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"The Great Train Story" exhibit

Exploring the amazing $3.5 million HO scale model railroad at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry
An HO scale version of Chicago dominates one end of the new railroad exhibit, The Great Train Story, at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Replacing the museum's 61-year-old O scale layout, the new permanent 3,500-square-foot exhibit received more than 5,000 enthusiastic visitors on opening day, November 22, 2002.
Photos by William Zuback
What can you build with $3.5 million in donations, two professional model-building companies, and thousands of hours put in by more than 40 artists and modelers, and a score of volunteers? How about The Great Train Story, a 3,500-square-foot HO scale model railroad that includes key features of Chicago, Seattle, and an impressive representation of selected points in between!

The Great Train Story is the newest railroad exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. This miniature wonderland features soaring mountain peaks, deep urban canyons, vast rural countrysides, and more than 34 trains running simultaneously on 17 tracks.

Conceived by museum exhibit designer John Llewellyn and fabricated through the combined efforts of Marc Shellist's Scenic View Inc. of Chicago, Ill., and Michael Hart's Scale Models, Arts, and Technologies Inc. (SMARTT) of North Miami Beach, Fla., the exhibit opened to the public November 22, 2002. The Great Train Story replaces the 61-year-old O scale Museum & Santa Fe RR exhibit originally designed by Minton Cronkhite.
The opposite end of the layout features the city of Seattle and a piece of its international harbor. Here, the Space Needle presides over the downtown area and Elliot Bay. A total of 192 scratchbuilt city structures fill the streets of Chicago and Seattle. They were created by artists at Scenic View, a Chicago-based company contracted by the museum to build the layout.
Bigger yet smaller
Llewellyn said that the original 2,940-square-foot 1:48 scale layout, built in 1941, "had served the museum well over the years, but had completely worn out and could run only one of its ten trains at a time." It also no longer portrayed an accurate picture of contemporary railroading in America.

To capture the spirit of modern railroading, the museum changed to HO scale, allowing it to display twice as much railroad in a somewhat expanded amount of space. Museum visitors are now treated to a 2,206-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean port of Seattle to Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline on a 1,425-foot three-track main line.

A teaching model railroad
However, the layout was built to be much more than just an amazing 1:87 scale spectacle. Museum senior exhibit developer Jennifer Johnston spent countless hours researching prototype railroads, finding suitable photos, and writing the educational text needed to make The Great Train Story an interactive exhibit. Through 24 information stations and 7 interactive points located along the main line, The Great Train Story tells the historic role railroads played in shaping the United States and their modern part in transporting raw materials, food, finished products, and passengers around the country.

Along the way visitors learn facts about railroad construction, safety, passenger travel, specialized types of railroad equipment, and the iron horse's active role in commerce. Johnston commented that as a result of the process, "I personally learned a great deal about railroads and hope that visitors to the exhibit are inspired to find out more about them as well."

Stories in the details
In addition to being a teaching tool, The Great Train Story is also a feast
for the eyes and ears. Displaying a huge diversity of prototypically accurate architectural styles, there are more than 192 custom-built structures making up the cities of Seattle and Chicago, including the Space Needle and Sears Tower.

The layout is populated by 1,485 miniature people, 1,000 model cars and trucks, a container ship, and a Great Lakes ore boat. All are arranged to give viewers a look at normal daily activity surrounding the railroad industry.
South of Chicago near Indiana Dunes, there's a steel mill where viewers can load bottle cars with molten iron at the push of a button.
A visitor may find some humorous scenes as well. There is a collection of Chicago's Cows on Parade (eight total), a famous Star Trek captain at the Space Needle, a group of red-capped garden gnomes tending part of the forest, a man on a one-way canoe trip, and several sets of campers encountering skunks and bears in up-close-and-personal ways, to name just a few.

Also, located at various intervals around the layout are 34 speakers providing ambient sounds. They include the crashing surf of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes, the hum of grain dryers in the Midwest, busy street noises in both cities, and a host of other recorded sounds, all of which add life and realism to the miniature world.

A museum and its railroad
Model trains have been popular with visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry since 1941. Johnston said that, "people enjoy the model railroad display as it is a way for them to make a piece of the larger outside world their own world."

Not to disappoint that expectation, visitors to The Great Train Story exhibit will find it a stunning feat of craftsmanship and a breathtaking look at part of the United States in miniature.
Passenger travel is one of the four main themes explored by The Great Train Story.
A lumber mill nestled in the Cascade Mountains represents the link between railroads and the timber industry.
Sponsoring the Exhibit
Funding, in part, for The Great Train Story was made possible by the following major donors: the Mazza Foundation, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Ry. Co., and GATX Corp.
Further support has been given by the Ferro family, TranSystems Corporation, TTX Co., the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and the Duchossois Family Foundation.

Want to visit?
Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, located at 57th St. and Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60637-2093, is open every day of the year except December 25. Museum hours are from 9:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. For more information call 773-684-1414 or visit the Web site at

Inspiring generations
Senior museum exhibit developer Jennifer Johnston called the original layout, the Museum & Santa Fe, "a generational icon." As I talked to people of all ages during Model Railroader's coverage of The Great Train Story, most seemed to agree with the statement; they all had fond memories of the old layout and carried lasting impressions of it.

Model Railroader managing editor Dick Christianson believes it was his first trip to the museum with his family in 1950 that inspired his father, who had never before had an interest in model trains, to buy him a train set that Christmas. He remembers the family working together in their kitchen building a papier mache mountain to match those at the museum.
At Snowdon Valley a coal drag snakes beneath a sleek steel-arch bridge as a freight heads across its massive span.
Classic Toy Trains Senior Editor Kent Johnson recalls being impressed by the bird's-eye view from the balcony. He enjoyed watching the trains pass through the miniature landscape on his visits to the museum as a boy. He returned to share that experience with his own son years later.

In the early 1970s, I too remember standing on that balcony as a child, then returning home with my father hoping we could emulate some aspect of the museum railroad's grandeur on our own N and later HO scale layouts. Reminiscent of that experience, today my favorite view of the new museum layout is from the rear windows of the Boeing 727 that hangs above it.

Stories just like these are told by thousands who saw the original exhibit during its 61-year life and have since been inspired to become model railroaders, work for real railroads, or have simply grown to appreciate the romantic fascination people have with trains. Through its artistic splendor, The Great Train Story seems a worthy champion to carry on that iconic tradition for generations to come.

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Two great beginner layouts.

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