Ask any railfan, and they’ll tell you the Edmonds Waterfront is one of the best places to catch all manner of trains — real and unreal — from The Sounder commuter rail and Amtrak Cascades passenger, to Burlington Northern and Santa Fe’s intermodal freight, and, of course, every kid’s dream, Swamp Creek & Western Railroad Association’s historically fictitious, 30’x28’ HO scale (1/87th) model railway — housed at the south side of the Amtrak BNSF Station, a former baggage room, on 211 Railroad Ave.
Trainspotting isn’t just a gritty 1996 British black comedy/drama. It’s a thing around here, hobby, pastime, obsession…history for the men, women, and children hanging around the Edmonds Station, a stone’s throw from the eastern shore of Puget Sound.
The Modernist 1956 depot seems to be the unofficial gathering place for railfans everywhere, standing by waiting for the next train, some loaded up with photographic gear. Young and old and in between, they look on with stars in their eyes.
Count Andrew Kim among them.
“I have loved watching trains go by since I was a kid, and getting to watch the trains go by through this beautiful town creates a unique identity to the community. Watching trains travel along the water and through this city is one of many reasons why I always like coming down to Edmonds.”
In the 1800s, rail travel connected small towns, cities, and countrysides, and they were a thing of beauty — equal parts necessity, innovation, creativity, and spirit, the Mother of Invention.
BNSF Railway, the result of the famed, Sept. 22, 1995 Burlington Northern Inc./Santa Fe Pacific Corp. merger, traces its roots back to 1849, with the formation of Illinois’ Aurora Branch Railroad and Missouri’s Pacific Railroad.
Today, BNSF Railway owns/operates tracks in 28 states, including Washington, with its own storied history of logging, homesteading, and modern reinvention.
BNSF’s Northern Transcon enjoys runs from Seattle to Chicago, and parts in between and around, a route that encompasses the well-worn grooves of the old Great Northern, Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, and Northern Pacific.
All of that history is somehow captured in SCWRRA’s miniature railway, home of the Port Columbia and Eastern Railway (PC&E), a “fictitious railroad running from Waitsburg in southeastern Washington state across the Cascade Mountain range via White Pass to the tidewaters of the Columbia River with its ocean ports [website],” and back again.
The sheer scale of this model railway is enough to bring out the kid in anyone.
Throughout the 44+ years, members have come and gone, building, painting, welding, adding more and more set pieces, and generally playing with the most amazing toy trains ever. Theirs is a real working railway, with up to 15-16 locomotives going at once, on bridges, through tunnels, past diners and train stations.
“It’s everybody working together,” from scenery to structures, and great times, affirmed Glenn Farley, SCWRRA member and retired KING 5 reporter.
He explained that the model railway is loosely based on the actual railroads of old that used to run through Washington state. Every third Tues. evening, monthly — pre-pandemic — members would open up the former baggage room to the public for model railway runs.
Two years later and SCWRRA’s model railway is starting to tentatively reopen, even as its future remains in limbo. BNSF has decided to finally go ahead with plans for a track expansion, from single to double, next year, which will affect the current location, forcing members to scramble for a new place to house all those tangible, fond memories.
SCWRRA members have until Feb. 2023 to find a new space for their model railway, hopefully a little bigger to accommodate more visitors, wider aisles, maybe a raised platform for the kids. They're also gladly accepting donations to help with the move.
Until then, there’s still time to marvel at the breathtaking scale, attention to detail, humor, and heart of the model railway — in-person or virtually — a moving composite of the real routes of real trains back in their 1950s heyday, heavily inspired by the lines that came and went through Washington, including Milwaukee Road, Everett Monte Cristo, Great Northern, and Northern Pacific.
Farley watched a replica of a diesel passenger train chug-chug past a grove of makeshift trees, with a certain glint in his eye.
“We’ve probably [seen] – and these are rough estimates – anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people [attend our] shows. Before Covid threw a blanket over that, we’d usually do a holiday show, and we’d have just throngs of people [coming] through. National Train Day —”
“— Taste of Edmonds,” Bruce Harris softly interjected. He’s one of the original members from the late 1970s. “We would [also] open every Tuesday night. People would start coming to the third Tuesdays, because that’s when we held the railway runs.”
All along the route are charming vignettes to sightsee, just as train passengers might: painted backdrop clouds, busy fix-it shops and diners (complete with bickering waitresses) named in honor of members living and long since passed.
Like the loaded Hunt and Peck typewriter store. Cool, right?
Farley said they’ll encourage the kids to look for the resident purple dragon “with bad breath and a cold,” which always gives everybody a thrill. “Nobody can leave till you find it.”
Hint: head to the back and look for a little grove of balding trees.
“You’ll see little jokes and gags like that every once in a while,” Farley added.
He’s not kidding.
The model railway invites closer inspections and repeat visits. One day, you might see a guy answering nature’s call — on a fallen log — just as a bear wanders by. “He’s in a vulnerable position for an oncoming bear; he hasn’t quite discovered it yet,” Farley or Harris observed, dryly.
Even though they and their compatriots have toiled over every square inch of their imaginary towns, byways, and hillsides, they still get a kick out of the stories they’ve told.
The vignettes liberally borrow from members’ memories…the people, places, and pop culture they’ve all grown up with…a “Twilight Zone” vibe permeating a fixed-point train station and a wood-stacked lodge nearby, studded with animal heads, inspired by a taxidermist son…Maybe Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in a House of Ill Repute…
“We like to keep it positive. We have a dragon with bad breath and that’s as ugly as it gets,” Farley said.
“If you go around in the back, where the logging line and a big concrete bridge with arches are, and you look up the center arch, there’s a big Grizzly [bearing down on] a bunch of fishermen on the river,” Harris offered.
Everywhere you look — inside at the model railway or just out the side door to the real deal whizzing by — represents a moment of reflection and of honoring a treasured, fading past, a great part of American history, when trains were everything.
“We’re hoping to save what we can save,” Farley anticipated.
Don’t forget the dragon.
Read more about Edmonds' model trains and the people behind them on My Edmonds News (“Edmonds Museum’s model train exhibit inspired generations of hobbyists” by Jim Landers, July 30, 2016) and Substack’s Coggie Ink. (“Visit Willow Grove, Somewhere Between Childhood and Forever” by Carol Banks Weber, June 1, 2022).
Feature photos, including railfan/photography buff Andrew Kim in the foreground, by Matt Hulbert, additional photos by Kim. Child watching model trains by Ellen Hiatt.