A dream coming true in San Diego

Three clubs working together can make a big impression



Article from Model Railroader; February 1985:

Copyright Model Railroader Magazine 1985, used by permission.

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The San Diego Model Railroad Museum opened its doors in 1981 and already has all four of its permanent layouts in partial operation. Two visiting exhibits - the All Gauge Toy Train Association of San Diego and the European (Märklin) HO Interest Group - also operate for visitors during the normal museum hours, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.

The museum is a nonprofit organization formed by three clubs: the San Diego Model Railroad Club, the La Mesa Model Railroad Club, and the San Diego Society of N Scale. It occupies a 21,000-square-foot-space on the lower level of the Casa de Balboa, the newest building in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Visitors to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum pass through an entryway that eventually will be decorated to look like the track gates in a large passenger terminal (an artist's conception was included in my first article about the museum, "Making a dream come true," in the December 1982 MR). As they enter through the foyer, visitors find a gift shop on their left that stocks railroad books and souvenirs. Once in the main room they have access to the four permanent model railroads and two visiting exhibits shown in the musum plan below.

Over-all view of SDMRM exhibits.

A handsome hardwood stand in the center of the entrance aisle offers both museum brochures and a donation box which visitors are free to use or ignore. Admission is free both to promote the hobby of model railroading to visitors of all ages and as an expression of appreciation to the people of San Diego for making the space available.

Right. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is in the basement of this building, the Casa de Balboa. The handsome Spanish-colonial structure is the newest one in San Diego's well-known Balboa Park, and it fronts on the Prado, the park's palm-lined main esplanade.


Below. The SDMRM is the home of three clubs building four layouts. The La Mesa Model Railroad Club's is a multilevel HO representation of the Southern Pacific line through California's Tehachapi Pass, a heavy-duty mountain railroad carrying trains of the Santa Fe as well as the SP. Here an eastbound Santa Fe has climbed through Tunnel ½ to find a stop signal just below Caliente, Calif.




This is the Pacific Desert Lines of the San Diego Society of N Scale. The FTs above and SD40-2s below represent early and late Santa Fe diesels, a miniature summary of 40 years of motive power.


The SDMRM does have permission to charge for admission if it has to increase revenue, but intends to continue the free admission policy as long as donations cover costs. Perhaps the greatest measure of the museum's acceptance by the visiting public is that the voluntary donations have more than paid utility bills which annually run over five figures.


The O scale Cabrillo Southwestern RR of the San Diego Model Railroad Club was the first of the permanent museum layouts to become operational. This was largely because the O gaugers were able to save sections of their previous layout from another location and move them into the museum. An operating trolley line has been added, but much of the subsequent construction effort has been devoted to upgrading the wiring and track saved from the old layout. A track extension project was started recently, and the first touches of scenery have been plastered into a canyon crossed by a double-track main line on two large scratchbuilt truss bridges.


The San Diego Society of N Scale already had a modular layout when the SDMRM opened, and the N scalers bore the brunt of providing an operating exhibit for the public during the museum's first year. The first train over their permanent Pacific Desert Lines ran just in time to mark the opening of the 1983 Christmas on the Prado, an annual celebration when all the organizations in Balboa Park throw open their doors to the citizens of San Diego. The SDSNS then sold the modular layout, and it was moved out of the museum.

The new Pacific Desert Lines is based on the original route that was planned but never built for the San Diego & Arizona Eastern. Aside from representing a local setting, the layout also presents some of the finest in N scale modeling. Trach is handlaid Code 40 rail soldered to printed-circuit-board ties. Crossings and turnouts are all scratchbuilt, with PFM switch motors driving the points.

As might be expected with such pains-taking trackwork, scenery construction has lagged somewhat while the crew lays rail. The scenery that is finished, though, matches the standards set by the track. The backdrop, now about half complete, is out of the ordinary. Instead of the oft-seen white clouds on a blue sky, this backdrop is a colorful combination of hues representing a range of weather from sunshine to storms.


The HO gaugers of the San Diego Model Railroad Club have put a sizable portion of their permanent railroad into operation. They too are modeling the San Diego & Arizona Eastern, but follow the SD&AE as actually built. Almost two thirds of the track is in, with only the area representing San Diego itself yet to have benchwork installed.

The SD&AE includes some very interesting models of actual structures and places on the real thing. One is the huge Goat Canyon trestle spanning awesome Carriso Borge, which is being surrounded by scenery that matches the spectacular setting of the prototype. The trestle carries the rails more than 6 feet above the floor, and it's located in the bend of a long canyon, extending in from the viewing aisle. The scenery rises from the floor to 8- to 10-foot-high mountaintops.

The prototype crosses rugged and arid territory as it reaches east towards El Centro, Calif., so the layout involves extensive modeling of desert scenery. This is not the sandy desert terrain we've been conditioned to expect, but a mass of jumbled and fractured rock formations woven into high ridges and deep gorges. Aside from the difficulty of modeling, it is excellent scenery for a model railroad because of the many sharp curves, trestles, and stiff grades needed to get trains across the tortuous countryside.


The San Deigo Model Railroad Club has two layouts in the museum: the O scale Cabrillo Southwestern and the HO scale San Diego & Arizona Eastern shown here. The SD&AE models the prototype of the same name, and features rugged desert scenes with a mixture of artificial and natural vegetation.



The other permanent HO railroad is being built by the La Mesa Model Railroad Club. Their ambitious goal is to construct an accurate representation of the combined Southern Pacific/Santa Fe operation from Bakersfield to Mojave, Calif., through Tehachapi Pass. Twenty five scale miles of main line on the model will represent the 75 prototype miles. Mojave will be on an upper floor, with the actual track summit rising to a point 13 feet above the lower floor level.

Intense research has been conducted to insure that the model accurately represents the prototype. Thousands of photographs have been taken to document the real line's features. Many visits have been made to library archives containing materials on the Tehachapi area, and the railroad's own surveys of the route and changes have been obtained for the era spanning 1940 to 1980. All this has been carefully woven into the layout plan.

The obstacle to completion as planned is, as might be expected, financing. The requirements of occupying public space mean all construction has to meet building codes, including public access, sprinkler-system coverage, and the like. Construction has been planned in several phases so that work can progress while financing is pursued.

The first phase is the Caliente area, and it is rapidly nearing completion. This 30 x 80-foot section represents about a third of the planned scenery and a fifth of the line miles. Temporary reversing loops at each end of the permanent trackwork allow operation of trains up to 120 cars long, although 40-60 car trains are more the norm during public visiting hours. The loops also extend the operating track to more than 10 scale miles.

At scale speeds it takes more than 30 minutes for a train to make a round trip. Most of the run is on 2 percent grades, with one continuous climb stretching for the 3 scale miles between Caliente and Cliff. Even with a minimum curve radius of 48", it takes a skilled and sensitive hand on the throttle to run one of those long trains.


The San Diego Model Railroad Museum faces a very bright future, and public acceptance has been high. There has been some news coverage of the work completed so far, and attendance shows a dramatic increase on weekends after the museum has appeared on local TV. Construction of all four layouts is proceeding rapidly, especially considering what has already been accomplished. As it says on one of the museum's bumper stickers, "You should see the trains in our basement!"

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,   Don Mitchell and Model Railroader Magazine, 1985.