How To Expert Tips One way to dispose of a model railroad: make dioramas

One way to dispose of a model railroad: make dioramas

By Steven Otte | May 13, 2024

Your beloved structures could find new homes as dioramas

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An HO scale diorama of a plywood mill with multiple buildings
Need to dispose of a model railroad? Turn it into dioramas. Rockford Regula did that with his model of Linnton Plywood in Linnton, Ore., when he downsized his layout. He often donates his dioramas to the owner or manager of the prototype structure or a related organization like a museum or Chamber of Commerce. Note the plaque identifying the site and the builder. All photos by the author

As model railroaders age, we are faced with the question of how to dispose of a model railroad in case of changing scales, downsizing, moving, or death. No one seems willing to address this uncomfortable question.

In the case of death, the model railroader’s family is saddled with the problem of disposing of the models. Some of the options include throwing models away, selling them at auctions, selling to another hobbyist, or going through the effort of selling them at swap meets. I have utilized all those venues, but when I downsized my model railroad collection several years ago, I came up with another option.

My favorite part of the hobby is photographing railroad infrastructure and reproducing them as kitbashed or scratchbuilt models. I use standard modeling techniques and commercially available modeling products to build fair representations of prototypes. After I built so many structures that I ran out of room on the train table, I started to focus on building dioramas.

A model of a canal lock with a yellow wood building and a Canadian flag
Rockford Regula’s diorama of Narrows Lock 35 on the Rideau Canal Waterway, located between Upper Rideau Lake and Big Rideau Lake in Ontario.

Recently I downsized again. Rather than disposing of my layout, I carefully went at it with my reciprocating saw. The result was a deconstruction of the train table into several dioramas ranging from 3- to -5 square feet an area.

When a diorama is completed, I don’t keep it very long. I attempt to contact (not always successfully) the owner, manager, supervisor, museum curator, or Chamber of Commerce representative of the original prototype. I introduce myself and show them the diorama. They are usually quite surprised, even more so when I offer it to them to do as they wish.

In the past 20 years, I have donated 15 dioramas, with three more ready for donation.

A short listing of some of the dioramas I have given away include:

  • Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge, National Historical Site over the Rideau Canal erected in 1912-1913 by the Canadian National Railway. Donated to the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario, Smith Falls, Ont., in 2019.
Two dioramas showing a steel bridge over a river under construction and a yellow crane
Rockford Regula’s diorama of a BNSF (former Spokane, Portland & Seattle) steel deck girder bridge replacement over Rock Creek, Stevenson, Wash.
  • BNSF (former Spokane, Portland & Seattle) steel deck girder bridge replacement over Rock Creek, Stevenson, Wash. Donated to supervisor of Advanced American Construction of Portland, Ore., in September 2022.
  • Santa Fe freight station (now operated by Kansas and Oklahoma Ry.), McPherson, Kan. Donated to the McPherson Chamber of Commerce in 2019.
  • AgWest elevator located on the former Oregon Electric in Hillsboro, Oregon. Donated to the manager in 2001. The elevator has since been demolished.
  • Unidentified grain elevator on Union Pacific Railroad, in Girard, Ill., south of Springfield, Ill. Donated to the president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce in 2012. A recent survey indicates the elevator now appears to be abandoned in place.
A collection of tugboat models on a diorama of a marine construction yard
Rockford Regula’s diorama of Diversified Marine of Portland, Ore., a marine transportation facility located on the Columbia River, adjacent to I-5 in Portland.
  • Diversified Marine of Portland, Ore. A marine transportation facility located on the Columbia River, adjacent to I-5 in Portland. A large diorama includes two drydocks, two floating cranes, a tug under construction, and several small river tugs. Donated to the manager in 2014.
  • Bull Run Powerhouse flume, Estacada, Ore. The original flume was 3.2 miles long, completed in 1912, and dismantled in 2020. The diorama was overpowering at 6 feet long. Donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 2012.

Several more dioramas are complete. Now the challenge is to identify the property owners and contact them. This can be difficult if they are not in the local area.

I have received a lot of personal satisfaction knowing my model railroad dioramas will, hopefully, have a new home and purpose with new owners. I have heard that one diorama ended up in a closet, another lost on a shelf collecting dust, two in corporate offices, one on a corporation desk, and two in museums. Who knows the destination of future dioramas. Anything is better than having your family dispose of your modeling pastime into a trash bin, and the satisfaction of a donation is immeasurable.

A multi-level wooden structure with a crane moves along a partially constructed wooden train trestle
Rockford Regula’s diorama of a traveling crane erecting a bridge in the Bitterroot Mountains, east of Wallace, Idaho, on the Route of the Hiawathas. Built in HO scale from an old photograph. Donation to the Northern Pacific Depot Museum in Wallace, Idaho, is pending.
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