“Clang! Clang! Clang!”
Just after 11 a.m. on a Friday morning in June, a vintage crossing signal sprung to life inside the Colorado Model Railroad Museum at 680 10th St.
A group of youngsters knew exactly what the sound meant: A real, life-sized train was about to pass through along the active railroad track just outside the museum. The kids sprinted to the exit, jostling for position to be the first to spot the oncoming locomotive. A minute later, after a horn blast and wave from the conductor, the train passed by on its journey toward points south — perhaps Denver or Santa Fe or Amarillo — and the giddy group filed back into the museum to continue their exploration of the hundreds of tiny locomotives, boxcars and cabooses chugging along thousands of feet of track that meander through a meticulously crafted world designed to evoke the Oregon, California and Eastern Railway routes of the 1970s.
“Everytime that railroad sign signal goes off, we know there’s a train outside that they can go out and watch,” museum assistant director Amy Duggan said. “We’ve got real trains outside of our doors and miniature trains inside our doors.”
Greeley, strategically situated along the Union Pacific line between Cheyenne and Denver, is a city that grew up around its railroad depot — its early economic fortune dependent on being able to transport Weld County’s agricultural and manufactured goods to market in other cities along the rail line.
“It’s why we’re here,” Duggan said, suggesting that Greeley would be a much different place without its rich railroad history. So it’s no coincidence that downtown’s 10th Street would be home to a 10,000-square-foot, one-of-kind museum that caters to lovers of the locomotive.
The Colorado Model Railroad Museum, which opened in 2009, is the brainchild of David Trussell, former publisher of the Greeley Tribune newspaper and lifelong train enthusiast. It took Trussell and a group of about 100 volunteers — fellow railroad fanatics, of course — more than five years and more than 27,000 man-hours of labor to build out the space and hand-craft the thousands of miniature landscapes, buildings, people and animals that surround the tracks.
“This is a unique museum in Greeley, and the largest in the United States with this type of layout,” Duggan said. “… It’s magical. You walk in the door and you leave the other world behind you. Come in here and it’s a miniature wonderland where you can lose yourself.”
No one is too old or too young to love trains, said Duggan, who kept a watchful eye on her toddler grandson Mack while touring guests around the museum. “Yesterday, we had 120 middle schoolers who had a wonderful time here. We have seniors who love railroads, grandparents who bring their grandkids. It’s a magic place for everybody. …Everyone who comes in here is joyful and happy. It’s just a great place to spend a couple of hours on a day when you’re in Greeley.”
Fourteen-year-old Jordan Brown, a conductor’s cap perched on his head and a camera around his neck, is a familiar face at the museum. “It’s fun for everyone, cool volunteers,” he said. “It’s a good place to chill when you’re bored.”
While Brown is an equal-opportunity enthusiast of trains of all sizes, his favorites are the life-sized rigs that regularly chug past the museum. “I love the bigger trains outside, but I come in here (to the museum) in the meantime while I wait.”
What Brown loves about trains — aside from everything — is “how loud they are, the people who run them, the different colors of the cars.”
While most visitors are content to simply observe the sights and sounds inside the museum, volunteers with enough experience under their belts can take a more hands-on approach, conducting their own personal model trains, painstakingly assembled in home garages or workshops, along the museum’s tracks.
“It’s an absolute privilege when our folks bring their own trains,” Duggan said. “We love it when they do.”
Bob Barzdukas, a retired public school teacher and volunteer who was serving as Friday’s day museum manager, was giving tours while his homemade train — a custom rig complete with a miniature figure of Harry Truman on campaign waving to voters from the model’s caboose — made loops around the tracks. A lifelong rider of the rails, spending time at the Colorado Model Railroad Museum allows Barzdukas to reflect on happy memories from the countless train journeys he’s taken over the decades.
From the space age to the electric vehicle era, modes of transportation have evolved throughout Barzdukas’ life. His goal — one shared by the museum’s founders and volunteers — is to pass his knowledge and passion of the humbly historical, yet ever-important train to the next generation of locomotive lovers.