Railroads have long had a firm grip on the human imagination.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Railroad iron is a magician's rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water."
The Alexandria Model Railroad Association (AMRA) is a great example of how this power can turn into a passion.
History of railroad
The history of model railroads in Alexandria dates back to the mid 1980s when some gentlemen passionate about trains formed a group that worked with modular models.
Through the years, the group has had several homes and names, but in 2008 the AMRA moved into its current and permanent home at 115 8th Avenue East in Alexandria.
Over the past two years, extensive renovation and construction has transformed this site into a miniature world of locomotives, built to the "HO" scale of 1 to 187.
Railroads are a reflection of the times that they operated in, and vice versa. The AMRA's 24 by 40-foot permanent open layout features a Midwest theme, which represents the year of 1954. It is dubbed "the transition era."
"The late 40s to mid 50s is a good point in history - the peak of the evolution of steam locomotives, and the beginning of evolution of diesel," pointed out Dave Warren, the president of the association.
The layout features these types of locomotives, mainly from the Great Northern Railroad and the Soo Line, as well as passenger operations and various types of rolling stock. They all operate amidst a landscape built to accurately reflect the history and scenery of the Midwest, including some specific towns like Fargo, St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"This is an operating motion diorama," said Frank Nelson, the group's secretary. "The whole world of model railroading expands over a great area and it touches everybody. People come in here and see this and are awed by how much is available, how much you can do."
World's greatest hobby
The hobby of building railroads merges numerous interests and skills. According to Warren, "The four legs of model railroading are building, electricity and electronics, history, and art. It incorporates a lot of different dimensions."
Members of the group design and build their layouts and models, install their programming and electrical work, sculpt all of their terrain, grass, shrubs and roads, besides researching the history behind each piece.
A passion for trains is what ultimately brings people from all walks of life together.
Members come from near and far to take part - Alexandria, Osakis, Parkers Prairie, Carlos, Miltona, Morris and Glenwood. They represent occupations ranging from church ministry to truck driving.
"We have many members who have a lot of knowledge about railroad operation," said Nelson. "Many are specific road name experts."
Together, these men operate their model railroad just as it would in a larger scale.
"We have engineers who have conductors, we have dispatchers, we have yard engineers, and trains delivering goods," noted Nelson. "It takes quite a few people to run an operating session."
One of the AMRA's goals is to use its skills and knowledge to educate the public.
"We are proud of getting out into the community, promoting model railroading as a great hobby for all ages," said Warren. "We try to get younger people involved, building, learning. That's the nice thing about clubs...we continue to learn from each other."
Each year, the organization brings its portable layout to nursing homes, schools and shopping malls around the state to teach and entertain people of all ages.
"We educate them about DC [direct current] as it exists in the railroads, about how diesel and electricity are generated and used, about dynamic breaking, resistors, and digital command control [DCC] as well as how railroad signals and gates work," explained Nelson.
Railroads are also a great way to learn about history, geography and economic, since they played a major role in shaping them.
"A model railroad is always in flux or change," said Warren. "It actually mirrors life that way," added Nelson.
There are opportunities for the public to get involved with the AMRA. Each year on the first Saturday in May they put on a large event at the Runestone Community Center with vendors from across the state. They also typically have a show on black Friday in November to "give people a respite."
AMRA is open Monday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. as well as many Saturday mornings from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Visitors are welcome to explore the world of railroad modeling for free, but donations are welcome to finance the ongoing project, whose main support is local businesses.
The club is always open to new members. "You don't have to have your own locomotive, rolling stock, or controller, noted Warren. "You can enter in at any level you can afford." Membership is $60 a year.
"You can also just act like a kid and just enjoy watching a train go around," said Warren. "It's the joy we all share here - we don't want to lose that childlike joy."