Our History

The Early Years

In April of 1940, six dedicated HO enthusiasts joined to form the Pasadena Model Railroad Club. The first meetings were held at members’ homes, but soon the club started building a layout in a former retail shop at 856 E. Maple Street. The layout was named the Sierra Pacific Lines. Powered by 6-volt automobile batteries, the layout measured just 20 x 25 feet, but the project attracted other capable modelers and provided experience for the larger layouts which were to follow.

The Sierra Pacific Lines track plan, circa 1960
The Sierra Pacific Lines track plan circa 1960. Model Railroader Magazine, September 1960

In 1956 the club moved to a 40 x 45 foot storeroom and built a second, much-improved model railroad. The new Sierra Pacific Lines featured 570 feet of double-track main line with 10 passing sidings, each of which could handle 20-car trains. There was also space for a narrow-gauge logging branch and a trolley system. Steel flex track and high-speed, closed-frog turnouts replaced the old brass rail. During this period the club began developing its own standards for layout construction and operating equipment. Rigid adherence to these standards has resulted in quality workmanship and reliable performance. The second Sierra Pacific was operated until 1963 when construction of the 210 Freeway forced its abandonment.

Bowling Alley Basement: Birth Of Today’s SPL

The search for a new home led to the basement of a bowling alley at 139 West Main Street in Alhambra. With more than 5,000 square feet of area, the bowling alley afforded space for a huge, single-track, point to-point system with long passing sidings and numerous industrial spurs. The railroad was planned with an operating concept based on the typed of traffic it would handle, where freight would originate and terminate, and other real-world considerations, the idea being that the the Sierra Pacific would have a realistic relationship to the economics and operation of a real railroad.

The Alhambra layout was long and narrow due to the fact that it was built in the basement of a bowling alley.
The Alhambra layout was long and narrow due to the fact that it was built in the basement of a bowling alley.

Operators used ten mainline cabs to run trains from eastern terminus at Alhambra to Zion at the western end of the railroad. Nineteen additional panels controlled the yards, engine service facilities and local industries. Two dispatchers directed train routing, while a trainmaster handled overall scheduling. The operator’s positions were linked by an intercom system. The members steadily developed the layout, adding structures, scenery and a wealth of fine detail, but it all came to an end in 1979 when the landlord opted not to renew the club’s lease. Once again new headquarters had to be found — and this time the members were determined to settle on permanent premises.

A Home of Our Own

Every version of the Sierra Pacific Lines has featured mountain railroading. Source: Model Railroader, March, 1978
Every version of the Sierra Pacific Lines has featured mountain railroading. Source: Model Railroader, March, 1978

After several months, the club found its present home on Alhambra Avenue. Twenty-one of our members formed Sierra Pacific Associates, a limited partnership that bought and maintained the building and leased it to the club. The club gradually acquired the individual partners’ shares and now owns the building outright.

Today’s location is a big improvement over the Main Street layout. It provides more space for the railroad along with a meeting room, rest rooms, individual lockers, a library and work areas. The club spent a full year remodeling the building, with structures, control panels and other items salvaged from Main Street stored at members’ homes.

Construction on the new Sierra Pacific Lines started in December 1980, but six months later, tragedy struck: A late-night fire in a portion of the building that was being sub-leased caused considerable damage and the tragic loss of some fine scratch-built structures. Insurance covered damage to the building, but there was no way to compensate for the loss of the models. Undeterred, the members fixed the damage and continued construction on the new layout, with the main line completed in 1985.

The Alhambra Avenue layout, circa 1990
The Alhambra Avenue layout, circa 1990

Building the New Sierra Pacific

The club retained the operations plan as well as the A-to-Z sequence of cities from Alhambra to Zion. Aside from these holdovers, the entire railroad had to be reshaped to fit the new building’s dimensions, with the track plan enlarged to fit the 70 x 72 foot room.

Construction started by building the roadbed on a grid with risers to establish the route profile. Laminated splines were attached to the risers and this base was overlaid with marine-grade mahogany plywood. The individual ties and ground walnut shell ballast were then cemented down and finally the steel rail was spiked to the ties. To insure precision track work, the club makes its own track gauges of hardened and ground tool steel. There are no rail joiners; the rail is silver-brazed in continuous lengths, interrupted only by .025 inch gaps to isolate the electrical blocks. Later, the club installed a theatrical lighting system to operate in a semi-automated 24-hour day-night sequence.

Sierra Pacific Lines overview

When it was completed, the main line stretched nearly 1,700 feet between Alhambra and Zion, a 28-scale-mile stretch that takes about an hour to traverse under normal speeds and traffic conditions. The principle yards at Alhambra, Midway and Zion can store about 2,000 cars.

The original analog control system carried over the ten mainline cabs from the bowling alley layout, along with two dispatcher panels (East and West) and a trainmaster. The railroad requireed 20 or more additional operators to fully staff the yard, branch line, and industry controls.

PMRRC: More Than Just A Train Layout

In February 1984, the Pasadena Model Railroad Research Center was established for the purpose of acquiring books, photographs, periodicals, motion picture film and videotapes related to all phases of railroading. Today, the Research Center has a large collection of reference materials and model railroad magazines. This ongoing project, supported by donations, has become a valuable historical resource.

Continuous Improvement

Any model railroader will tell you that work on a layout is never done. With the mainline up and running, construction emphasis shifted to construction of several branch lines serving the coal mines, ore and limestone mines, and the lumber mill and logging operations. These branches bring raw materials and manufactured commodities for shipment by rail (naturally) to destinations along the line. Branch line construction included a new ore mine, recently completed west of Narrows and below Powderhorn.

Much like a real railroad, operational experience showed us where we could relocate the track layout to improve operations. For example, we realigned and relocated the helper pocket return switch (used to cut off “helper” engines that boost the train up the steep grade from Midway to Powderhorn) to make for better operations.

Our Latest Project: Converting to DCC

Don Philpott pulls wire from underneath the layout

In 2015, the club made the decision to convert the layout to Digital Command Control, or DCC. DCC allows locomotives to be individually addressed and controlled, even when they are occupying the same block. It also greatly simplifies repair and maintenance, especially given the complexity and specialized nature of the old relay-driven control and detection system.

Because of the complexity of the existing setup, conversion and rewiring was planned in phases, with the primary phase — including removal of the mainline cabs, dispatcher panels, and conversion of the main line and all of its associated turnouts to DCC-capable Tortoise switch machines — expected to take about a year. The conversion process, including removing nearly 800 lbs. of wiring, began in earnest after the Fall 2015 open house. The west end of the railroad began operating under DCC in the fall of 2016, while Midway yard and the east end were up and running by spring 2017. Troubleshooting and fine-tuning took place over the summer and fall of 2017, partially sidelined by some much-needed work on the building.

Once our Fall 2017 Open House is complete, we will continue with our DCC conversion by replacing the turnouts and control panels in the main yards at Alhambra and Zion, as well as the Aztec engine service area. Completion of this project will largely be funded by the generous bequest of Larry Helscher, Member #150, who passed away in October, 2016.

What Does The Future Hold?

Along with the DCC conversion, we have other projects in process and planned for the future. We recently built up the town of Troy, and we are renewing the water features between Redcliff and the Narrows. We have hidden storage yards in the works, and are considering a staging area in the operating gallery which will make it easier to get rolling stock on and off the layout. Other projects include construction of a logging interchange at Troy, completion fo the Port of Zion, urban renewal in the city of Echo, and some minor and strategic changes to the track layout.

Whatever the future brings, the Pasadena Model Railroad Club will continue to pursue its objectives to bring dedicated modelers together in good fellowship and to build an HO railroad to the highest standards for their and the public’s enjoyment.

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