Local hobbyists, dedicated engineers of model railroads; upcoming Southern Utah Train Tour

Dave Merrill's model train setup, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2013 | Photo by John Teas, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – A group of hobbyists in the St. George area has formed a camaraderie of skilled and dedicated model railroad engineers. Enthusiasts all, these artisans of the timeless hobby have their model trains and layouts “well stacked, goin’ down the track clickity-clack.”

O gauge model train

Though they share an elite skill set, the Color Country Model Railroad Club is far from exclusive in their willingness to share their remarkable productions. This weekend, club members will open their homes and yards to the public, offering a unique opportunity to watch some of the area’s finest layouts in action. After all, seeing people appreciate their rails and perhaps becoming inspired to build their own is rewarding.

Local hobbyists

From childhood to retirement, whether a classic Lionel set or a professional-quality replica railroad, most people have spent a quiet moment watching a tiny train steam by, filling their mind with delight and curiosity. The popularity of model trains has endured since the time when the railroad was still a primary method of transportation in America, spanning generations.

“I’ve been amazed at the amount of people, especially kids, who still love trains,” Terry Schramm said. “It’s nice to know we’re keeping this part of history alive.”

Schramm operates a 900 sq. ft. layout in his basement of G gauge trains. His impressive collection includes approximately 400 locomotives, 2,000 cars and 470 buildings.

St. George resident Dave Merrill developed his interest in model trains as a youth. He owned a Lionel, but was inspired to start creating layouts when a family friend gave him an issue of “Model Railroader.”

Though school, career and family became his priorities, he never fully abandoned the hobby, occasionally building a train over the years. Now semi-retired and in his mid-70s, he has been working on a massive layout in his home since 2009 (it’s currently about one-third finished). From the buildings and figurines to the trains and scenery, Merrill created everything.

Most nights, he can be found spending a couple hours working on his layout; he also frequently stocks up on supplies and research.

“I do spend a lot of time and money on model trains,” Merrill said. “I love to read, learn about and try new things.”

Paul Bottino, of Ivins, has one of the only outdoor layouts (also known as garden railroading) in Southern Utah. Bottino grew up in a railroad town and has been involved with model trains his entire life. Upon retiring in 2003, garden railroading became his new passion. He sold his collection of indoor trains and began buying outdoor models.

Dave Merrill’s model train setup, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2013 | Photo by John Teas, St. George

Over 600 feet of track wind through Bottino’s yard, on which engines, freight cars and a trolley run, among bridges, tunnels, buildings and figures creating a lifelike 1950s scene. The outdoor setting provides a unique perspective and unmatched realism. The railroad is constantly changing with the seasons.

“Model railroading is one of the most interesting and fun hobbies that anyone can have. Some like running trains, others like collecting trains, some like building trains and buildings, some like modeling specific locations or railroads and some like operating the model trains just as the large trains operate,” Bottino said. “Then there is the historical aspect of railroading. This hobby is available to people with a wide diversity of interests all centered around trains.”

By comparison, Craig Harding’s layout is small-scale. He purchased the basic framework and has spent the last four years filling it in. He has dabbled in model trains previously, but this is his first realistic layout.

“A model railroad isn’t ever done,” he said. “It’s a work in progress and a way to express yourself.”

Model railroading is Harding’s escape from the stress of a career with the St. George Police Department and everyday life. Also, his grandchildren love visiting “Grandpa Train” and watching the locomotives in action.

Merrill, Bottino, Harding and Schramm are all members of the Southern Utah division of the National Model Railroad Association. Founded in 2000, the club features a variety of skill levels and styles; members have earned numerous honors for excellence in model railroading from Wasatch Rails and the NMRA Golden Spike Awards, among others.

Every month, about five members get together and “play trains” on a layout (usually Merrill’s) for a few hours. Each operator has a set of instructions and they run the railway with several trains, each carrying a different kind of “cargo,” at once.

Model railroading isn’t just a fun hobby, but an educational opportunity and a form of creative expression.

G gauge model train

“A model railroad is something that has to be for you,” Harding said. “If you can think it and build it, it can be your railroad.”

“When kids stop by, I teach them about how steam engines used to work,” Merrill said. “I love operating and also building them.”

Building a layout requires considerable skill in carpentry, electronics, engineering, research and at least a dash of artistic talent. Typically, layouts are either a figment of their creator’s imagination or a replica of actual historic places and events.

Merrill’s is a blend of both. Set in northern Utah during the 1930s, its story follows a steam railroad passing through Sulphur Gulch, a hazardous canyon with a massive bridge. The track winds through mountains, forests and settlements populated by lifelike figurines. Everything is HO scale, the most popular, and designed to be authentic to the time period.

Though Sulphur Gulch is fiction, Merrill goes to great lengths to ensure the historical accuracy of his portrayal of the railroad industry. He is currently building a meat packing plant and accompanying slaughterhouse and ice house; he spent hours researching the process of transporting livestock from farm to slaughter via cattle cars, then being preserved on ice and sent to their destination in refrigerated cars. Haste is essential to ensure that the valuable load doesn’t spoil, so when Merrill and friends gather to play trains, they put “fresh meat” on the fastest engine, which takes priority over the others on the line.

Southern Utah Train Tour 2013

Train enthusiasts will soon have a chance to view the club’s finest layouts in living color.

HO scale model train | Photo courtesy of the Colorado Railroad Museum
HO scale model train

The Southern Utah Train Tour 2013 will be held this Friday and Saturday. Adults and children alike are invited to a progressive tour through club member’s homes to see their displays of both indoor and outdoor layouts in a variety of scales and styles. It is free and self-guided; for directions and a schedule, visit the online map or pick up a copy at Gorilla Hobbies, located at 538 North Bluff St., Unit 1, in St. George.

“You’ll see many impressive layouts and a lot of variety in modeling and collecting skill,” Schramm said. “If you like to watch trains, this is a train lover’s dream; if you have trains, you can get a lot of tips from the guys in the club.”

Indeed, those who watch these miniature locomotives power down the track are equally enchanted by their inexplicable magic and those who build these masterpieces. About 350 people, of every age and from all walks of life, attended last year’s tour, drawn by a common interest; members are hoping to see even more turnout to enjoy their displays this year.

“Everyone likes to watch a train go by,” Harding said.

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Event details and contact information

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Dave Merrill's model train setup, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2013 | Photo by John Teas, St. George News
Dave Merrill’s model train setup, St. George, Utah, Oct. 14, 2013 | Photo by John Teas, St. George News

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  • Paul Bottino November 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Nicely done, and the pictures are great.

  • Josh Dalton November 5, 2013 at 8:09 am

    This is how I am going to spend my time when I retire! The last thing I’m going to worry about is a data plan.

  • Kimball November 5, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Wow, very nice. Have been attending the St. George parade of homes for years… and would gladly trade that experience for a visit to this beautiful rail-road wonderland. Thanks for sharing this. Love red rock country and this just makes it even better.

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