With an eye for history and detail, Kansas City’s model railroaders produce sprawling masterpieces

03/11/2014 3:16 PM

03/12/2014 7:22 AM

If you go to the side door of John Vandenberg’s house in Mission, (a railroad-crossing sign blocks the front door) and down the stairs, you’ll wind up Durango, Colo., circa 1948.

That’s because Vandenberg’s model-railroad setup, which takes up most of his basement, is a re-creation of the narrow-gauge Rio Grande Western Railroad, circa 1948-53. Small, HO-scale locomotives pull boxcars, flatbeds and passenger cars around a route that starts in Durango and winds up in Silverton.

Vandenberg has been working on the setup since 2008, and it’s not finished yet.

He is one of the many hobbyists who give the Kansas City area its reputation as a hotbed for model railroading. Vandenberg was host to several of the 120 out-of-towners who visited in late February for the 2014 edition of the Prairie Rail Invitational, a 20-year-old biennial event for enthusiasts who like to operate elaborate setups. Over the course of a couple of hours, the men — model railroaders are almost exclusively male — executed a series of orders conceived by Vandenberg (pick up this load here, drop that car there) following a strict timetable.

Thirty local model railroader enthusiasts opened their homes and setups to visitors.

As the tiny trains chugged along over miniature bridges and through papier-mache landscapes, their computerized locomotives issuing realistic engine and whistle sounds, the men used thin, foot-long wooden rods to couple and uncouple the cars. Because setups like Vandenberg’s typically cover many square feet with twists and turns and walls and scenery in the way, a dispatcher communicates with operators at various points along the route via an intercom.

“In this hobby, you can get dragged down several different pathways,” said Don Ball, who was at Vandenberg’s house one recent night for an operating session. “What was here? What should I build to go there? History gets more interesting, because you’ve got more reason to study it.”

A multi-faceted hobby

Researching history is just one facet of the model-railroading hobby that makes it so involving for its aficionados. Whereas most children start out with an “O” scale train set from the nation’s largest maker, Lionel, most of those who pursue the hobby into adulthood move into “HO” (Half of O) or even smaller-scale systems, allowing them to create train yards and surrounding structures with a degree of verisimilitude.

The times and places re-created by the 30 local hosts at Prairie Rail 2014 included the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming circa 1956, the Kansas City, Kan., Argentine Industrial District Railway circa 1960 and the Milwaukee Road in Wisconsin circa 1975.

Hobbyists study history books, old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, actual railroad timetables and more for reference in creating their setups.

And while research is the foundation of a serious model-railroad setup, it’s only the beginning. The first physical step — constructing the chest-high wooden platform — is called benchwork. Then wires must be installed to power tracks, switches and telecommunications. Laying the tracks themselves got easier with the advent of so-called “flex track” in the mid-20th century.

Adding the scenery — buildings, people, animals and landscapes — can take up lots of a hobbyist’s time.

For instance, John Vandenberg of Mission has taken vacation trips to Durango, Colo., to take scenic photos of the region in which his model railroad is set.

“I go out there every couple of years for dirt,” Vandenberg said.

He brings it back and uses it to re-create the light brown land around Durango in his basement setup. He has also collected coal cinders that were used to create a bed for the actual railroad tracks and brought them home to use as a base for his model railroad tracks.

Jen Snyder, who with her husband, Doc, runs Doc’s Caboose, a model-railroader supply store in Kansas City’s West Bottoms, said ready-to-use model buildings have become more popular in recent years. But some railroaders still prefer to “scratch-build” their own structures — the better to re-create actual buildings, grain elevators and the like.

Woodland Scenics, a company based in Linn Creek, Mo., is one of the world’s leading suppliers of miniature trees, buildings, rocks and human figures to model railroaders.

Last, but not least, there are the various locomotives, boxcars, tankers, flatbeds and cabooses to purchase. They are not cheap, either. That makes serious model railroading something that, if not exclusively a rich man’s game, can take up much of a hobbyist’s discretionary income.

At Fred’s Train Shop in downtown Overland Park, for instance, some locomotives top out at over $1,000 each. Built by hand with great detailing, they are made of brass and contain electronic engines and digital sound systems.

Even the lowest-end HO-scale locomotives cost around $100 each at places like Fred’s and Doc’s, with “rolling stock” — boxcars and the like — going for $20 to $30 apiece.

The quest for authenticity leads many hobbyists to customize the model trains they purchase from stores or websites. Brittian had insignia for his Midland Valley Railroad custom made from photographs he supplied to a specialist in the field, who, in turn, shipped him back the small decals he affixed to his trains.

Not all hobbyists, though, are into such exacting replication of history.

“You can be as prototypical as possible, with every nut and bolt and rivet modeled, or as little as you want,” said Vandenberg.

“I’m not a rivet counter,” explained Jeff Burrell, a Northlander who is a member of Kansas City’s Society of Model Engineers.

“It’s a hobby with no rules. There is no right and wrong way to do it,” said Tom Teeple, who works at Doc’s Caboose and specializes in model building.

The next generation

For the past two years, Burrell has been driving to Olathe once or twice a week, helping the Society of Model Engineers build and operate a layout in a storefront provided by the Great Mall of the Great Plains. It’s based on Kansas City’s riverfront rail yards. Club members hold operating/building sessions on the first Wednesday of each month, and they open the storefront to the public and run their trains each Saturday and Sunday.

There is a similar setup at Ward Parkway Center.

These railroaders are trying to interest a younger generation in their hobby. Although model railroading itself has incorporated digital technology, computerized gaming offers powerful competition for young boys’ time.

“It’s not as popular as it was 20 or 30 years ago,” said Vince Badali of Overland Park, a member of the Society of Model Engineers. “There is more distraction. I’ve been going to train shows since 1990, and they seem to be pretty strong, although some have been trimmed back. They used to have shows at the American Royal Governor’s Building, but that went away.”

The PBS children’s television series “Shining Time Station,” featuring the British Broadcasting Corp. Thomas the Tank Engine, helped the hobby somewhat when it aired in the 1990s, local hobbyists said.

“The biggest drawback for kids can be the expense,” said Vandenberg.

“I don’t know too many teens who can afford $200 for an engine,” said Don Ball of eastern Jackson County.

“There are a lot more demands on kids’ money,” said Doug Taylor, who joined Ball and Vandenberg for an operating session in February. “They want to go to concerts and buy things on the Internet. I show dogs, and I see the same problems there.”

Even so, Fred Loosbrock of Fred’s Train Shop said about 30 percent of his customers are youngsters.

Retailers like Loosbrock and Snyder said that Internet sales of equipment have hurt brick-and-mortar retailers like themselves as well as model-train shows.

“The shows are not what they used to be,” Loosbrock said. “Fifteen years ago there were 12 train stores in the area. Now it’s down to four. … The Internet has hurt a lot of stores. We can’t compete on prices.”

And yet there is still an infrastructure of institutions around the hobby. The stores carry a dozen magazines devoted to railroading — both model and real-life.

Stephen Priest of Parkville is a member of the board of directors of the National Model Railroad Association, and he edits its monthly

journal. The association offers master-modeler certification for those who demonstrate sufficient skill.

A collegial bunch

Priest says the Kansas City area is a hotbed for model railroading with over three dozen “fully finished” private layouts.

Neither he nor anyone else is quite sure why that is. Perhaps it’s a product of Kansas City’s legacy as a real-life rail hub. A couple of modelers are retired railroad men. One is a heart surgeon. Others are businessmen of various stripes.

“My grandfather worked at Union Station for 35 or 40 years,” said Vandenberg. “My father was a model railroader when I was a tyke. I built model ships and planes, but I was forbidden to touch his railroad — so, of course, I touched it.”

In any case, Kansas City’s model railroaders are a collegial bunch. Operating a model railroad can require up to a dozen people, and the gatherings serve as social functions.

“There are a few clubs who do round-robin work on each other’s projects,” Priest said. “They help each other out. Hanging a suspended ceiling, it’s hard to do by yourself. … If somebody is weak at carpentry or at electrical work or spatial visualization, others will get involved and help him out.”

“I like having friends over,” said Vandenberg. “I didn’t solely build this. I had a lot of help with infrastructure, walls, benchwork. And I’ve helped other guys with the specialty construction side of it. I like building structures, details, painting engines.”

Kansas City’s model railroaders hope there will be those to carry on the hobby after they are gone.

“There is a lot of talk about ‘Will it be the end of the hobby when the baby boomers die?’ People have all sorts of different opinions,” Ball said. “I don’t know which, if any, are right.”

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