The Tanana Valley Model Railroad Club started as a “home and home club” in October 1983. “Home and home Club” means that the members would meet in each other’s home on a periodic basis and work on the host’s model railroad. The meetings went well with no real propose in mind other than the mutual friendship and the enjoyment from the modeling.
In the initial group was Basil Hendrick, the Curator of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum. In February 1984 Basil suggested that we put on a display in the Museum in December when little else was going on and they had no display scheduled. A concentrated effort evolved for the design of the layout in the space available and construction began on parts in several locations with the central effort in Ron Gatterdam’s basement, thanks to his wife’s patience, where the sections of the layout were joined. The opening was on time and much to everyone’s surprise, in good order. The day of the opening, there was considerable press coverage including TV. The title for the show was “Model Railroading, A Little History, A Lot of Fun “. Several of members were interviewed and Vince Haneman made the off hand remark that it was not true that we caused the derailment of the ARR that morning in front of the Museum to advertise the opening.
Frank Turpin was the president of the Alaska Railroad at that time and happened to see the interview. Frank called Vince later that day and said he caught the act and would the Club be interested in renting the garage space in the depot? The answer was yes depending on a number of variables. The net result was the leasing of the space and the start of a delightful relationship which has continued since September 1985. John Retterer was the first president of the Tanana Valley Model Railroad Club and was acquainted wirg all the transportation industry in Alaska so that the Club had contacts in this vital sector. The first open house was for Railroad Week, 22 September 1985 with static displays from the Museum show.
The Fairbanks Station is located some distance from the center of town and the passengers for the daily run to Anchorage arrived early with nothing to do until the train was backed into the station and the passengers allowed to board the cars. Frank Turpin asked if it would be possible to open the Club for the travelers to have a point of interest. This started a daily effort during the season of May to September which has continued to this day. The Club started a guest book requesting the visitors sign in. About a third to half the visitors did sign and the Club records show that about 150,000 visitors have seen the TVRR layout from 1986 to date. The Club has been recognized by the Wm. K Walthers, Co. for it’s contribution to public awareness by granting their Award Car, each year from 1984 until 1998, the end of the Walther’s program. Normally there are several members on the floor to talk to the visitors, explain the layout and the ARR. There have been a number of times when first time visitors have said that friends who had been in the Club in previous years suggested they make the effort to visit the Club.
There have been at least three different layouts during the time of the association with ARR in the old depot, each redesign to accommodate the press of large audiences and the desires of the Club to operate it’s own railroad. The two conditions are not easily accommodated and compromises have been made. One was that the members wanted to run their own pet railroad models from narrow gauge to standard, from shays to mallets, from rod engines to diesels. This was resolved to the extent that Alaska Railroad prototypical equipment would be run when we had visitors, the rest of the time the members could run every thing from Pennsy to Santa Fe but the layout should be restored to ARR in time for the tourists at 7:00 AM every morning of the season/ The design of the paint scheme of ARR cars was changed and the Club found out about the design from friends in Anchorage. Many of the members worked hard that spring to get the passenger cars to the new standard. This was accomplished and surprised the ARR “brass hats” since they thought the Club would be caught with egg on the face, running the old design.
In the beginning the layout was flat land with two separate units with duck under bridges connecting the parts. The members had trouble remembering to DUCK and several near catastrophes occurred to the bridges and trains. This resulted in placing a 2″ by 2″ square steel tube under each bridge. This stopped the damage to the bridge and equipment but sure produced headaches for the members and some of the early visitors, One incident, late in the season, made us realize a major redesign was required, one in which no “duck-under” was used. To connect the two sides an overhead bridge was made at about seven feet above the floor. This provided a space above the layout for controls and switches out of the visitors view and fingers, also it made it possible for the dispatcher to see most of the layout even when the room was packed with people. Another redesign was required when the old depot was closed and moved to the new location. Space in the new depot was made available for the Club based upon the percentage of construction costs to be used for art in 2002, the Club considered “art”. There are other compromises that have been required. There are members who want absolute prototypical modeling such as hand laid track in which the rail, ties and spikes are separate. A tremendous effort and time consuming, especially in the turnouts and crossovers. There are others who enjoy operations and would accept a lower standard of realism with flex-track that comes made up. There are still others who have invested in direct current engines which means that all engines on the track get the same voltage and therefore they will go the same direction but may go at different speeds. To provide multiple trains the layout has to be divided into blocks. A new system of controlling engines has developed and is digital command control. Each engine has a specific digital address and the power in the tracks remains the same so that the control is through the address and speed, direction, and sounds may vary. The blocks are not necessary in the digital control. Some vary interesting effects may be had such as two engines in opposite directions passing on the fly, one on the by pass.
To some extent the call for absolute, true to life realism has been modified. Some of the major clients of the ARR were approached by the TVRR and asked if they would sponsor cars identifying their operation such as Usabelli Coal and Mapco Oil. They agreed and hopper cars and tank cars so designed were placed on the TVRR for public information concerning the clients of the ARR. This has led to several other firms following suit for closer ties to the community.
Over the years the ARR has requested that the TVRR be open for special events and the Club has been happy to do so. Promotions by the ARR to interest new clients, develop good relations with the community, and recognize some special event have had the Club open for guests. The Club has been open for the Masons, Scouts, school groups and other organizations.
Some where in the past the Club had been invited to join in the annual public Board of Directors meeting in Fairbanks where the Club has been introduced as the entertainment division of the ARR- non pay. These meetings have provided the Board an opportunity to hear what the Club was doing and offer suggestions for future activities. One of the activities generated by Ron Sheets was the bringing into to the Club, early teenagers as junior members,. These were often single parent children and gave them an opportunity to learn some skills, develop a sense of responsibility, and some discipline. There are a number of the young members who are now fully employed with other railroads and making a career for themselves,
In December 1984, K. A. Smith, the superintendent of the Northern Division, suggested a Santa’s Express to give the children of the Fairbanks area a ride on the train at Christmas time. This was so successful that it continued for several years expanding each year. The Engineer or the Conductor would dress as Santa. The trainmen dressed as elves would be on hand and they would help in decorating the depot for the event. The office staff would join in issuing tickets to the riders. The Club was open to hold the overflow crowd while they waited. Popcorn, candies and fruit were distributed. Mike Olson continued the program for a while until discontinued for economic reasons.The impact on the citzins of Fairvanks was great and brought favorable recognition to the ARR.
Vincent Haneman, January 2009