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Train enthusiasts recreate a vanishing era

Laurence Lau, Fairmont, and Dale Hedlund, are members of the St. James Model Railroad Club. They stand in front of the St. James Historical Depot Museum, where they are volunteers. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Dale Hedlund received his first electric train when he was 5 years old, on Christmas 1946. Sharing the train with his brother, who was two years older, sparked an interest in Hedlund that has continued for more than 70 years. He is one of 20 members of the not-for-profit St. James Model Railroad Club, three of whom have had railroad careers as engineers or conductors.

Founded in 1989, the club has given Hedlund, whose career was teaching biology, three decades of working on and playing with trains at the St. James Historical Depot Museum. Hedlund, who grew up in Willmar, said his interest in trains was nurtured by his father, who often took his sons to the Willmar depot to see trains come and go.

“The steam engines were the most impressive,” Hedlund said, “just to see them roll in, with the driver wheels way taller than I was, the steam puffing out, and hearing the whistles. It was fun to observe people embarking and disembarking with their luggage. When a train would pull out of town, the last car had a red light on the back that would swing back and forth. It was fascinating. Passenger trains still have that light today.”

Hedlund recalled that his first model train was a Marx brand O gauge, which is the largest proportion in model railroading–one inch to every 48 inches. He and his brother eventually got a Lionel brand HO scale train and layout (1 inch to 87 inches), which they set up in their attic, adding items such as a coal car or a milk car every birthday and Christmas. Today, part of that layout lives on in the depot museum’s hand-on interactive children’s layout that is at a child’s eye level. (Adults must stoop to see all of the details.) Hedlund explained, “The children can move a car from one track to another.”

Barrel loader in children’s layout—Dale Hedlund received this barrel loader as a Christmas 1953 gift. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Hedlund said he estimates that the museum has about 1,500 feet of track in various gauges, including O and HO, as well as S scale (1:64) and G scale, which is the largest and stands for “garden gauge” because it can be set up outdoors, with the track wintering over. The smallest gauge, N scale, is not used at the museum. Technology provides the exhibits with digital commands that control various train functions, including speed.

Several club members come from surrounding communities twice a week to work on the club’s mission to build an HO scale layout of St. James as it was in the 1950s. Hedlund explained, “We chose that era because it was when steam engines were on the way out and diesels were on their way in, so we can use both. We have the rail yard done, but the city will take a few more years. We’ll have prairies, slaughter house activities, logging trains and coal trains.” Among the exhibits already built are a mobile home park, a supermarket and a theater showing the movie Casablanca. Although St. James began as only a pit stop for trains to replenish water supplies on their way to Minneapolis, the railroad was significant in the growth of the community, as it was in other southern Minnesota communities.

Some of the items on display at the museum include an O scale, 1950s era set (for children). Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Club members bring a variety of talents to their projects–carpentry, electrical expertise, draftsmanship, organizational abilities and computer savvy. The variety of expertise has resulted in the making of a digital layout, an operating turntable, neon signs, an inclined railroad and a night scene with thunder and lightening, followed by crickets chirping after the storm. Hedlund explained, “We’re a very compatible group. We’ve been together for 30 years.”

Even though he’s retired from full-time teaching, Hedlund regularly substitutes in a West High School classroom in Mankato. Semi-retirement does offer him the opportunity of spending more hours a week on museum exhibits so that, he said, “Young people are able to see something they have never seen before–steam engines and passenger trains–and seniors are able to flash back in seeing steam engines and passenger trains like those they may have once ridden. When will we be finished? Never.”

History of the depot

Dale Hedlund doing research in the museum’s work/tool room. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

On Tiell Drive, across the parking lot from the model railroad museum, sits a depot, a caboose, a signal tower and a sand tower. The depot, 24×80 feet, was constructed in 1894 as one of the first buildings in Amboy, Minnesota, and served the Chicago and Northwestern Railway at Amboy, employing up to eight people. Eventually, the rail company closed the depot. It was purchased and moved to St. James in 1973 and placed on a cement block foundation. The depot’s two waiting rooms, neither of which had plumbing facilities, served different parts of the customer base. Dale Hedlund explained that social customs in early railroad days resulted in segregation of the sexes to keep women and children from experiencing men’s rough behavior.

“In the waiting room for ladies and children, there was no swearing and no spitting,” Hedlund said. “In the men’s waiting room . . .”

Near the depot are a signal tower and a sand tower. The signal tower stood at a south Minneapolis location for many years, where signalmen controlled switch yard and mail line rail traffic at Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad intersections.

Caboose and tower. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

The sand tower was used in St. James, in the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha rail yard, until it was no longer needed by the railroad company. Sand was supplied to steam locomotives and applied to rails to provide traction. Driving wheels often slipped when locomotives began pulling heavy trains, so the sand was used to provide a firm grip. The caboose on the museum grounds had been used on the Grand Trunk Railroad, a subsidiary of the Canadian National Railroad. The 21-ton caboose originally was numbered GTW 77940, but this number was retired and a new number– 5 –was given to it. Purchased for $3,500, caboose number 5 left Port Huron, Michigan, on March 7, 1977, and arrived in St. James 13 days later. It then sat in the St. James freight yards for three years before being moved to the depot museum. The caboose was officially dedicated on July 6,1980, during that year’s Railroad Days celebration. Hedlund said the museum hopes to obtain a grant to finance the refurbishing of the caboose.

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