History of the San Diego Model Railroad Association.

The San Diego Model Railroad Association (SDMRRA) is comprised of the 2700 sq. ft. Cabrillo & Southwestern O-Scale Exhibit and the 4500 sq.ft. San Diego & Arizona Eastern HO-Scale Exhibit. The Association was formed in 2009 as a 501(C)(3) Public Benefit Corporation from the assets of the San Diego Model Railroad Club (SDMRRC) and continues to be a principal exibitor in the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Although several hundred model railroad organizations exist today, very few are as large and as old as the SDMRRA.

The SDMRRC was founded in May, 1939, by Walt Porter, J. W. Grosdidier, Carl Bush, Bud Davis and Jack Graves. The first meeting was held in a lodge hall above a Thrifty's store at the corner of University Avenue and 31st Street, and in 1940, space was obtained by Mr. Grosdidier above a freight house belonging to the San Diego & Arizona Eastern R.R. at the corner of 12th St. and Imperial Avenue. John Grosdidier was to become the 4th SD&A General Manager. Members began to build an HO scale layout, but after two years of construction, they lost the space and the layout was dismantled and stored in a garage belonging to one of the members.

In the fall of 1942, the club built a layout for the San Diego Gas and Electric Show. The railroad was under a stairwell in the Electric Building in Balboa Park. After a six-month stay, the club was evicted and moved its layout to an old chicken shack in the city of El Cajon, east of San Diego. Despite the distance and gas rationing during World War II, the club remained there until 1946, when it was once again evicted and the layout was stored. After short stays in various buildings in Balboa Park, the layout finally found a home in the old House of Charm building, which was constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The year was 1948.

Around that time, a small group of modelers, including Gene Casey, Sid Mason, and Marion Charles, founded an O scale club and began to construct a layout in the basement of the La Valencia Hotel in nearby La Jolla, north of San Diego. Soon they also lost their space and were given permission to occupy part of the House of Charm with the SDMRRC. They took the name Balboa Model Railroad Club. These two clubs thus formed the San Diego Model Railroad Association. During the 1950's the O scale club experienced declining membership; it asked and was granted permission to merge with the SDMRRC. The Association faded into history.

In the House of Charm, the club had a 6,500 square foot space and HO and O scale layouts. It was open Sunday afternoons for the public, and even though entry was only through an out-of-the-way rear door it was always filled with park visitors. This popularity proved to be important a few years later.

The SDMRRC remained in the House of Charm until the building was condemned by the city in 1978 after two buildings from the 1915 Exposition, the Old Globe Theatre and the Aerospace Museum, were torched by arsonists. The wood and stucco "temporary" structure was immediately closed. The two layouts remained in place but could not be run. The club continued to meet elsewhere on roughly a quarterly schedule.

When a new building was planned to replace the Aerospace Museum, the city was approached about obtaining space in that or another building. About the same time, an urban renewal project had left the La Mesa Model Railroad Club homeless and they, too, had been in contact with the city. The idea of joining together to create a museum but retain separate club organizations arose, was discussed and accepted. Presentations were made to the park board and the federated groups were successful. They had space. They had a museum. The San Diego Model Railroad Club ultimately moved into it's current Museum location in 1982.

In exchange for space, specific requirements were laid down, including how much time would elapse before trains were running and the doors open to the public. The clubs, with the addition of the San Diego Society of N Scale, agreed to the terms. After all, the space allocations were generous and the financial liabilities minimal. Among the provisions was the notation that "museum quality" modeling would be done. It was a very ambitious project, but the members were eager to rise to the challenge. San Diego would have another museum in Balboa Park.

Construction began on both the HO and O-Scale layouts in 1983. Portions of the O-Scale layout from the House of Charm were moved to the Museum to form a temporary O-Scale layout while construction of a new HO layout began. Early HO layout construction utilized flex track and Peco commercial turnouts. Enough track was in place 6 months later to begin weekend operations.

It became obvious that the museum quality layout envisioned would require better trackwork, and a new system of solid pine strip sub-roadbed on a 3/4 inch plywood cookie cutter base would allow hand laid ties and spiked rail to be installed. Hundreds of custom hand made turnouts were eventually build.

Over the years since, both layouts have been essentially rebuilt. At the formation of the San Diego Model Railroad Association, track work is complete (although maintenance continues), and hard shell scenery is about 90% complete on both layouts. Structures and detail scenery efforts are progressing but maybe not at the pace anticipated.

It is not only the layouts which have evolved in the last 25 years. As part of improvements for public viewing, perimeter walls have been redesigned and replacement is in progress. Once wall work is complete, the Museum will install ramps to a raised floor between the two layouts for increased viewing of children and wheelchair-bound visitors.

From initial modest beginnings, the SDMRRA is now open to the public 6 days a week. Gone are the days of rheostat controls, brass track, and limited train length. Today both layouts are capable of conventional DC (analog) and Digital Command Control (DCC). Sound equipped locomotives, DCC decoders, and 100 car trains were not even imagined in the 1960s, nor was the realistic detail of today believed possible. The goal of the SDMRRA is to continually improve our museum-quality layouts, provide ever-better viewing to the public, and to provide education to interested persons on the history of California railroading, operations, rail commerce, and expecially the geology and modeled structures of San Diego and Imperial counties and Northern Mexico.


Readers of this brief history of the San Diego Model Railroad Association might also wish to read about the history of the SD&A / SD&AE prototype. Excellent sources are the Southern Pacific Bulletins on the San Diego & Arizona Railway. Selected Articles are on line, of particular note is the Post-War era 1946. J.W. Grosdidier wrote many articles for the SP Bulletin showing a first hand glimpse into the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway operations future.

Note: The bulletins on-line are courtesy of the San Diego Railroad Museum.