Training session.
Training session.
Training session.

Union Station’s model railroad citizens

You don’t need to wait until Union Station’s redevelopment to find dozens and dozens of engines and passenger cars chugging through the vicinity. The trains are already there, deep in the basement, down a length of shadowy corridor and through a series of locked doors. And, if you show up on the right night, you’ll be welcomed into their realm: a fantastical world of snow-capped mountain ranges pierced with deep tunnels, deep canyons stretched by intricate train trestles, bustling towns and busy rail yards, all built by hand in miniature yet highly detailed scale.

Welcome to the domain of the Denver Society of Model Railroaders.

While some folks may grumble at the slow pace of Union Station’s transit construction, that eleven-year undertaking is a drop in the bucket compared to the assembly of this model railroad, named the Colorado Midland Railway in honor of the first standard-gauge railway to traverse Colorado’s continental divide. The society has been working on the line since 1934, when station owners told model-railroad enthusiasts they could rent this space if they didn’t mind first cleaning up the muck left behind by flooding from the Platte River.

Now, nearly 75 years later, Colorado Midland is the oldest model railroad in the country that’s stayed in the same spot, says nine-year club member Paul Smith as he makes his way around the 6,500 square-foot panorama, past tiny, chest-level forests and outhouses and mountain climbers and railroad crossings, a stretch of Colorado forever frozen on a late September/early October day (the Aspens are just starting to change color) at some point in the mid-1950s. "If you let your mind go when you look at it, it almost looks like a scene from the outside world," he says. "This is what happens when you have a room like this and nobody ever tells you to stop."

Someone almost did make them stop. With the original Union Station redevelopment plan calling for train terminals underneath the station, it looked like the Colorado Midland was going to have to be removed, along with the smaller-gauge Platte Valley & Western Model Railroad next door, an operation Smith calls "The new kids on the block," since they’ve only been around since 1980.

"For three, four years, we didn’t know what was going to happen," says Smith. During their regular Tuesday night workshops, many of the twenty or so of the club’s full-time, dues-paying members began putting less enthusiasm into building trees from dried weeds and furnace filters and crafting mountains out of chicken wire and plaster. They couldn’t imagine tearing down the ten-foot-long trestle constructed in 1957 using bits of fruit crate cut to scale, or boxing up the replica of the original 1949 California Zephyr a current member built by hand after tracking down the train’s original blueprints. "Thinking about losing it all made me sick," says Smith.

So when many folks in the community were upset last year over the decision to build the station’s new train terminals above ground, the model railroaders breathed a sigh of relief. "It saved us," says Smith. Though if the station’s owners had asked Midlands’ keepers to weigh in on the original plan to begin with, officials might have saved themselves years of work. All these hobbyists have laid enough track in their day to know the slope of the tracks the station’s planners were considering to get their trains underground never would have worked.

All those troubles are behind them now, notes Smith with a smile. "Now the mood’s back." The crew is once again hard at work untangling 40 years worth of electrical wiring, recreating the iconic cliffs of Dinosaur and Grand Junction. They’re also busy cleaning off the tiny hand prints that dot the glass walls separating the visitor area from the trains, prints that show up after the free open houses the two model railways host on the last Friday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. (the next one is on September 26). "The more prints we have to wash off," he says, "the more successful the run was."

And the work won’t end until Colorado Midland is finally complete, an endeavor Smith estimates will take another 75 years or so – if such an accomplishment even exists. After all, he notes, "In the history of model railroads, there’s never been a model that’s completely finished.

For more information on Denver Society of Model Railroaders, go to www.denveroscaleclub.org, as well watch the video below. – Joel Warner

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