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Trestle to the past

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A group of model-railroad enthusiasts are taking their hobby to a new level by constructing a scale model of a piece of historic Aspen.

The Roaring Fork Valley Model Railroaders have been commissioned by HeritageAspen to replicate the area of town where a plant once extracted silver from ore. The model will be placed in a new historical museum opening this summer, actually located in a century-old barn still standing on the Marolt open space.

For the model railroaders, building the landscape is part of a passion deeply ingrained when they were young.

Most of the members received their first train set as children – some while sitting around the glow of the Christmas tree. Maybe it was the acrid smell of the electricity in the miniature tracks, maybe it was the whirring clicks of the trains as they passed over tiny railroad ties, but these kids were smitten.

Childhood faded into teenage years, which were absorbed by high school, college and the search for a job, and train sets were broken apart, boxed and stored in the attic. Years passed, and many of the men got married and raised children of their own, finally finding some free time again to reopen the box in the attic.

Lyle Parkes, who now lives in Silt, said his grandfather was an engineer on the California Zephyr train line, working between Grand Junction and Helper, Utah. Parkes was born and raised in Debeque, Colo., and got a train when he was a boy. When he was in his 30s, he asked his mother to buy him a model train, to rediscover the hobby of his youth, and he hasn’t quit since.

Jay Buchanan grew up in Durango, and said he only left the model train world from age 14 to 24 when he “made the classic mistake of discovering girls.” Now married and living in Silt, he’s built in his home a model of the Colorado Midland railroad line that ran from Colorado Springs, up to Buena Vista, through Leadville and to Basalt, with branches running up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.

All of the club members have similar stories, some setting up the smallest-scale trains in cramped apartments before their lives allowed the collections to expand. They joke about where their wives will let them set up trains, and about taking their families to train shows around the state where they set up displays.

For the last year and a half the club been working on the model of the historic Aspen plant. On Sunday they gathered with German chocolate cake and coffee in a room of the old Glenwood Springs City Hall building, hunching over the project to squint at the details.

A tiny detailed world

Using photos from HeritageAspen, the club makes the model as accurate a slice of history as possible, from half-constructed settling tanks in the bottom of the valley to the tilt of each pine tree on a hillside.

The project is on a diminutive 1-to-160 scale, known as “N-scale.” That’s one inch in the model to 160 inches in real life. Small. Wee. Tiny.

“None of us wore glasses before this,” Buchanan said with a chuckle.

The entire model began as a 14-inch-thick block of foam that was cut to match the contours of the land in that section of the Castle Creek Valley. A small wooden trestle was built across the valley, connecting with the train tracks that run through the model. The Holden Lixiviation Works and all of its adjacent buildings are still under construction.

The plant was built on the site in the 1890s to extract silver from the ore that was brought out of mines all around Aspen. “Lixiviation” is the process that percolates the silver out of the ore using salt. Incidentally, the plant on that site was only operated about 14 months, closing after the 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Act caused silver to plummet in value.

Some of the dirt in the scene was actually collected from the historic site. Other dirt comes from Buchanan’s back yard in Rifle, and minuscule pebbles for the river rocks in Castle Creek were gathered by a club member on a beach in California. A gluelike material will be placed in the valley, and it will dry clear to represent flowing water.

The group special-ordered trees for the project from a model-making company. They had to search for Aspen trees the length of broccoli spears, because models of Aspen trees are hard to come by.

Tiny houses sit on one side of Castle Creek, in the West End of Aspen alongside Main Street and the S-Curves. They have shingled roofs, chimneys, fenced-in dirt yards and outhouses in their back yards that are each no bigger than a thimble.

Lest the tiny outhouses look like backyard sheds, there are telltale half-moons etched on the front of each one.

“I would have drawn the half-moon facing the other way, Jay,” Doug MacDonald said.

“That’s because you’re from back east,” Buchanan replies, and the group laughs.

Each member seems to gravitate to a part of the project they prefer – some cutting thin pieces of wood into walls for the plant, some using straws to sift dirt into gaps between the “land” and a building’s foundation. Although the trains won’t actually run through this model, in other displays there is a large electrical component to setting up tracks and coordinating switchboard operations.

“There are so many aspects to this hobby,” said Doug MacDonald, a club member from Basalt. “There’s the modeling, engineering of layouts, electrical stuff, and history research.”

MacDonald is a self-proclaimed “gadgeteer,” who enjoys putting live video cameras on the club’s trains, for a passenger’s-eye view of the ride. Glenwood Springs resident Dave Boyd only likes to set up models of steam engines, saying, “Why burn oil when you can just boil water?”

The enthusiasm of a generation

Looking around the room of model-train enthusiasts, one thing is clear: for the most part, these men represent one generation.

Ranging in age from their mid 40s to their early 60s (although Brian Winters, 36, is young for the group and knows it), the men shared a fascination with trains when they were younger that may not be as pervasive in today’s culture.

“Trains aren’t what they used to be,” Eric Walter said. “Everyone’s extended family used to have someone working on the trains. That industry used to employ literally thousands of people. Basalt used to be a railroad town, because the train went through it, but that’s not true anymore. Trains just aren’t a dominant part of the transportation field anymore.”

That could be one reason for the club’s lack of younger members, the guys agree. In addition, growing up in the United States is a completely different experience now than it was 40 years ago, with television, video games and the Internet competing for children’s attention.

As a result, many of the men have children who don’t share their fathers’ love of tinkering with miniature trains.

Buchanan has two 15-year-old twin daughters, and he says one of them is “fairly interested” in the trains and has her own train in the basement alongside his. Eric Walter has a 22-year-old son he says has never been never interested in the hobby.

“It doesn’t have a reset button like a video game,” he said. “It’s not animated in the same way a video game is. It takes a lot of time to build and I think attention spans have suffered.”

Walter said the future of the hobby is a concern of his – he sometimes wonders whether the hobby will continue to grow, or if it will become increasingly obscure as his generation ages.

At various model-railroad shows the group sees families who bring their small children along to watch the trains whizzing along the tracks through tunnels and over trestles in massive displays. For a moment, kids’ eyes light up with newfound wonder.

“I think they have interest in the display as a toy, but when it comes to them sitting down and doing it, I’m just not sure that happens,” Walter said.

The exception, at least within their group, is Brian Winters, who recently purchased a membership in the club for his 5-year-old son Lorenzo, who enjoys helping his dad with the hobby. Winters said he’s hoping to pass down the model train tradition to his son.

MacDonald said he thinks there are a fair number of people in the area working on model trains in dens, garages and back yards who haven’t joined the club. But the group said they’d happily welcome members of all ages – even members who don’t own their own trains and just want to help out or watch.

“If you get tired of doing one thing, you can always do something else – that’s why this is a diversified hobby,” Buchanan said. “But after this project, I’m not going to build another house for a long time.”


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