When the crowds disembarked at Union Station a year ago this Saturday for the gala reopening, they saw a stunning transformation of the century-old terminal, now a grand public space full of bars, restaurants, lounging areas and, overhead, the Crawford Hotel. What they didn’t see were the two model-train layouts that had chugged along in the basement for decades, holding regular open houses to the delight of Denverites young and old.
In late 2011, when two developers were still competing to redevelop the station, both promised that the railroad clubs would be able to stay in their subterranean spaces — even if those spaces were off limits not just to visitors, but to club members themselves for the next several years of construction.
But in April 2013, members of the Platte Valley & Western Model Railroad club, a group that had started constructing its 2,000-square-foot layout in the station’s old jail more than thirty years earlier, learned that they had only a few days to move out — never to return. When they got the bad news, club members approached their basement neighbor, the Denver Society of Model Railroaders, whose 6,500-square-foot Colorado Midland Railway (named after the first standard-gauge railway to traverse the Continental Divide) layout dated back to 1934, and asked if the PV&W could take over some space the O Scale club had been using for a machine shop. The DSMR declined to share with the upstarts. As it turned out, that wouldn’t have been much of a solution anyway: A few weeks later, the DSMR got the boot, too.
Union Station Alliance, the outfit chosen by the RTD board to redevelop the station, said the layouts had to be cleared from the basement for “environmental abatement work” and the installation of new mechanical systems that would make their reinstallation impossible. “In an effort to renovate the building and to create a safe environment for future patrons, we must ask these train clubs to move from the building,” the Alliance said. “In an effort to show our ongoing support of the model-train clubs, we are working with the clubs to find acceptable space for the storage and potential permanent exhibit space.”
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Although the Alliance did help find some storage space, there wasn’t much left to store of the PV&W layout, which had included a re-creation of the long-gone 16th Street viaduct, a depiction of the old stockyards and packing plant, and a scale model of Union Station. Since much of the set had been built right onto the walls, little could be salvaged on that tight time schedule; some pieces wouldn’t fit through the door, and others were so old they crumbled.
So did the hopes of club members, as alternative after alternative — the Forney Museum, the old Englewood train station, the Livestock Exchange Building, even the Colorado Convention Center — turned out to be dead ends, and promised support disappeared. The DSMR is still looking for a new home.
But the PV&W is back on track. Last week, the club — now known as the Platte Valley & Western Railway (pvwrr.org) — pulled into a new station: White Fence Farm.
The eatertainment complex got its start over forty years ago, when Charlie Wilson’s family turned what was then a wide-open swath of Lakewood farmland into a second incarnation of the White Fence Farm restaurant, a Chicago-area shrine to fried chicken and other comfort foods. One of the first buildings they brought in was an old train car. The idea was to turn it into a diner-style space, but when Wilson sold White Fence Farm last fall, it was being used as an auxiliary gift shop, the Country Cottage, one of many attractions that keep visitors amused while they wait for a table — and wait they do, listening to a band or visiting a petting zoo or having a sarsaparilla at the soda fountain. And come the end of November, they’ll be able to watch the new PV&W build up steam.
The deal came together almost by happenstance. Chris Rand, who’d joined the club nearly a decade ago, after taking his young children to a train show — where the “PV&W club was the most welcoming,” he recalls — was the club’s president when the PV&W had to leave Union Station; by early this year, he’d gotten discouraged about ever finding a new home for the layout. He figured he had nothing to lose by calling the family friendly White Fence Farm.
Craig Caldwell, one of the new owners, took the call; while keeping the restaurant’s down-home feel (and chicken recipe), he and partner Tom Piercy had been adding new features, expanding the bar, offering live music every week, even planning for pony rides that will start this weekend. He mentioned to Piercy that “this train group” had called — and Piercy immediately knew it wasn’t just any old train group. Twenty years ago, he’d taken his kids to see the beloved layout in Union Station, and he knew it was a good fit for White Fence Farm. “Eventually we worked out a deal that we’re both happy with, a long-term commitment,” says Caldwell. “It was meant to be.”
“It’s a load off my mind,” admits Rand. “We’re bringing back something that’s been a Denver institution for thirty years.”
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And bringing it to another Denver institution.
“We think this will be a great added piece, and we’ll grow it over the next five years into something even better than we had at Union Station,” Rand says. The club, which suffered a drop in membership over the three years the layout was laid up, hopes to add new members so that a representative will be on hand often at White Fence Farm, working on the layout, showing kids how the train runs, teaching them the history.
“If the railroads weren’t here in Colorado,” Rand says, “Denver wouldn’t be the Queen City of the Plains.”