Model railroaders share their love of the rails at Tacoma museum

You don’t often see model trains under Christmas trees anymore, but for generations of kids who came of age in the 20th century, they were dreams come true.

For some, the magic never went away.

This month, model train enthusiasts from around the state — most of them now showing more than a little gray — are sharing their fascination at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

The museum’s 19th annual Model Train Festival features exquisitely rendered miniature trains and landscapes, spread through four floors of the museum and accompanied by train buffs more than happy to explain the particulars of their hobby.

“I still have a kidlike wonder about trains,” said Erik Meehan of Tacoma, president of Kitsap Live Steamers club, which specializes in trains big enough to straddle and ride. “Now, as an adult, I know what makes them run, but it’s still something magic.”

Meehan was on the museum’s second floor Saturday, helping show off 1,000-pound models of old steam locomotives built by club members. “A steam locomotive is an amazing ballet of parts,” Meehan said. “I would say a symphony. Everything has to work together.”

The train festival, which began Dec. 21, has become a standard for the Tacoma museum and a predictable attendance booster in the holiday season.

As usual, families flocked to the museum on the first Saturday after Christmas, midway through the festival’s 10-day run. The train show, which includes admission to the entire museum, is open through New Year’s Day.

As interesting as the trains are the miniature worlds created for them to run through: farms, Victorian villages, factory yards and timber towns, all detailed down to the rust on trucks and cracked asphalt on roads.

Bill Jarvis, a retired mechanic from Kent, said his family’s personal history was part of what attracted him to model railroading. His grandfather was a railroad engineer in Albert Lea, Minnesota, he said, and that’s always been part of the mystique for him.

He was drawn to the larger models — ones that run on rails 7.5 inches apart.

“I like the size of them,” he said. “The scale is more real. Most of the guys here would love to have a real locomotive, but we can’t do it. This is the next-best thing.”

One of the highlights of the festival is a permanent museum exhibit, a 1,700-square-foot model railroad layout that portrays Tacoma and surroundings in the 1950s, right down to the old Asarco smelter and stack, in 1:87 scale.

That exhibit was built and is maintained by the Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers club.

Marshall Wilson, the group’s chief engineer, said the Tacoma layout is on par with the top-notch model railroads around the world.

The holiday festival is a good way to share the magic of trains, Wilson said, and it’s also a history lesson, letting people know what an integral part trains once played in the Northwest.

And, Wilson said, it’s a chance to attract the younger generation.

“The hobby as a whole has been in decline for some time,” he said. “Kids today want smartphones and computers rather than a train set for Christmas.”