HO, HO, O – Festival delivers rail history, childhood memories

Just in time for Christmas. Model electric trains will travel over miles of to-scale tracks, through towns, tunnels and over trestles as the Washington State Historical Society hosts the Model Train Festival at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

The festival kicks off Saturday, Dec. 17 and runs through Jan. 1.

The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma displays a model train exhibit as part of its commitment to preserving the history of railroads in the Northwest. Credit: Washington State Historical Society
The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma displays a model train exhibit as part of its commitment to preserving the history of railroads in the Northwest. Credit: Washington State Historical Society

In spite of the competition and distraction of video games, computers and smart phones, model railroading is alive and well, though not quite as popular as a Christmas toy as it was in the 1960s and 70s. The festival at the History Museum features elaborate displays from manufacturers and hobby groups in addition to the museum’s own permanent layout that is part of its northwest railroad history display.

“This year we’ll be featuring the railroad areas of the Great Hall of Washington History,” said Erich Ebel, the society’s marketing and communications director. “Not only will visitors be treated to dozens of tiny trains and intricate model railroad layouts, but they can also learn about how the railroad industry influenced the growth and development of Washington and see train-related artifacts from days gone by.”

Members of the Tacoma Northwestern Model Railroad Club (www.tacomanorthwestern.org) who set up their traveling layout this week at the museum, said that while the hobby may harken back to the days of boys with toys, there is an education basis to what they do. Research into railroad history, its connection to the communities served over time and the continuing importance of passenger and freight rail to the region, all play a part in the work that individuals and groups involved in model railroading put in.

“I’m a big history buff, so I model (circa) 1915,” said Puyallup’s Steve Cox, Director at Large of the TNMRC. “I spend less of my time looking at the trains of today, and more time digging into history books. I get fascinated by the whole idea of what life was like in 1915 and seeing how the trains fit into it and how do I (approach) modeling that.”

TrainChartModel trains have gotten more advanced – and more expensive – than they were three or four decades ago when a set from Lionel might cost $50 at Toys R Us. It’s not uncommon for a modern HO gauge locomotive to cost $500. But model trains today are equipped with sensors, and computer-controlled electronics that enable operators to do more with them than simply circling the tracks like their predecessors.

For all the advances and super-cool functionality, model railroading still holds true to some of the same ideals that influenced past generations of kids on Christmas morning and serious hobbyists alike. The hobby creates a connection between generations, and a nostalgic bond between us as children and our adult selves.

“It was my grandfather for me,” said TNMRC member Mike Stepner of Puyallup on how he became interested in model railroading. “My grandfather loved trains but he never modeled because he was a doctor and was always doing doctor stuff. But he did his model railroading through me. It’s been part of my life, for all of my life.”

Steve Cox, Puyallup, discusses the Tacoma Northwestern Model Railroad Club's layout for the Model Train Festival at the Washington State History Museum. Credit: David Guest / TDI
Steve Cox, Puyallup, discusses the Tacoma Northwestern Model Railroad Club’s layout for the Model Train Festival at the Washington State History Museum. Credit: David Guest / TDI

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