Established in 1950, El Paso has a little-known club of train loving individuals known as the El Paso Model Railroad Club and Historical Association.
Every Sunday in November, which is National Model Railroad Month, the club has been holding an open house at their clubhouse, located in the lower valley. Visitors can check out the club’s massive model train collection and layouts and possibly have the chance to navigate one of the mini-engines.
The club currently has 20 members and they meet every Thursday to immerse themselves in their hobby.
“It becomes a bit like spinning plates at a circus,” said Jeffrey McNeal, the club’s vice president. “We have all these model trains moving at once and trying to keep track of them and not have them bump into each other.”
The club has a patchwork history passed down from past members and documentation that survived its early days. According to club documents, the organization was started by Col. John Thomas, MD who worked at Ft. Bliss’ old Lower Beaumont Army Hospital. He put the club together for the fun of it and possibly as a way to help soldiers cope with posttraumatic stress disorder.
The clubhouse moved many times over the years, from its initial temporary homes at Ft. Bliss to occupying the city’s Toltec Building from the mid ’60s through the ’70s and then a travel agency’s office in the ’80s. They rolled into their current location, an old federal soup kitchen, in 1987 and have been there ever since.
Through the club’s many moves, a massive train layout and collection has gone along with them. Most of the pieces that are part of the layout today have been with the club since 1964.
The club’s collection is continually supplanted by its members and is made up of hundreds of model trains, including a turn of the century 1900 windup clockwork train and pieces that date back to before WWI, when electronic model trains were in their infancy.
McNeal mentioned that the hobby can be inexpensive, and that it is easy to start collecting by checking out sites like eBay. Model trains vary in price, depending on vintage, scarcity, country of origin, brand or size.
McNeal said some hobbyists like to build custom trains from scratch, and the club’s collection contains said items built by past members that still work and are carefully preserved.
“Col. Thomas went through the trouble of building a refrigerated boxcar out of little pieces of balsam and things that he found,” McNeal said. “And there wasn’t any decals, so what he did was he took a soup can label and soaked it in water for days until he had just a thin membrane that was separated from the paper and with great precision and care he floated this on to the side of the boxcar.”
Model train enthusiasts also enjoy putting together detailed dioramas of various landscapes – sometimes by handcrafting and painting buildings, signage and foliage – with their prized model trains zipping along hand-wired railroad tracks. The club has produced a scene that is accentuated by stark contrasts of environments.
“Everybody’s brought in and recreated a little piece of their memory – their relationship with trains back when they were kids,” McNeal said. “In one section you’ll go from Lake Eerie, and the next thing you know you’ll be looking at something in the deserts of Chihuahua and then Texas hill country.”
“It’s quite a kaleidoscope of different backgrounds and memories, it’s really an expression of folk art is what it really is,” added McNeal.
El Paso Model Railroad Club and Historical Association
6335 Vaughn Court
Admission is free for open house and
is from 1 pm to 4pm
Membership costs $100 per year and privileges include access to the clubhouse and railroad library. Those considering joining the club receive one month of free membership.
For more information visit