Tiny model train world moving to a new depot in Forest Hill

Darrell Cowles is ready to move mountains — and valleys, prairies and cities — to save the 3,200-square-foot model train layout he and his friends have spent years building to make it a tourist attraction.

The Texas Western Model Railroad Club layout, which includes more than 1,000 freight and passenger cars, is moving to the Forest Hill Community Center after being forced out of its home behind a local business.

But that also means that the elaborate layout and its miniature downtown Fort Worth and Stockyards as they were in the 1950s will be off the tracks at least a year while the club prepares for its new home.

Forest Hill officials said they were happy to help out since they consider the model train layout a vital part of the city’s personality, City Manager Sheyi Ipaye said.

“The moving in will incur some costs, and we’re trying to help because the club has been a good neighbor,” Ipaye said. “We like having them in Forest Hill.”

Tourism plan

For 17 years the model train layout was behind the Joe P. Williams Compressor Co. Joe Williams, an avid modeler and one of the founders of the club, worked on the tiny world with 35 other men and women.

But Williams died in 2010 and his compressor business closed. His heirs are selling the building.

“They were dedicated to keeping us there, because their father built a lot of the layout,” said Cowles, the club’s president. “But they have no choice.”

That’s when the city offered to make space for the model railroad in the community center.

The city, which is opening a new convention center in September, said the club is part of its tourism plan. By the time all the work is done, the city hopes to create a model railroad museum complete with a full-size piece of railroad history out front, city spokeswoman Venus Wehle said.

Cowles said that could be a caboose or some other historically significant railroad equipment designed to attract attention. Monthly rent will be $1,200 for the first two years and will graduate to $1,500 in five years.

“We’ll have model and prototype equipment, some unique pictures, valuable reference books, postcards, playing cards from sleeping cars. We’ll just try to grow it as much as we can,” Cowles said.

Back on track

Moving will take considerable effort — and cash.

The new space is 4,400 square feet, but the portion that will house the new layout is 3,000 square feet, considerably smaller than the club’s old home, Cowles said. There are 650 feet of HO-scale (1-to-87) standard gauge and 350 feet of narrow gauge (HOn3) tracks.

“We’ll have to condense it some, but we’ll also double-deck it,” he said. “We’ll have one area that’s low, and maybe 18 to 24 inches above that will be another area. It will be a layout on top of a layout connected by a helix that the trains travel around like the threads on a screw to go from deck to deck.”

The layout will cost about $100,000 to re-create, Cowles said. Most of the old layout’s buildings will be reused, but pulling up tracks will ruin a lot of them. “There are a couple of areas in Colorado that can’t be moved and will have to be cut up; they won’t go through a door.”

It will take about a year to get the new layout ready to receive guests, and up to five years to restore its former glory. The club hopes to attract new members who want to help build it, Cowles said.

“This is the time to join and learn from the floor up how to do this,” he said. “A lot of us like the building part almost as much as the playing part.”