WHEN I WALK into a “make-and-take” clinic at a meeting of model-railroad enthusiasts at Tacoma Community College, everyone is seated at long tables, deep in concentration, building structures they’ll get to take home later. They’re carefully gluing pieces and painting with tiny brushes. Some are holding their creations under bright lights and magnifying glasses.

Many of the people here are exactly who you might think they’d be: older guys, that is.

And the basic story of their hobby is the same for many of them, says Jack Hamilton. He’s wandering around the room, wearing a leather apron, ready to help. “Early on, we played with trains, and the idea was to make them go as fast as they could,” he says. “And then we got older and found out about cars and girls, and the trains faded into the past.”

Then comes work, marriage and family life, which keep people busy until their kids fly the nest, leaving them with spare room and time for building models.

But today’s group includes younger faces, too. “These are the important people,” Hamilton says, waving toward kids in attendance with moms or grandparents.

Lisa Murray is here with her son, Aidan. He’s loved trains for most of his life, ever since he acquired his first Thomas the Tank Engine set as a toddler 12 years ago. “I saw trains once, and I got hooked,” he says. He’s built various models since, of different types. A self-described “walking dictionary” (my kind of person!), Aidan likes digging deep into the minutiae of trains.


The older guys are enthusiastic mentors, checking on his progress, giving tips and chatting about their shared passion. “They’re so good with him,” Murray says. “It’s like we have a big set of grandparents.”

On the other side of the room, Danielle Eagan is painting a building with her fourth-grader, Camden. “It keeps him interested and active, and the community is amazing,” Eagan says. “It’s fascinating, and there are a lot of younger people who come.”

Hamilton says younger generations are bringing high-tech skills and tools, such as online historical research and 3-D printers, to the hobby. In exchange, the older folks relay experience with the analog tools they use for carpentry and electrical work.

Most of today’s attendees are from the 4th division of the National Model Railroad Association’s Pacific Northwest region. The 4th includes hundreds of members from Olympia northward, Hamilton says. Members meet for clinics on everything from miniature carpentry to electrical work to creating an authentic-looking scene. They also host model-railroad home tours and other field trips.

Big annual events include the Great Train Show in Puyallup and the Model Railroad Show at Pacific Science Center, both in January. The Model Train Festival every December at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma displays historically accurate representations of buildings from the region’s past (and hosts the state’s largest permanent model train on its fifth floor).

People delve into different scales and model types. Some focus on creating authentically Northwest scenes, while others create from their own imaginations. Some build structures from kits, while others build from scratch

“This hobby invites us to play with skills we haven’t played with before,” Hamilton says. “But the real benefit of membership is getting to see these people. You get to see your old friends, and that’s what’s important.”