Tucked away in a low-slung, cream-colored building in the Eastside neighborhood of El Sereno, a group of train enthusiasts has created an enormous wonderland of tiny trains.
The Pasadena Model Railroad Museum fills a 5,000 square foot space full of mountains, lakes, train stations and towns, all made painstakingly by hand.
A boat pulls a water skier on a lake that’s modeled after Big Bear. The movie theater next to the Rexall drugstore advertises “The Day the Earth Stood Still” on its marquee. Trains clickety-clack their way past the Bates Motel from the movie “Psycho.” A UFO with flashing lights pulls up a cow, while a tiny farmer tries to yank it back with a rope.
HO-scale trains, with cars each about six inches long and just over two inches tall, snake their way through these scenes, along the largest single HO-scale layout in California and one of the largest in the country – about one-third of a mile.
“That level of detail, there’s always something. It has so much life to it and that’s what I love,” says Aaron Gold, a member of the Pasadena Model Railroad Museum, founded in 1940 as the Pasadena Model Railroad Club.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, 30 to 50 members bring their trains and work on the landscapes here, with regular times for public viewing. The museum hosts its next open house this weekend, December 18-19, 2021.
When the doors are open, kids and kids-at-heart can wander around the edges, their eyes wide with wonder. At one recent open house, a 2-year-old points at a train making its way out of a tunnel, yelling excitedly, “It’s a mountain train!”
“On the kids, I see the same thing I saw when I was like 10,” says club member AJ Chier. “I see the wide eyes. I see the, ‘Oh my gosh, that one’s moving.’ ... It’s a sense of wonder that you can take a whole world and miniaturize it and make it move. What other hobby can you do that in?”
Clarence Dupuy says when he discovered this group about 15 years ago, he found a paradise that reminds him of his childhood, when he went searching for trains with his dad in downtown LA.
“We lived on the old Eastside and there were always trains,” Dupuy says. “You could hear the horns, right? And that’s what intrigued me. It just never left me.”
It takes a train about 40 minutes to get through the layout if there’s no traffic. Members man different parts of the track, switching out cars and engines or doing other tasks like adding or removing coal to coal cars.
They run the railroad as engineers would in real life. Train cars carry goods like coal, lumber and even orange juice from businesses on one side of town to another. With the coal cars, a club member uses a dental pick to remove the “coal” from the cars and send the empty cars on their way back to pick up more.
There’s a sense of nostalgia, harkening back to a simpler time. A circus car even makes its way through the countryside, winding along from the Alhambra Station to the Zion Station, A-to-Z.
Gold says he loves seeing the younger generation get involved, even as the hobby has gotten more expensive and many people don’t have room for a layout at home.
He says that’s why the club’s here. It even has an apprentice program to help younger people learn the ropes.
“Kids aren’t afraid to pretend. I’m a grown man. I’m never going to admit that I’m imagining myself in that cab, working the throttles and the air brakes and all that stuff,” Gold says. “But kids have no problem stepping into that world, and I think that’s one of the important things here. We have to be a bit of a grown-up to keep it going, but when it comes time to run trains, you get to be that kid. You have to embrace that sense of pretending … and just play trains and run a railroad.”
The Pasadena Model Railroad Museum is located at 5458 Alhambra Avenue in Los Angeles. The open house takes place Saturday, December 18 from 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m., and Sunday, December 19 from 1-5 p.m. The museum suggests a donation of $5 for adults and $1 for children over the age of 7.
The museum follows government COVID protocols. Visitors ages 12 and up must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours. All visitors must wear masks indoors.