Scenes from the NC Piedmont, in Miniature
Model railroaders bring local 1950s-era scenes to lifeBy Tina Vasquez | Photos by Revival Photography
On the site of what was once Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility in the tiny town of Spencer (population 3,308), is the North Carolina Transportation Museum, better known as “Spencer Shops.”
At any given time of the year, you will find excited, shrieking children pulling their parents from one exhibit to the next; a short train ride is one of the museum’s most popular attractions. But located away from the hustle and bustle, in the museum’s 113-year-old Back Shop, is another, smaller kind of train that lures in passersby.
From a distance, it may appear to be a nondescript model train cruising through a picturesque landscape. But upon closer inspection, visitors to the Back Shop will see entire worlds unfolding. A plume of cotton steam wafts from a miniature railroad shop. Flat cars trundle through low hills, laden with military vehicles. In one scene, dozens of people enjoy a carnival. In another (perhaps the layout’s most popular), a person is being beamed aboard a UFO.
About 20 model railroaders, comprising the volunteer-run Metrolina Model Railroaders Club (MMRC), maintain this fictitious “French Broad and Catawba Railroad,” set in the Piedmont area during the 1950s. MMRC has operated in the Belmont and Charlotte areas for more than 30 years, and for the last eight has partnered with Spencer Shops to display its incredibly intricate model railroad.
The Art of Model Railroading
MMRC President Rick Beam is largely responsible for the look of the club’s model railroad. By day, Beam is a criminal defense attorney in Gaston County. By night, he is an artist.
Constructing a layout as detailed as this is about more than snapping together some tracks and flicking a button. Beam estimates the group has about $250,000 invested in the setup, which takes seven men about 10 hours to reconstruct. Beam’s job, as he characterizes it, is “making the whole thing pretty.”
Beam pores over thousands of old copies of Model Railroader, one of two publications about the hobby still in print, looking for, as he puts it, “prototypical railroading inspiration.” When on long drives or trips with his wife, he pays attention to scenery and layouts, snapping photos along the way, thinking of how he can recreate it in scale.
“The fact that this is art is what appeals to me the most,” Beam says. “Someone once told me that I have the ability to see in my head what I want the layout to look like, and then make it look exactly that way. I think of this as 3D art where you can do anything you want, create any fantasy or reality.”
‘World’s Greatest Hobby’
MMRC chose to focus on the ’50s era mostly because of the aesthetics, but it also allows them to showcase what many in the hobby consider the golden age of steam trains. And MMRC member Henry Reeves, a computer programmer born and raised in Belmont, keeps those trains running. Like many of his fellow club members, Reeves received his first train set as a child.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the world’s greatest hobby. By the time I was 13, I could rewire my entire house because of what I learned doing model railroading,” Reeves says. “I think young people today develop interests that don’t really teach them anything, like playing video games. They need a hobby and model railroading will teach them about everything from set design to electronics. It will also teach them patience.”
This was echoed by Beam, who said that while he understands railroading may not be for everyone — including his own family members, who are confused by his ability to paint figures in his basement for “hours on end” — taking a child to Spencer Shops and letting them see MMRC’s display is a good test for whether or not an interest will develop.
The club is always looking to grow with new members, especially in anticipation of a 2020 railroading convention returning to Charlotte for the first time in more than 20 years. Admittedly, there appear to be few women interested in the hobby, at least locally. Currently, MMRC is comprised of all men. And while a few in their 30s recently expressed interest in the group, Beam said that at 50, he’s one of the youngest in the club.
“Our club isn’t the biggest, but we like to think of ours as the club that models for people who pay attention to detail,” Beam said. “That requires a lot of work and when this gets to feel too much like work and not a hobby, I step away for a little bit. But I always come back. Every time I see a little kid press their nose against the plexiglass smiling at what we’ve done, that’s why I do this. That’s what makes me happy.”
Join the Club
For those interested in getting involved in model railroading, Beam strongly recommends joining a club. The Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club maintains a list of NC clubs online.
About the AuthorTina Vasquez is a journalist originally from Los Angeles. She is currently based in Winston-Salem, where she is a full-time immigration reporter.
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