On a rainy afternoon last spring, I was out shopping with my little sister and mom in law in downtown Boise when we got caught in a downpour.
We ran for cover in the 6th & Main (Pioneer) building. It was perfect, I thought, because I had wanted to take them to Idaho Made and if the rain didn’t let up we could grab lunch at Ansots Basque Chorizos. We shopped around Idaho Made, then exited on the side door, which led us to the heart of the building and to the top of the stairs for the basement. Had we taken a different route, had we been in a hurry, or had it not been raining, we may have missed out on discovering one of Boise’s best attractions: The Old Boise Model Railroad Club.
The Old Boise Model Railroad Club has been constructing and operating a complex N-scale model railroad since 2001. The scale is approximately 1:160 the size of a real life railroad. The club used to be upstairs of the Pioneer Building, but moved down to the basement in 2015 to gain more space. They now have an 1,800 square-foot permanent display with 50 scale miles of railroad track, 210 switches, and highly detailed, ever-changing scenery.
About 20 active members keep things running down here. There’s young kids who come in with their parents, teenagers, college students, adults, and retirees.
“Our membership age ranges from under 10 to over 80,” said club member Carl, who was manning the front desk when I came to visit. “We like being pretty loose, as far as not being too stringent on club rules and things like that. If somebody wants to run a train, we'll let them run a train. That's usually how someone gets interested in becoming a member.”
Every club member has different skill sets they contribute, like building scenery, designing the track, figuring out the electrical, or marketing the club’s activities. Carl is in charge of scenery.
“We’re always working on it – upgrading or putting in new scenery,” he said.
I can confirm. From the first time I stumbled into the Old Boise Model Railroad Club to my latest visit for this story, there were plenty of new things to see.
The entire display depicts scenes from the Western U.S. – both current and old. As you enter you see the Pioneer Yard to your right. This is where most of the cars depart from and return to. It looks like a real train yard and it’s the best place to start your model train journey. From here you can pick a departing train and follow it around the room. There’s about a dozen different sections that depict different landscapes, from mountains to towns to industrial buildings. But the real magic of this place is in the details. The details bring these tiny scenes to life.
Powell Mountain is one of my favorites. The mountains – made out of foam, paper mache, and moss and paint – have a train tunnel running through it and a trestle bridge over the river. The surface is covered in hundreds of tiny hand painted trees with a road snaking up the spine and around the summit. There’s a bear attack, a mountain bike crash, a tiny log cabin, a Bigfoot. Nearby there’s a lumber mill with tiny logs being loaded up on trucks and train cars.
“The mountain bike accident – that was an accident by itself,” said Carl. “We were trying to get the guys to stand on the bikes and they kept leaning forward. So we're like, you know, it looks like he's gonna go over the handlebars… and that’s just what ended up happening.”
Port Enterprise has barges loaded up with train cars and a small crane unloading some cars into the port. There’s a train waiting to be loaded up with new cars. Tiny people are hard at work down here and big lamp posts illuminate their work. At the far end there’s a tiny lake and beach. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see a family fishing from a raft, a tiny person floating in a tube, an overturned kayak, and a handful of sunbathers – one is a “topless” woman running after a young boy who appears to have stolen her bikini top.
The town scene is another favorite due to the details. There’s a city park, complete with a statue. Look closely, and there’s a young prankster who has climbed up onto the statue and is mooning onlookers. A string of old-timey businesses, a hotel, a diner, a burger joint, and Seymour Butz Fine Furniture Outlet creates the downtown. The tree behind Dale’s Barber Shop has a small group of people gathered around – one person is up on a ladder retrieving a teeny tiny orange and white cat out to the tree.
The Country Inn appears to be on fire and the fire department is on scene. A large plume of smoke (dyed cotton, Carl tells me), is coming out of the top story window and a woman on the roof has her arms up, waving to be rescued. Of course, the train tracks run right through the heart of town, parallel to the highway. The Amtrak Train pulls in to pick up passengers every so often, it’s lights flickers on and off.
The Oil Refinery is currently under construction, though you can tell what it is.
“We have some of the pieces in place, and I've taped out where the road will be. We're kind of massaging the scene a little bit,” explained Carl. “If we have the buildings already built, then we'll start putting them in place and move them around, see if they fit, how we like it, and we can shake it up a little bit and move it around again. Then once we finalize it and all the club members approve, we'll start actually committing some scenery and materials and start building.”
All of the scenery details – from the trees to the people to the building to the actual train cars, are handmade to an extent. They buy some of the pieces from hobby shops around the country or find them online. They paint things and change up the configurations. Some buildings or details are 3D printed, which works really well because they are super light and easily painted. One club member is really inspired by train car graffiti. He visits real life train yards and looks for graffiti he likes, then photographs it, uploads the photo and creates a stencil type of sticker, then plasters it to the model locomotives.
There’s over 1,000 trees throughout the entire display, all of which are made in house. They start with a wire brush, trim it up, paint it, then sprinkle green foliage onto it for texture, and finally hairspray it to keep it all in place. “Then we plant them,” says Carl with a smile.
As far as how the trains move about, everything is electrical. It’s a sort of spaghetti wiring, Carl explains, underneath the display with power running to each train and section. All of the trains have power, as well as bus stations and any lights you see, like the flickering fire at the Inn.
Each locomotive has a small chip in it and is given its own address. They fire up a train and type in a display address with the train's address, and off it goes on its route. Every train is fully customizable as far as its route and speed. Some even have sound – a real recording of a train horn that is inputted into the chip.
The entire display is remarkably lifelike, with humor and creativity sprinkled throughout. The details are so plentiful that you could do multiple laps around the display and find something new each time.
And while the technology and materials are getting better each year, what truly makes the Old Boise Model Railroad Club special is the heart and care that clearly goes into every millimeter of the display.
If you haven't been yet – or even if you haven't been recently – The Old Boise Model Railroad Club is absolutely worth a visit. They are open year-round on Tuesday evenings from 6-9pm and some Saturdays from 10am-2pm. You can find it in the basement of the Pioneer Building (106 N. 6th Street in downtown Boise). Also, if you enjoy what you see, consider making a donation to the club. It's a 501(c)3 nonprofit and, as a sign hanging in the basement says, every penny goes straight to the display.
PS - here's a great You Know The Place podcast episode about the Club. Also some more good photos.
PSS - Caldwell has a model railroad club too!
Thanks for reading!
With love from Boise,
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