It’s a scene that almost has to be seen to be believed.
Running from the Palouse near Spokane to the fertile Willamette Valley, the model Mount Hood Railroad serves an area rich in timber and agricultural products.
Grain-filled boxcars flow from the rich Palouse to the terminals in Portland.
Trains haul loads of logs, veneer and lumber for the timber industry, and the large paper mill in North Powder is hungry for woodchips.
A steady stream of logs, lumber and woodchips comes down the Estacada branch line to points across the system. To the east at Spokane, the Mount Hood interchanges with the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Spokane, Portland and Seattle, and the Milwaukee Road.
Outside Clackamas, the mainline continues heading east toward the Cascades, while a secondary main heads south to Eugene and an interchange with the Southern Pacific.
Interestingly, though, all this happens in the basement of the Mount Tabor Masonic Temple, where train hobbyists have been building, modeling and re-building for more than 40 years.
It was a childhood fascination with trains that led to the creation of the Mount Hood Model Engineers in 1976, and an opportunity for these enthusiasts to share a hobby they describe as a lot of fun.
The fictional layout is based upon historical photos and other information.
Club members have meticulously built elaborate train stations, tracks, trains and goods. It covers almost 1,200 square feet, with the mainline extending seven scale miles from Bridgeport to Portland.
A secondary model line runs from Portland to Eugene. Riveston and Bridgeport are connected by a double-ended 10-track yard concealed beneath a mountainous ridge.
The Mount Hood’s premier train, The Pioneer, provides passenger service, while a secondary train provides for local passengers and express traffic.
The railroad has three crew districts: Spokane to John Day, John Day to Clackamas, and Clackamas to Eugene. Passenger train crews operate into Portland via the Southern Pacific.
On operating days and nights, the dispatcher can keep club members busy with yard, local and mainline work.
Originally, operators used four mainline cabs and several local control cabs to move the traffic with the power supplies and throttles designed and built by club members.
Now the system is digitized with new technology, and Pico LED lights allow for fascinating detail from tiny streetlights to countless recreations of railroad accouterments.
The lights are as small as one to two millimeters, a “fascinating” aspect of the set-up, according to club president Dave Simmons.
Don Mills was club president for 11 years and track master for the past four. He’s in charge of the train setup, the loading and unloading of cars, and the radio system of dispatching cars to their designated location, determined by a card system.
“It was all built from scratch,” he says, “and took about five to six years. We are always rebuilding or rehabilitating the layout.”
Mills remembers that when he was a very young child, he was always talking about trains with his mother. When he was 5, he received a Lionel train set as a gift.
Later, he worked as a flyer in the U.S. Air Force, and retired as a safety engineer with Alaska Airlines.
Simmons says most of the model engines are diesel. He painstakingly painted and glued figures in the passenger cars. It’s a treat for visitors, who can see the miniature figures as the model cars go by.
It has been a time-consuming venture, he says, but “very relaxing, a stress reducer because when you are with the working group, there is total absorption in the task.” He equates it to his wife’s hobbies, which include knitting, crocheting and sewing.
His other hobby is his 1968 Volkswagen Bug, which he spent four years restoring the interior and convertible top. He hired out the work on rebuilding the engine, and took his wife on a 10-day, 1,700-mile trip from Port Angeles, Washington, to the Mexican border with other VW owners.