On the bleak industrial strip where El Sereno borders Alhambra stands a plain white stucco building, indistinguishable from its neighbors except for a Railroad Crossing sign out front. But hidden behind the building’s barred windows is a rich miniature world, filled with ice-capped peaks, lush valleys — and one of the largest model railroads in the United States, at almost 5,000 square feet.
“When you walk in that door, you’re in another world,” said Pasadena Model Railroad Club President Bob Wade, who has been working on model trains as a member for more than four decades. “We’ve got miles and miles of wire, hundreds and hundreds of turnout relays.”
Despite its name, the 72-year-old Pasadena Model Railroad Club has a long history in Alhambra. The club moved to an empty bowling alley on Main Street in 1963, after construction of the 210 Freeway forced it to leave its founding city. It remained in Alhambra for 16 years, where members built a version of the current train layout before purchasing their present location on Alhambra Avenue in El Sereno.
This weekend the club will open its doors to the public, as it does twice a year. On display will be its model railroad, the Sierra Pacific Lines. One of the largest of its type — HO-scale — in the country, the Sierra Pacific competes in size with model railroads in San Diego and Flemington, N.J. (The Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany — more than three times the size of the Sierra Pacific — is the largest model railway in the world.)
A train running on the Sierra Pacific’s main line takes roughly an hour and 15 minutes to go from A to Z — that is, to go from the starting station of Alhambra to the final port city of Zion. Along the way, trains travel through handcrafted cities, forests, and rocky mountain passages, experiencing changes in elevation as they would in real life.
“You really get the sense of a train reaching a destination, rather than just circling a silly loop or something,” said Michael Jarel, 56, a Pasadena Model Railroad Club member for nearly 30 years.
Though the track itself has changed little since 1985, the club’s 42 members — who range in age from 16 to 92 — have plenty to do during their Tuesday and Saturday meetings.
Members join crews based on their personal interest and expertise. Those who once worked as real locomotive engineers or conductors may choose the track or electric wiring crews. Others prefer the scenery committee, which creates the many intricate scenes found throughout the layout — one of the sections even boasts a tiny nudist colony.
This level of detail demands frequent maintenance. Club members routinely crawl on their hands and knees to get in, under, and around the various parts that need attention.
Hal Hoadley, a retired computer engineer wearing heavy-duty kneepads, crawled under the layout on a recent Saturday afternoon. “We have to keep the track clean,” Hoadley, 63, said. “Once a year, we go over it literally with a fine-tooth comb. We work on scenery, we work on new trackage… we’ll decide we could’ve done something better and we’ll make a change.”
Although some members are still teenagers, most are older men. Robert Wiener, 80, sought out the club two years ago because he loved trains, and discovered a community of people who shared his passion. “You’re with people that have the same interests as you do, and can have great discussions,” Wiener said. “It’s a place to have fun and really enjoy yourself.”
The club's other members feel similarly when they pass the Railroad Crossing sign and enter their hidden world. "This club means friendship and kinship in an activity,” George Dougherty, 48, said. “We don’t talk about careers and intense things like that. We talk about trains.”
The Pasadena Model Railroad Club is located at 5458 Alhambra Ave., Los Angeles, Calif., 90032. The Sierra Pacific Lines will be open to the public Saturday, Nov. 2, 1-5 p.m. and 7-10 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 3, 1-5 p.m. Entrance is $3 for adults and $1 for children.
For more information about the Pasadena Model Railroad Club, visit www.pmrrc.org.