Down in the basement of Union Station, there's a water-stained passageway of stone masonry that leads past a solid vault door gone green with age. Those walls date back to the 1880s, and their musty smell and weathered stone provide all necessary testimony regarding their age. Like much of the dead-quiet station's environs, they're a lonely echo of simpler times, when locomotives still chugged in and out of Denver daily. What's unexpected, though, is just around the bend -- more than 6,000 square feet of active railroad in miniature, scrupulously detailed right down to the tiny station lights and the coal gleaming in the open freight cars. What's even more astonishing is its longevity: An ongoing project of the Denver Society of Model Railroaders since 1935, it's paradise for members who gladly languish in a glorious state of perpetual childhood, at least during the time they spend down there.
"Some of us could spend every day here, except for starving to death," says club spokesman Charles Rovetta. The club, which boasts more than 35 members, opens the model to the public once a month from September until May, as well as on Christmas night. But this year the group is getting into the LoDo spirit and taking part in this weekend's Lower Downtown Holiday Experience, an event that includes decorated dollhouses and a gingerbread replica of Union Station in addition to the society's massive display.
The club maintains two separate lines, standard- and narrow-gauge, both under the moniker of Colorado Midland, after an actual line that disappeared in 1918, following the nationalization of U.S. railroads. A difficult route that wound its way from Colorado Springs to Grand Junction using the most direct -- and dangerous -- approach, the actual Colorado Midland was expensive to build and expensive to maintain, as evidenced by the club's framed advertising poster for the line, showing a treacherous chain of switchbacks meandering painfully back and forth across craggy terrain. "It was done in by the federal government," Rovetta says. "All they saw was that it was the shortest route, so they tried to send everything over it. But it couldn't handle the traffic, so they shut it down."
Lower Downtown Holiday Experience. Opening party and sneak peek, 5:30 p.m. December 3, $35. Public tours of model train displays, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. December 4 and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. December 5, $4-$8 (children under five free). Union Station, 17th and Wynkoop s
You could say the Colorado Midland's demise was the society's gain: Since the line no longer exists, members get to fool around with the facts. "We've taken some liberties by having some modern diesels going across the route," Rovetta points out. And a quick scan of the layout reveals a profusion of different trains: a Union Pacific line from the late 1940s, a 1950s-era Santa Fe Super Chief, a World War II train loaded down with replicas of heavy artillery, a California Zephyr sporting domed observation cars and even a Burlington-Northern coal train, circa 1999. Pointing out one shiny model, Rovetta notes, "These refrigerator cars are accurate down to the rivets." As they all pass through the mythical hub of Springs, Colorado, it isn't hard to imagine the spray of cinders and the acrid reek of oil and engines.
Other locales are based on real places, including one under construction on the narrow-gauge route. There, club members are building an accurate model of Sargent, a small town at the west foot of Monarch Pass. "Historically, it's where the railroads added the number two and three engines to trains going between Gunnison and Salida, via Marshall Pass," Rovetta explains. Wander around the back and you'll see model-train terrain in its most basic, preliminary stages: a framework of two-by-fours awaiting the layers of chicken wire, carved plaster, paint, textures and Lilliputian trees that will eventually turn the structure into the familiar cliffs that guard the track's approach west of Grand Junction.
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All in all, it's a big old setup that's growing weekly. And you'll never see it anywhere but here: "It would take dynamite to get us out of here," Rovetta says. When asked how many trains there are on the Colorado Midland, he replies, "Too many." Suffice it to say they're lined up on the tracks everywhere, providing a kind of historical montage of transportation in the mid-twentieth century.
For enthusiasts, though, history is only part of the lure of model railroading. They end up donning every hat imaginable, not just an engineer's cap. "You need to know some geology, some history, some engineering," Rovetta contends. "There's some artistry involved. You have to decide how you're going to run it -- like a real train or around and around." Rovetta himself remembers owning his first model train, a Lionel, when he was seven or eight years old. "Two or three of my friends would get together, and we'd put all of our trains together," he recalls. In his case, and probably that of his club cohorts, the tradition stuck, though Rovetta doesn't make a big deal of it. "Some people go out and play golf or collect automobiles. There are all sorts of hobbies -- this is just another one."
But you sense maybe the attraction goes a bit deeper. Rovetta climbs a ladder into the control room, a lofty vantage with a TV screen where the fellow pushing the buttons can view the Colorado Midland in full. Up there, you can run four standard-gauge trains at one time, using electrical panels and aileron motors culled from WWII surplus bombers.
"Maybe it's wheels," he says. "They go around, they make noise. They take your mind off what bothers you. It's a miniature world where you can control and dictate what goes on. It's like a theater, and the trains are the actors." He starts up a train, and the aileron motor creaks and whines.