and learn about the region’s history through the model landscape. He said the club works with the Clark County Historical Museum and regularly invites individuals with special needs, kids, Boy Scouts and seniors.

“This move will give us an opportunity for more community partnerships,” he said of the new space where the club will relocate.