20 years of the San Diego Model R.R. Museum --

The San Diego Model Railroad Club

by Paul Voss with William C. Schaumberg

Article from Railroad Model Craftsman; March 2001:

Copyright Railroad Model Craftsman Magazine 2001, used by permission.

Text by
Paul Voss with
William C. Schaumberg

Photos for article by William C. Schaumberg

One of the things I recall from my first writing course as a college freshman is the instructor's admonition to be careful with the word "unique." He reminded us that it means "singular." In spite of Webster's acceptance of "very rare or uncommon," in his classroom things were either one-of-a-kind or they were not. Uncommon? Like Merriam-Webster, he would allow counting, but he stopped at "one." Unquestionably, he had the right to supercede the dictionary. After all, he had the power to give grades.

While I have strayed from many of his precepts over the years, I have tried to keep that one in mind. Unique means unique -- and it certainly applies to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum

The first thing visitors see when they enter the exhibit space at the San Diego
Model Railroad Museum is the Rose Canyon area, though the Santa Fe
Warbonnet F's on this chartered trip may not be rolling through.

Apologies for the "page seam" in the above scanned image.

The AT&SF Mountain above is at National City; the diner here has a
reputation for fresh meat, and a runaway is about to become a delivery.

First of all, it is a museum even though it comprises five large model railroads built by separate clubs. Museums are many things; exhibition galleries, places where artifacts are kept, collections of research materials and creators of educational programs. Most of these elements are now partially in place at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, though it has taken 20 years to get this far. Now that the Museum has moved past its difficult formative years and the early stages of layout building, these roles can be developed more fully. However, its main goal is to preserve and interpret California railroading through model railroading. In doing so, it has become a place where the hobby is not only practiced, it is advanced. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum has also become a pattern for similar groups across the country, but none operate under the same set of circumstances. The Museum is still unique

Start with size and location -- the Museum is in 24,000 square feet of a public building, the Casa de Balboa, and part of the complex of attractions in San Diego's famous Balboa Park. Apart from the expanse of the layouts and other exhibits, by the end of 2001 nearly a half-million dollars will have been spent on permanent improvements to the space itself. (Twenty years ago the Museum won the right to use most of the Casa de Balboa's basement, and all it contained was rudimentary lighting, a concrete floor and posts to hold up the ceiling. The lease was for 25 years with an option to renew for another 25 years.) Money for continuing maintenance must be budgeted each year, and the Museum must pay its share of operating costs for the entire building. Total utilities can run close to $15,000 per month in summer, with the Museum picking up a little under 20 % of the tab. Although some money comes from corporate grants and city cultural and tourism funding, the Museum and each of its components must raise its own funds and remain financially sound. This is primarily done through entrance fees, memberships and individual club dues.

The presence of a gift shop and business offices with paid staff, an attractive meeting and education space, and the core of what will be publicly-accessible library focusing on railroading and model railroading also sets it apart. Steps towards a permanent, professional organization began early in the group's history and now include an executive director, director of education, gift shop manager, acting librarian, office staff, and gift shop assistants. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is in the latter stages of the demanding accreditation process of the American Association of Museums, something else that clearly separates it from other model railroad groups, even those with similar missions or having tax-exempt status

Most importantly, the Museum transcends the usual concept of a model railroad club. It is a federation of completely independent organizations, each financing and building its own layout. Their common threads are the layouts' focus on Southern California railroad history and operating under the umbrella of the Museum, with its Board of Directors, professional staff and contract with the park system.

The park commissioners deal with one entity, the Museum, not four or five clubs. Those ground rules were laid down by the city during the first discussions about the project in 1979. While they contribute proportionately to cover shared expenses, each group has its own meeting and work nights, makes its own rules, runs its own railroad, and has its own vision and goals.

Interestingly, the differences have become an asset; they provide variety for visitors and reflect the true nature of the model railroad hobby. Rather than dividing the space into rooms, the layouts of the San Diego Model Railroad Club, the La Mesa Model Railroad Club, the San Diego Society of N Scale, and the San Diego 3-Railers form the galleries at this museum.

The educational programs offered have been expanded to include guided tours and activities for school children, summer camps, and model railroad clinics, with the programs adjusted to suit the students. The Museum has also sponsored exhibitions by such railroad photographers as Richard Steinheimer, Shirley Burman, O. Winston Link and others.

Having space in a public building brings its own requirements. The Museum is open five or six hours a day, every day except Monday (and it is open on most Monday holidays.) Trains must be running during that time and volunteers must be on hand. Moreover, continuous progress must be made on each railroad. Such a committment of time and money is not a casual one. In fact, the Museum had to have trains running on temporary layouts within a few months after it received the space allocation from the park board, even though model railroads as large and complex as those here take a long time to build. There was and is a public trust to be fulfilled for the 125,000 or more annual visitors.

Additionally, the Museum participates in Christmas on the Prado and other special park-wide events. Christmas on the Prado is an annual event held the first weekend in December when all the museums in Balboa Park are open free to the public. The Model Railroad Museum has entertained crowds as large as 25,000 during the Friday night to Sunday afternoon run of the event. Clearly, there is more to being a member of one of the component clubs and the Museum than simply building a model railroad and running trains for your own pleasure. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum has just celebrated its twentieth anniversary (in 2000). It is and it will always remain unique.--BILL SCHAUMBERG

How big is the desert? How big is your imagination? The run to Plaster City on
the narrow gauge wis headed on up this day by a former D&RGW engine, and the
backdrop is about 30 feet from the camera.

Apologies for the "page seam" in the above scanned image.

Few model railroad clubs are as large and old as the San Diego Model Club (SDMRRC). The club has about 80 members and has been in existence for over 60 years. At its present location, the Casa de Balboa builing in Balboa Park, the club has an HO scale layout of over 4,400 square feet and an O scale layout of almost 2,600 square feet.

The SDMRRC layout includes mini-scenes like this fender bender in El Centro
and the lumber yard (below) and ice dock at National City, all typical of what is in the
San Diego area. When they are discovered, visitors really enjoy details like these.

The SDMRRC was founded in May, 1939, by Walt Porter, Carl Bush, Bud Davis and Jack Graves. The first meeting was held in a lodge hall above a Thrifty's store at the corner of University Avenue and 31st Street, and in 1940, space was obtained above a freight house belonging to the San Diego & Arizona Eastern R.R. at the corner of 12th St. and Imperial Avenue. Members began to build an HO scale layout, but after two years of construction, they lost the space and the layout was dismantled and stored in a garage belonging to one of the members.

In the fall of 1942, the club built a layout for the San Diego Gas and Electric Show. The railroad was under a stairwell in the Electric Building in Balboa Park. After a six-month stay, the club was evicted and moved its layout to an old chicken shack in the city of El Cajon, east of San Diego. Despite the distance and gas rationing during World War II, the club remained there until 1946, when it was once again evicted and the layout was stored. After short stays in various buildings in Balboa Park, the layout finally found a home in the old House of Charm building, which was constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The year was 1948.

Around that time, a small group of modelers, including Gene Casey, Sid Mason, and Marion Charles, founded an O scale club and began to construct a layout in the basement of the La Valencia Hotel in nearby La Jolla, north of San Diego. Soon they also lost their space and were given permission to occupy part of the House of Charm with the SDMRRC. They took the name Balboa Model Railroad Club. During the 1950's the O scale club experienced declining membership; it asked and was granted permission to merge with the SDMRRC.

In the House of Charm, the club had a 6,500 square foot space and HO and O scale layouts. It was open Sunday afternoons for the public, and even though entry was only through an out-of-the-way rear door it was always filled with park visitors. This popularity proved to be important a few years later.

The SDMRRC remained in the House of Charm until the building was condemned by the city in 1978 after two buildings from the 1915 Exposition, the Old Globe Theatre and the Aerospace Museum, were torched by arsonists. The wood and stucco "temporary" structure was immediately closed. The two layouts remained in place but could not be run. The club continued to meet elsewhere on roughly a quarterly schedule.

When a new building was planned to replace the Aerospace Museum, the city was approached about obtaining space in that or another building. About the same time, an urban renewal project had left the La Mesa Model Railroad Club homeless and they, too, had been in contact with the city. The idea of joining together to create a museum but retain separate club organizations arose, was discussed and accepted. Presentations were made to the park board and the federated groups were successful. They had space. They had a museum.

In exchange for space, specific requirements were laid down, including how much time would elapse before trains were running and the doors open to the public. The clubs, with the addition of the San Diego Society of N Scale, agreed to the terms. After all, the space allocations were generous and the financial liabilities minimal. Among the provisions was the notation that "museum quality" modeling would be done. It was a very ambitious project, but the members were eager to rise to the challenge. San Diego would have another museum in Balboa Park.

El Centro (above and below) is an agricultural center, not fancy but
important to the region's economy. Handlers, Inc., and the street scene
are typical of what is found in the town.

Layout planning

The old layout in the House of Charm had elements of Southern California Railroading, and members wanted that in the new layout as well. Local prototypes always generate interest, and it is fun to model recognizable landmarks. The new layout is patterned after the San Diego and Arizona Eastern, a one-time subsidiary of the Southern Pacific, and set in the early 1950's. The SD&AE operated from San Diego to El Centro, California, with branch lines to El Cajon (modeled) and Coronado (not modeled). In order to reach the Imperial Valley and the SP connection at El Centro, the SD&AE crossed into Mexico at San Ysidro/Tijuana and back into the United States between Tecate, Mexico and Campo, California. From an engineering perspective, crossing into Mexico provided a much easier way to gain the nearly 4,000 feet in elevation needed to reach the pass in the mountains east of San Diego.

Choosing this prototype not only gave geographical and scenic direction for the new HO layout, it also provided justification for the trolley and narrow gauge lines. On the other side of the mountains, U.S. Gypsum operates a three-foot gauge railroad from Plaster City to a gypsum mine about 20 miles to the north. Electric railways are prominent in San Diego, too, since it was the first major U.S. city to build a new electric light railway in five decades. The club had members interested in both types of modeling. Moreover, in 1961 the club had been given a full-scale model of the famous Goat Canyon Trestle on the SD&AE over Carriso Gorge; the model was built in 1941 and could be a highlight of the new layout.

Members wanted the capability to run prototype-length trains over a single track route having prototype-length sidings. (Many of the sidings on the old layout were too short for the desired train lengths.) The operations provided by these parameters had to be supported by ample opportunity for switching, and the time period chosen had to justify both steam and diesel power.

Apart from the customers in San Diego and the surrounding area, the SD&AE served only a few major shippers; the brewery at Tecate, the U.S. Gypsum plant at Plaster City and a sugar beet loader at Seeley. By the mid-1950's passenger service was limited to a combine serving communities in Mexico coupled to the end of the one train that ran all the way between San Diego and El Centro. Train lengths rarely exceeded 40 cars. Additionally, locals from San Diego to El Cajon and the south bay, and turns from El Centro to Plaster City, were found regularly on the rails.

This is an International railroad, and El Zarape (above) is in Tijuana, Mexico.
The work crew (below) is in Rose Canyon near the creek.

Even though traffic was minimal by the standards of larger railroads, the SD&AE still provided more than enough inspiration for a layout. Included is an interchange with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, which on the layout runs from Rose Canyon (Elvira, a few miles north of downtown San Diego) to National City, a few miles south of downtown and at the end of the Santa Fe's Surf Line. The Santa Fe usually operated two daily freights of about 90 cars in and out of San Diego, in addition to the famous San Diegan passenger trains and local switchers. The layout includes the San Diego depot (under construction but nearly complete as this is written) and the 22nd Street freight yard.

Trolleys are operated on the El Cajon Branch, in downtown San Diego, and on the tracks to the Mexican border. When the wire is complete, about five scale miles of track will be under catenary. In fact, occasionally one can see models of the red San Diego cars on the layout.

Even with over 4,000 square feet, many compromises were still necessary when the track plan was formulated. Take the AT&SF portion of the railroad, for instance. Approximately 15 linear miles of prototype track was condensed into a little less than three scale miles. While three scale miles may seem to be generous, a single track section between Elvira and Old Town was eliminated and additional compression was done between Old Town and the depot, and between 22nd Street Yard and National City. The result is a folded dog bone simulating double track. Including hidden end loops, the AT&SF is about nine scale miles long and can be operated independently from the rest of the layout.

AT&SF alligators 802 and 833 are in charge of the Jordan spreader coming down
Rose Canyon; seasonal flooding in the canyons requires constant maintenance,
including heavy work by equipment such as this. Most equipment on the San
Diego Model Railroad Clubʼns HO scale layout is owned by individual members,
but local favorites like Southern Pacific and Santa Fe logically dominate.
During public hours, the layout is in continuous running mode and work
trains, passenger trains and freights keep moving to keep the attention
of visitors.

Likewise the SD&AE was reduced from about a hundred miles to roughly ten scale miles. Even so, nearly all the prototype's sidings were worked into the plan. Reverse loops were designed into it as well, so it can be run by itself.

The original track plan has been modified numerous times in small ways, even after some construction had been started. Changes were made to reduce the number of places where an operator must duck under the layout, to improve scenery possibilities or to enhance operation. For example, the AT&SF 22nd Street Yard was originally separated from the SD&AE yard by an aisle, but were redesigned to be side by side. The public now sees a vast expanse of railroad yards and the operators do not need to duck under any tracks.


Some of the design constraints for the new layout were a 48-inch minimum radius for mainline tracks, minimum No. 8 turnouts on the main, a maximum of 1.5% grade and the least possible amount of track crossing over itself "spaghetti'bowl" style.

Electrically, the mainline is divided into 13 panel sections and each panel is divided into a number of blocks. Using toggle switches, each block can be assigned to one of three or four throttles for that panel. The turnout motors are from PFM, and the power supplies and throttles were built by club members. The turnout controls are on the panels. The branch lines, traction system and narrow gauge line all have their own electrical supplies and panels, and there are turnout controls and plug-ins for the fascias to allow walkaround operation. This set up insures that trains can be running on some portion of the railroad at all times, even if major work is going on somewhere, to fulfill the obligation of having trains running when the Museum is open. There are no plans to change the system at this time.

Construction was originally started with commercial track on Homosote and three-quarter inch thick plywood under yards and on straight track, and splines separated by spacers on curves. After some dissatisfaction with the commercial track, especially the turnouts, and installation of the unsealed Homosote, another approach, borowwed from the La Mesa Club, was adopted.

The subsequent benchwork was built from I-beams made of quarter-inch plywood with 1"x2"s for the flanges. Handaid ties and rail on top of ¼ inch clear pine strips laminated together vertically took the place of Homosote and commercial track. Turnouts were fabricated by hand. Nearly all of the layout is now this construction, and the club is replacing the last of the original track.

Rough scenery is made using Hydrocal strengthened with nylon wallboard joint mesh over plywood ribs, crumpled newspaper and, early on, chicken wire. Rubber rock molds and crumpled aluminum foil were used to create the rocks and rock faces. Tons and tons of Hydrocal and molding plaster were used in the Carrizo Gorge and Vallé Redondo/Campo areas.

Flat terrain scenery is done directly over the three-quarter inch thick benchwork top. Structures are generally built on a base of plywood or tempered hardboard and fastened to the benchwork with screws.

The trains and scenes reflect those of the region, and vegetation of the desert
portion is based on a term paper discovered by a member. It cataloged the plants
along the general route of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern, the pattern for
the club's layout, so it was used as a guide. The results of twenty years of work
on the railroad and such attention to its locale are seen above at Handlers Inc.
in El Centro. It looks hot, and it looks real. There is a lot more to do, but the
club has proved it can do it.


The Museum is open to the public six and sometimes seven days a week. We have groups of members that operate one day a week or one weekend day a month, and these groups have different operating preferences. some like panel assignments where trains are passed from one operator to another ("pass the buck" style where each operator is stationed at a panel), while others like "engineer" style running where they follow a train around the layout. Still others like to use computer-generated switch lists.

The SDMRRC is much less stringent in the types of equipment that can be run on the layout during club or public operating days than the neighboring La Mesa Club. Nearly all rolling stock belongs to individuals as opposed to the club, and it is welcome as long as it meets performance and appearance standards.

A vice president/general manager is in charge of the layout and appoints members to head up specific projects or heavy construction. He supervises efforts in general. There are teams for design (at this point most changes are of a minor nature), electrical work, major construction, track and scenery. Maintenance is performed by other teams, with some overlap. Members volunteer for projects with the concurrence of the member in charge and the general manager. Work sessions are on Friday nights, and business meetings are usually held on the first Friday on every other month.

Members do specialize in areas of the hobby that they like best. At present, Mitch Alderman is vice president/general manager. The electrical team consists of Brian Satterlee, Les Andersen and Ron Goudy, and the striking backdrops and scenery at Rose Canyon has been done by John Fiscella. Campo and Tecate scenery was primarily the work of Bob Wykowski, while many of the details in various scenes and the creation of Tijuana was under the direction of Brian Viets. Some tasks can be enormous. For example, painting all the rail was taken on by Charles McGill and Rob Hanson, and the ballasting has generally geen done by Earl Grad. Paul Voss likes structures and usually works on them, and narrow gaugers Pat Allen, Jerry Jackson, and Mike Pulling have been responsible for most of that part of the layout. Parker Williams prefers laying interurban and street track and hanging wire. Roger Adam and Bob Lewis are our "support team" and also keep our internal television system up and running. Naturally, the composition of the teams has varied over the years and everyone usually gets involved in big projects or lending a helping hand to other groups.

The different clubs are basically autonomous within their spaces, but each has members on the Museum board and each works to make sure the shared areas and public programs are advanced. The goal is to present the public with high-quality, entertaining and educational displays while having fun doing it--and to keep the trains moving!

The major projects at this time are to upgrade the remaining track, extend the narrow gauge, and add to the scenery in the downtown San Diego area. This is a major task, since hundreds of buildings will be needed and many will need to be based on identifiable structures that either stand or once stood in San Diego. A portion of Lindburg Field also needs to be done. Also in the works are a large sugar beet loader with accompanying track changes at Seeley and expansion of the El Centro commercial district. Some members would like to see a hidden yard added to feed trains into and receive trains from San Diego and El Centro.

Then there are additions to the scenery and adding details, so many details! -- PAUL VOSS

A continuing story

The story of the San Diego Model Railroad Museum continues next month with a visit to the La Mesa Model Railroad Club. Their HO scale layout is based on the Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) route between Bakersfield and Mojave, California, over Tehachapi Pass. We will finish up this Twentieth Anniversary series with a look at the N scale layout of the SDSons, as well as take a glimpse at the three-rail exhibits and the O scale layour of the SDMRRC.

All photographs in this article were scanned from the magazine. Digital resampling reduced the size of the images (with obvious loss of resolution) for use on this web site. Clicking on any photograph will display a larger image, but you should purchase the magazine to fully appreciate the quality of Mr. Schaumberg's excellent photography!

Text was regenerated by Brian Satterlee (from the magazine article) and minor corrections to names of members were made if found. Page layout was altered for better display by a variety of browsers.

© SDMRRC, Paul Voss, and William Schaumberg, 2001.