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The genius is in the details of 'Railroad Journey in Miniature'

A million man-hours have gone into railroad museum's precision display

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

By Michael Dongilli

You might say workers at the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum have small minds.

It's not that they never have big ideas. It's just when you're configuring a layout in 1/87th scale -- that's HO gauge in train enthusiast terms -- tiny takes precedence.

Looking like the Godzilla of McKeesport, Glenn McClintock pops up through an access panel to adjust a train on the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie line in a model of the Mon Valley city at the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Richland. Click photo for an eight-picture gallery of images from the museum. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

This year marks the 15th holiday tour for the nonprofit Richland museum, titled, "Railroad Journey In Miniature." Over the years, patrons from around the world have come to the corner of Route 910 and Lakeside Drive to see one of the most authentic recreations of railroad Americana in the country -- a Lilliputian replication of the Mon Valley line between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., as it appeared in the summer of 1952.

The research, craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail played out on a plywood platform has made this trip back in time an obsession of intricate proportions for those producing it.

"It has taken 17 years to get to where we are now," said Bill Humphrey, the group spokesman, who spews out facts and figures faster than a maglev to Monroeville.

Everything about the display, including the shoebox-like building housing the 4,000-square-foot exhibit, was built by member volunteers. At last tally there were 95 registered, though Humphrey said only about 30 are active. The group traces its origins to 1938, when it was founded as the Pittsburgh HO Model Railroad Club.

The black steel of the Wabash railroad bridge looms behind the silvery Smithfield Street Bridge in this scene from the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum. The museum's display traces railroads from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., as they appeared circa 1952 -- complete with trolleys. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The track -- a meandering 1,500 feet of it -- winds alluringly around a vivid land- and cityscape so precise that visitors routinely recognize landmarks aloud.

"[They'll say], 'Hey, I was married here, or 'Oh, that's where I was,' 'Here's where I used to be,'" he said. He takes such remarks as a tribute to the estimated 1 million man-hours invested in the project to date.

It's quickly evident, though, that there are many man-hours to go: unfinished sections showcasing McKeesport, where a bridge abruptly stops at half its length, and the Glenwood Yard stand out barren in contrast to the detail around them.

But no one seems to mind. When remaking railroad history, exactness is a demanding thing, requiring painstaking research and boundless patience.

Not that it's perfect. Humphrey concedes that museum members must take a shortcut or two to compensate for things such as space -- "selective compression," it's called -- and the complexities of Pittsburgh railroading at the time.

But even the harshest whistleblowers would have to look hard and know their Baltimore & Ohio and Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad particulars unequivocally to point out any flaws.

It took 300 man-hours to create the Cumberland, Md., train station in detail -- down to window shades and suitcases -- which helps explain how the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum's display has consumed a million man-hours overall. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Jim Hediger, senior editor of Model Railroader magazine, knows his particulars unequivocally, and ranked the display second only to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum after seeing it in person last year.

"It's one of the best displays of local industrial heritage of an area I've ever seen," Hediger said.

And that's precisely the impression Humphrey and his crew want to evoke. They chose this track line to reflect Pittsburgh's two industrial icons; it's "the city of bridges and steel mills," Humphrey shouted over the noise of two sets of trains running. "No other line will get it."

Viewers will get it, though, almost instantly, as they climb steps to the building's second floor and begin their fictitious boarding.

They pass quickly through a darkened hallway and emerge to the start of the show, spectacular renditions of the Wabash Bridge branching out in black steel glory, a dark contrast to the shimmering silver of the Smithfield Street span to its right.

Despite the model marvels, Humphrey said its what people don't see at this point that elicits the most commonly asked question: "Where's Kennywood?"

It's missing, and for good reason. "You wouldn't be able to see it from here," he tells them, with a subtle explanation about perspective and the difference between his museum's display and for example, the Carnegie Science Center's Miniature Railroad and Village. One caters to artistic charm, the other to historic flawlessness.

The hand-built buildings --houses, churches, factories -- are not only positioned properly in relationship to the track, but their exteriors are carefully investigated so they match perfectly with their life-size counterparts. That may mean examining old prints or visiting sites to photograph them.

Buildings start out in "cardboard" stage, a misnomer of sorts since they're actually cut out of a thicker illustration board. It's a necessary and inexpensive way to guarantee correct fit, and many are surprisingly rich-looking despite their temporary status.

Eventually, the buildings are cast in styrene plastic and painted, a process that can take weeks depending on size and complexity. The Cumberland station -- one of the more lavish in the layout with windows, people and intricate trim -- took 300 man-hours to complete.

Perhaps more impressive is the incredible sea of greenery, thousands upon thousands of tiny trees. Humphrey said the entire 'scape will require nearly a quarter-million of them. The trees are actually made from a real plant, yarrow, which gets dried, cut to size and sprinkled with green poly fiber held on by one of life's great cosmetic inventions: hair spray.

 
    How to Get There

Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum

WHAT: Holiday Train Show

WHERE: PA Route 910 at Hardt Road, Richland Twp.

HOURS: Friday 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.

TICKETS: $5 adults, $3 children under 12. (724) 444-6944.

WEB SITE: www.wpmrm.org

 
 

On average, 12,000 visitors a year travel through the museum, traipsing the uneven floor that grades up and down, simulating the actual elevation and contour the track follows on its trek through the hills and and familiar areas such as Yough Junction, Connellsville, Ohiopyle, Confluence, Fort Hill and Rockwood.

At one point, the walking route height reaches two feet above the actual floor of the building, the peak at which the display makes the crossing from Pennsylvania to Maryland.

And of course there are trains -- freight, passenger and mail -- replicas of the real thundering hogs (that's "engines" to the uninitiated) and cars from which they're patterned. The layout can accommodate up to 25 rolling simultaneously.

Whatever the number, they ride in carefully planned, circuitous routes that repeat around the platform, with a computer controlling their speeds, directions and switching.

"My son is a programmer and [re-configured] the software to match our setup," says Ray Mueser, museum president.

In a typical season that the display is open to the public -- 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 12 this year -- -- the trains rack up mileage equal to a trip from Pittsburgh to Erie and back again.

Although one computer manages the task, what's beneath the platform, in the area called the "duckunder," drives the traffic -- a maze of cable and wire befitting of its own Zip code at roughly 15,000 total feet.

There's enough room below to walk fairly comfortably to add, change and fix connections, and pop-ups in the platform allow caretakers to handle maintenance and improvements to every inch above.

Using HO gauge allows the museum to maximize space while still providing a comfortable viewing experience. At this scale, the trains also run quite dependably and stand up well to dirt and dust, according to Hediger.

He said the most amazing aspect of the local scape is the volunteerism. "You're not hiring a bunch of expensive artists and craftsman. These guys are doing it all their own."

"All of us love the hobby of model railroading and we want to show it off," said Humphrey, a chemist at PPG. Mueser is a retired bus driver, and the group includes the engineers and architects one might expect along with a wide array of other occupations.

The "reality" of it all is the display's biggest claim to fame, and what Humphrey hopes most people will enjoy and take away.

"What would we appreciate? I guess the biggest sense of history of railroading in and around Western Pennsylvania.

"In the Second World War, probably half the steel in the world was made here. At one time, two of the terrorist targets for the Germans were Horseshoe Curve in Altoona and Point Perry. Homestead was the first planned city in the United States.

"We want them to come away with what Pittsburgh was, the history and importance of the city and the big three...coal, steel and railroads." Even if it means tooting a few small horns, train whistles to be exact, to do it.


Michael Dongilli is a freelance writer. Bob Donaldson is a staff photographer for the Post-Gazette. He can be contacted at bdonaldson@post-gazette.com.

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