A behind-the-scenes look at how three clubs formed a museum in Balboa Park



Article from Model Railroader; January 1990:

Copyright Model Railroader Magazine 1990, used by permission.

Larger views may be seen by clicking on any image.

Above:The beautiful N scale model of San Diego's downtown Santa Fe station was scratchbuilt,
along with several other structures on the layout, by Pete Peters, a member of the San Diego Society
of N Scale. The station is this month's Model of the Month, found on page 90. The 1937 Super Chief
is Norm Wright's brass model from Kumata.

Left: The Casa de Balboa (see accompanying map) is the home of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. This structure was built in the 1970s after a fire destroyed the original one erected for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The four permanent layouts, built by members of three different clubs, are open to the public on specified days year round. The museum celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

THERE'S A LOT MORE than meets the eye at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park. Most visitors don't get to see what goes on once the trains slip behind the backdrops into staging yards; nor are they aware if the television monitors that keep track of trains in areas the operators can't see. And there's no way they can appreciate the hours upon hours of work required by more than one hundred volunteers to get the layouts built and keep the trains running.

One evening last spring Andy Sperandeo and I were able to look behind the scenes an the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and that's what this article is about. Perhaps other model railroad clubs can learn from the experiences of the three clubs that make up this well-known model railroad museum. But before we can take a close look at what doesn't meet the eye, let's take a brief look at what does.


The museum consists of four permanent layouts in various scales and stages of construction: one O scale, two HO, and one N. The museum was founded in 1980 by the La Mesa and the San Diego model railroad clubs; the San Diego Society of N Scale joined a year later. In the late 1970s club members searching for layout space came to an agreement with the city of San Diego. At that time the clubs looked on it as an excellent way to get a lot of layout space for a reasonable amount of money; however, no one could have envisioned that building and maintaining a model railroad museum would require a maximum amount of work and become a monumental project!

The layouts occupy about one-fifth (22,000 square feet) of a building in the center of Balboa Park. Many of the buildings in the park had originally been constructed to house exhibits during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. After a fire in the 1970s destroyed the original structure on the site, the city and federal government pooled resources to rebuild it. Eventually running short of resources, the city completed only the shell of the Casa de Balboa on the Prado and then arranged to have tenants complete the interior.

The three other museum tenants occupy the main floor and half of the lower level. To get to the model railroad museum, you enter on the main level, make a couple of hard left-hand turns, and walk down the stairs past a full-size (though with a shortened mast), working Southern Pacific semaphore. On your left as you enter the museum is the ticket window and gift shop; to your right is a mural of the interior of the Santa Fe's San Diego station (see this month's Model of the Month on page 90).

From here another right turn takes you to the first of two layouts being built by the San Diego Model Railroad Club: the O scale Cabrillo Southwestern. This is both the oldest and the newest layout in the museum. Part of the museum's agreement with the city was that at least one layout had to be up and running a specified short time after occupancy. This requirement was met by moving parts of the O scale club's layout from another building in the park into the front space of the new museum.

In 1986 the layout was redesigned and since then has been in the process of rebuilding, section by section, allowing the club to keep the trains moving. When we visited the layout, it was still mostly benchwork and a few structures - but the trains were running!

Citrus Heights is the summit on the Society of N Scale's layout. Norm Wright painted and decaled the
Kato A-B-B F3s and cars in the Empire Builder scheme. The scenery is the work of David Solomon and
his wife, Becky, who made the trees. The layout, straight inside as you enter the museum, is housed
inside a partial mock-up of a Southern Pacific passenger car.

As you continue down this aisle you come upon the other layout being built by the San Diego club, the HO scale San Diego & Arizona Eastern. The finished portion of this layout is set in the barren deserts of the Southwest, with their stark, rocky scenery.

Initially, you may think that this isn't a very realistic layout because it's so barren. However, photos of the actual locations modeled show that the club has gotten the scenery just right. a huge timber trestle, based on a real on bridging Goat Canyon in Carriso Gorge, is absolutely spectacular. Here the trains roll along several feet above the canyon floor and even higher above the viewers' heads. This is a perspective you just don't get on most model railroads.

Back in the gorge, two black-and-white video cameras watch the trains, and monitors at the control panel behind the mountains let operators follow the trains as they pass through areas not visible to them from where they sit. At one end of this layout, nestled in a corner in the mountains, a small narrow gauge railroad connects with the SD&AE.

Above: Just west of El Centro, at Plaster City, a narrow gauge industrial railroad hauls gypsum ore
from the mine to a wallboard plant. The narrow gauge group in the San Diego club wanted a greater
variety of operations, so Pat Allen free-lanced the town of Vance. The HO scale C-25 locomotive as
well as the Denver & Rio Grande Western cars are owned by Mike Pulling.

Left: This scene on the standard gauge part of the San Diego club layout represents the end of El Centro yard. The Eastbound AT&SF warbonnet HO scale Oriental F3s belong to Paul Voss, while the Berkshire no 4110 belongs to Steve Kuhl. John Fiscella has researched color, shape, size, texture, and frequency of appearance of local vegetation to accurately model it for this beautiful desert scene.

Turning and heading back up this aisle, you'll see on the right the San Diego portion of the SD&AE. When we visited, this side was still mostly benchwork and track. The plan is that this will represent the San Diego waterfront of the late 1940s. A model of the San Diego station built in 1935 sits in the middle of the benchwork waiting for the scenery around it to be completed.

At the end of the aisle and near the entry is the layout of the San Diego Society of N Scale. Built inside a partially mocked-up SP passenger car, this is perhaps the layout nearest completion. Scenes include a stretch of California beach, a rural area complete with orange grove, and parts of downtown San Diego as it was in the late '40s and early '50s. Its as big an N scale layout as you're likely to see on public display. It's also nicely modeled; the club has a number of very talented members.

Turning the corner to the right, you find yourself in the Tehachapi Mountains on your way to the famed loop. Vegetation is sparse, with only occasional trees poking out of the grassy hills around which long, multiunit trains wind their way up and down.

The Tehachapi Loop itself isn't modeled yet, but the town of Caliente is -- very convincingly. One visitor even recognized her grandmother's house! This layout is the most publicized and perhaps the most ambitious of those at the museum. It's designed to wind its way up to the summit at 12 ½ feet above the floor at a mezzanine level, allowing trains to pass through the loop and over the top of the mountains. That's still in the future, but the big curve at Caliente is skillfully reproduced, whetting our appetite for what's to come.

The real Carriso Gorge was bridged in the 1930s by the Goat Canyon trestle, repudedly the largest timber
trestle in the world at that time. As modeled by the San Diego Model Railroad Club, the HO scale Carriso
Gorge extends about 15 feet back from the aisle, makes a right turn, and extends back another 10 feet. The
track is more than 6 feet above floor level at this point, and the mountain peaks are 10 feet above the
floor. Almost 3 tons of Hydrocal were used to build the gorge. The trestle was built by a nonmodel
railroader, who ripped the bents and stringers out of old wooden venetian blind slats. The westbound
train belongs to Paul Voss.

Finally, off to one side is a semi-portable Lionel layout that the museum built, primarily for promotional uses during the holiday season. It's a popular attraction at mall shows and the like, and it draws traffic to the museum, where visitors get a look at the world of scale model railroading.


When the opportunity first arose 10 years ago to move into the space in Balboa Park, it's unlikely that members could have foreseen what lay ahead of them. Thinking that other model railroad clubs may find some useful information in the experiences of the Model Railroad Museum, we asked Don Mitchell, the museum's director of information, and John Rotsart, the museum's curator, for some background.

Don told us the museum is set up as a "nonprofit educational corporation. It's a business -- I suppose you'd call it the entertainment business. We've had more than a million visitors come through."

The museum was incorporated in August of 1980, the clubs moved into the building in late 1981, and the museum officially opened to the public in March of 1982. By agreement with the city, the museum is open to the public five days a week. Progress toward completion of the museum and of the layouts has been admittedly slow. The clubs told the city it would take at least five years to have the layouts completed, a deadline long since past. As long as the clubs continue to make progress, however, the city doesn't seem inclined to press the issue.

The enormous model of the horseshoe curve at Caliente has to be one of the most spectacular scenes
in model railroading. It measures 30 feet from the fascia in the foreground to the deepest bend
in the backdrop and about 50 feet from the camera to the hill in the upper far right in the photo.
The area is modeled at about two-thirds actual scale size, with all structures scratchbuilt to
exact scale size. The track in the hills at the top of the photo is about 6 feet above floor level,
and there's still a long way to go before reaching Tehachapi Loop, yet to be modeled.

Apologies for the "page seam" in the above scanned image.

A museum of any size, model railroad or otherwise, must have a paid curator, someone who knows or can become familiar with the ins and outs of running a museum, the associations available for membership, and the location of grant money. The museum chose John Rotsart for the job. John, a longtime member of the La Mesa club, had worked for the Santa Fe and as a junior college instructor. We spoke with him at length about what it takes to run a museum.


John told us that the museum's budget is currently in the low six figures. "It operates through a combination of gate fees, donations, and funding by the city's transit occupancy tax (TOT)." The TOT is a tax on all motel rooms in the area. The proceeds are distributed among the arts and tourist organizations in San Diego. The museum shares the building's utility bill and other maintenance expenses with the other tenants. The museum pays 22 percent of the costs since it occupies that much of the space.

Grants represent another potential source of income for museums. However, as John explained, obtaining grant money is no easy task. "We've had a lot of favorable comments from the California Park Systems, as far as what we are doing, unfortunately, we still have not gotten any grants. That may be several years away, because we have to develop the museum along the lines of what they are interested in -- not necessarily the same as our interests."

"There is a lot of talk about model railroading as an art form. So I've talked to the California Council of Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and lots of other groups, and they all say model railroading falls off the list of projects they're interested in funding. We really are interested in pursuing this course, though, so we just keep trying."

Awhile back John approached the Santa Fe about becoming a museum patron, perhaps through an arrangement similar to what they have with Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry and the railroad's famous O scale layout. John worked with them at the time that the merger between the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe appeared imminent. Unfortunately, they insisted that they had absolutely no interest in model trains of any kind.

Well, the merger fell through, and John is considering going back to see if they have a different attitude now. He didn't seem hopeful, however, observing that the Santa Fe would more likely want to focus on its image in a major destination like Los Angeles. After all, John reasoned, San Diego is only the end of a branch line.

Another fund-raising effort involved setting up a foundation -- The San Diego Model Railroad Museum Foundation. This group is made up of local businessmen who are model railroaders and whose goal is to raise money for the museum. One project they've been working on is to establish a donor's club, the Palace Car Club. Each donor of $250 receives a scale model palace car with his or her name on it.

When you're open to the public and receiving municipal support, certain requirements must be met -- requirements that a typical club wouldn't have to be concerned about. Handicapped accessibility, for instance. Luckily, the city has agreed to pay part of the costs for building a wheelchair ramp around the elevated portion of the Tehachapi layout.


The model railroad museum belongs to the American Association of Museums and last year received a federal museum assessment program grant to help them determine their strong and weak points. This will do a lot to help the museum become accredited.

The assessment consists of pages and pages of questions touching on the museum's collection, collection policies, operation, security system, and educational programs. The result of the survey is that the museum ends up with a better idea of where it stands in relation to where it wants to go.

John Rotsart admits that by the assessment's standards the model railroad museum "has a long way to go." He felt lucky that the gentleman administering the survey was a model railroader. "The way he put it . . . was that a random collection of model railroad equipment is over here on my far left, being a real museum is over here on my far right. We've almost gotten to the point of being a real museum."

One area the assessment showed the museum to be lacking in is interpretation; that is, explaining to the public what the hobby is all about. Just showing them the trains is not enough. Club members have put a lot of energy into creating the displays (the layouts), and now they're to the point where, to become accredited, they must interpret what they've created.

One proposal for achieving this involves building an exhibit that will be called "Hobbyshop Window of 1950." In it trains of the period would be displayed, giving viewers a sense of the history of toy and model trains. This exhibit would most likely be in the area the tinplate layout now occupies.


Most model railroad clubs host an annual open house that requires sending a notice to the model railroad magazines and the local newspaper. Flyers need to be printed and posted in the area. Promoting a museum involves a bit more. According to John, the museum has a $4,000 budget for promotion: printing and distributing brochures and newsletters, and press release supplies and postage.

The museum belongs to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Don Mitchell has managed to get the museum included in almost every list of "things to see in San Diego." It's also a member of the Inter-Museum Promotional Council, sharing in the $22,000 the city provides for producing brochures on the museums in San Diego. Finally, the museum has reciprocal agreements with other organizations and associations for distribution of promotional literature.


As part of the original agreement with the city, the museum had to agree to keep the trains running for specified periods. Well, trains don't run themselves, and they don't always stay on the track. That means club members must be on hand whenever the museum to run and maintain the trains -- a big job in itself.

The museum is currently offering token payment to assistant curators (mostly retired club members) to watch the layouts for about 5 hours on weekdays. On weekends, members come on a voluntary basis to run the trains and talk with the public. Even though the combined clubs have a lot of members (about 250 -- some active, some not), continuous running for the public is a function that most clubs don't have to deal with.

Left: Tehachapi fans will recognize this scene as the eastward siding at the west end of Caliente. That's the Caliente-Bodfish road, not an abandoned right-of-way, just above the engines. This scene is on the HO scale Tehachapi Pass layout of the La Mesa Model Railroad Club. The rocky scenery to the right is a combination of hand-carved and plaster castings.

This situation has led the clubs to look at computer control. That may be the long-term solution, but not yet, according to Steve Seidensticker, president of the museum board of directors and a computer engineer. He admits that while track and equipment are reliable enough to require only occasional operator assistance, unassisted computer operation is not yet feasible.

Derailments could create havoc, though Steve noted that "with a fairly sophisticated system you could have the computer count the cars as they pass photocells. If the count came up short, it would stop the train and sound an alarm or turn on a light. Then someone from the gift shop or the curator could get the train back on the track and rolling again."

Above: Mail and express cars are being powered upgrade headed for the Loop. At this point the
train is stretched out over the crossover in the middle of the Bealville/Allard siding. The engines
are brass imports detailed and painted by Terry Wegmann; the cars are also brass models. John Rotsart,
the museum's curator, built the scenery, and Gary Simon painted the backdrop.


Not being critical, just realistic, John Rotsart described one of the problems typical of volunteer organizations. "We were told over and over from the very beginning, `Get the entrance done.´ The problem is, we were always hoping that somehow the volunteers would do it. Well, the volunteers are interested in building the train layouts, not building the museum. So eventually we saved up enough money so we could hire workers to do the job, but it took several years."

The resulting gift area and entry were worth the wait. Meanwhile, other projects are still to be done. High on John's list is redoing a large, open area that the Lionel layout partially occupies now. He hopes that within two years it will have been transformed into a multipurpose area, complete with a meeting room, storage closets, kitchen, and audio-visual equipment storage.


As I listened to John, Don, and Steve, and the dozen or so club members who were there to help us get this story, I began to appreciate the tremendous amount of work that's gone into creating this museum and the challenges they still face. I asked John for words of wisdom he could pass along to other clubs who might contemplate following the lead of the three San Diego clubs. "Be prepared for an awful lot of hard work -- it's a very long road. Also, you'll need a core group of very dedicated people. We've been extremely fortunate in that regard, but you really do need people that can persevere."

People are surely the key. Financial support can be found; space is available. But without a group of dedicated volunteers, the layouts aren't going to get built. Andy and I appreciate the willingness of club members to take time from their jobs and families to help us get the story and photos. They truly are the dedicated people to whom John Referred.

Club members extend to MR's readers an invitation to come visit. The Museum is located in San Diego's Balboa Park, which is shown on the accompanying map. Times and prices of admission are also indicated there.

Membership information is available from the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92121. Please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

The San Deigo Model Railroad Museum is located in San Diego's Balboa Park (see map above). It's open
from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and the first Tuesday of each month, and from 11 a.m.
to 5 p.m. on weekends, New Year's Day Memorial Day, Fourth of July,and Labor Day. It's also open on
Tuesday and Friday evenings, but construction work on the exhibits is all you'll see. Adult admittance
is by donation on weekends and holidays. On weekdays there's a fee of $1.00. Children are always free,
and everyone is free on the first Tuesday of the month.

All photographs in this article were scanned from the magazine. Digital resampling reduced the size of the images (with obvious loss of resolution) for use on this web site. Clicking on any photograph will display a larger image.

Text was regenerated by Brian Satterlee (from the magazine article) and minor corrections were made if found. Page layout was altered for better display by a variety of browsers.

© SDMRRC 2003,   Dick Christianson and Model Railroader Magazine, 1990.