By Margo Greenman
Chug your way through the past at the Washington State History Museum’s model railroad exhibit and enjoy being transported back in time as model trains take a retrospective tour of the region, passing iconic landmarks along the way.
Entering the exhibit you will become mesmerized by the countless scenes of historic Tacoma and the surrounding Puget Sound that are depicted in a display of detailed miniatures. But don’t let these minis fool you – the exhibit is massive. A 25’ by 95’ foot exhibition room allows for nearly 1,800 square feet of model railroads, trains, landmarks and more. Realistic statuettes of local icons and landmarks stretch across this grandeux display, including depictions of the ASARCO smokestack, Auburn’s Neely Mansion, Stampede Pass, three Green River train crossings, and many more.
It’s impressive enough standing back and taking in the exhibit as a whole, but look a little bit closer and you will find yourself marvelling over the intricate attention to detail portrayed in each display. Did the train arrive late to the station? One would surmise by the hurried stance of a suited man who appears to be running late for work. Or, are those sirens in the distance? Police cars and fire trucks hurry to a car crash near the tracks a few scenes over. The sound effects and moving trains featured throughout the display certainly evoke a sense of realness, but it is the subtle details attributed to each scene that make the exhibit come alive.
The construction of the model railroad exhibit began in 1996 by Tacoma’s volunteer-based Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers (PSMRE), and was built to be a permanent fixture at the Washington State History Museum. In 1999 the exhibit became functional with working model trains, but was only a shadow of the nearly 1,800 square foot, detail oriented structure that stands today.
Nearly 17 years after the exhibit’s commencement, the project is still under construction as PSMRE members continue to create intricate add-ons to the display, including a soon-to-be-finished depiction of Union Station as it would have appeared in the 1950s. Steve Carter, president of PSMRE, says that each model displayed in the exhibit has been constructed either completely from scratch or through a process called “kit bashing,” in which a commercial kit is radically modified.
More than just an epic display of the talents possessed by volunteer members of PSMRE, the model railroad exhibit is a testament to the past and a monumental nod to the important role that trains played in the development of the United States. Carter explains that, “it has been a goal of (PSMRE) to create an authentic representation of how railroading looked in Tacoma during the 1950s, so as to educate people on the historical significance railroads have to our country and this region.”
Because railroad systems were such an integral component of the development of the west, Kim Ketchum, the museum’s marketing director, explains that trains tend to be a common thread in both permanent and temporary exhibits featured throughout the museum. Next door to the model railroad exhibit is the museum’s “history lab” where museum-goers can take a self or guided tour of a covered wagon, while learning about the important impact that the railroad system had on the economical and cultural development of Washington state.
For the diehard enthusiast there is also an online photo gallery available on the museum’s website which features several historical photos of trains and railroads. Digital versions of these photographs can be purchased using the museum’s online order form.
Because the model railroad exhibit continues to expand, there is often new scenes to admire. If you haven’t had a chance to visit the Washington State History Museum in a while, make a point to drop by and explore PSMRE’s always-growing and always-astounding model railroad exhibit.
Join the Washington State History Museum December 21, 2014 – January 1, 2015, during the 19th Annual Model Train Festival. A collection of festive model train displays constructed by enthusiasts from across the state, the Washington State History Museum invites you to celebrate the season with this holiday favorite, fun for museum-goers of all ages.
The Washington State History Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission is $9.50, with discounted rates available for students, seniors and military. Children ages 5 and younger are admitted at no charge. Or, become a member of the historical society and enjoy free admission, plus other members-only extras.