It’s raining at Train Mountain, which makes the tracks too slippery to run trains.
It’s also too cold to go out and rake the pine needles and cones off the tracks, still being spring in the high Ponderosa pine forests north of Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon.
A handful of older men dressed in railroad overalls and grease-stained Carhartt jackets sit in Central Station and sip coffee and talk of their shared passion: trains.
It’s hard to say exactly what spell trains cast on kids. For some, it is a spell never broken.
For those who grow up, but not out of their passion for trains, there is a place they can go: Train Mountain.
With 36 miles of railroad track weaving through 2,300 acres of ponderosa pine forest, it’s the longest hobby railroad in the world, according to “Guinness World Records.”
Train Mountain is a miniature railroad, but not a model railroad like you’d see under a Christmas tree or at a toy store. Rather, Train Mountain is what those in the hobby call a “ride-on” scale—mini trains just big enough to straddle.
The tracks are only 7.5 inches wide, the locomotives merely knee-high. Full-grown adults, kids, and even dogs, sit atop them and sway to the clickity-clack at a speed of around 5 mph.
It’s the annual spring meet, and a handful of devoted members have come from across the U.S. for two things: to help clean up the miles of railroad track, and to ride their tiny trains.
“For some people, it is a bucket list item to come here at least once,” says Jeff Mills, a Train Mountain Railroad member and the volunteer coordinator of this meet.
Mills, like a lot of his generation, grew up with a model train around the Christmas tree. From there, the passion took hold. He now owns two locomotives.
The hobby of riding miniature trains is almost as old as trains themselves. “Anything that was patented had to have a model built of it first,” explains Mills. “And it grew into more of a hobby for some people.”
Perhaps the most famous miniature train enthusiast was Walt Disney. He built a railroad much like Train Mountain in his own backyard, giving family, friends and neighbors rides.
Riding these tiny trains through the woods, past mini tableaus of tiny Wild West towns (complete with logging and mining camps), is a highlight of Train Mountain.
But the real Train Mountain experience happens behind the scenes, in the large metal buildings, like the shop.
The shop is a massive structure, with roll up garage doors on either end, and three elevated tracks. Here, the members gather to tinker. Most have spent their working careers as machinist, welders or mechanical engineers. They pick up angle grinders and MIG welders with familiarity and confidence. What they don’t know, the guy next to them does. They share tips and techniques, and lend a hand. It’s a clubhouse feeling.
A short ride away is the track shop. Similarly, volunteers gather here. Jeff Mills cuts lengths of recycled plastic for track ties, while others screw down steel track. After a couple sections of track have been assembled, the work flow becomes smooth and efficient. The guys take pride in the productivity, knocking out around 4,000 thousand of feet of new track a year.
Each year, Train Mountain holds meet-ups for the members. The start of spring brings a week of track clean up and repair, to make ready for summer. Mid-summer is the annual “live steam” meet up for all the aficionados of the classic steam locomotives. But perhaps most popular is the “Operations Meet,” a weekend when everyone gets together to run Train Mountain as if it were an actual railroad. Everyone has a task; dispatches are called, deliveries are made.
Every three years, Train Mountain hosts a “Triannual Meet,” a calling in of the miniature railroad clans—thousands of people come from around the world, bringing hundreds of trains.
Any type of train is welcome. Those new to the hobby may be riding simple “starter” trains, that they purchased ready-to-ride from a store. Others have been building their engines from scratch, fabricating each and every part, like Duane Kaasa.
Kaasa spent 40 years as a machinist by trade, but now retired, turned his skills to the challenge of fabricating a steam locomotive from raw blocks of steel and aluminum. It’s a project he’s invested an estimated 8,000 hours into, spanning the last ten years.
At some point, miniature trains become more than a pastime. One couple is building a house on the Train Mountain property. When completed, there will be tracks running right up to their front door.
In one of the tiny towns along the rail line, there’s a miniature graveyard. It’s actually the final resting place for the ashes of one member’s mother.
Another member proposed to his wife at Train Mountain. He took her out on his train to the farthest point on the line (a ride that takes most of a day), and then popped the question.
“What if she said no?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he reflected. He considered it for a moment and then chuckled. “Guess that would have been a long train ride back.”
The sun has now broken and gleams on the steel tracks. The members slug down the last of their morning coffee, and tug on gloves and hats.
They head out to warm up their engines.
Turning small values, the tiny locomotives come to life. Steam rises in the crisp spring air. A whistle blows.
All aboard! Time once again to ride tiny trains together.