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All About WSMRC

The Whatcom Skagit Model Railroad Club operates in the former Alger Grange Hall at 1469 Silver Run Lane in Alger Washington. The club consists of two layouts, one in HO scale and one in N scale. 

Both layouts were built by the volunteer members of the WSMRC. Membership in the club is open to anyone with an interest in trains and model railroading. Members pay dues to support the club's operation. Other than dues, the club relies on visitor donations and sales in order to pay the rent and utilities, and to buy the materials used to build the layout.

 Members have access to the layout at any time and can run trains or work on the layout whenever they choose. The WSMRC opens its doors to the public at various times throughout the year usually on the second Saturday of the month from September through May with special holiday open houses around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The club began its run in Alger in 2004 when members of the Bellingham Society of Model Engineers (BSME) had to relocate their club from Bellingham when they lost their lease at 111 Grand Avenue. The club had to demolish the layout, but did retain certain structures and scenery such as the large wooden HO trestle, the lumber mill and the city of Bellingham.

Construction on both layouts commenced in April of 2004 and was completed in May of 2010 although periodically changes are made to enhance operations or to improve the aesthetics. Both layouts use DCC to power the locomotives. The HO scale layout consists of numerous bridges, tunnels, turnouts and a staging area hidden behind the layout. The N scale layout has two levels that are connected by helixes at each end of the layout to allow trains to travel up or down between the shelves.

The BSME

The Bellingham Society of Model Engineers (BSME) was founded in 1994 by a group of model railroaders who shared a common interest in constructing a large club layout designed to accommodate lots of visitors. 

The members began work on the HO-scale layout in 1995 at 111 Grand Avenue in downtown Bellingham.  The track plan was designed by club members and drawn using AutoCAD, a popular computer-aided design program. The CAD system helped members plan the sometimes complex wood and steel construction that supports the visible portions of the layout, and enabled members to experiment with new ideas before laying track.

When the layout was begun, trains were controlled by breaking the track up into short electrically isolated sections called blocks. To control a particular train, members controlled the voltage on that block of track. As the train moved into the next block, operators would throw toggle switches so that they could control the voltage of the next block. Although this is how most layouts were operated at the time, it was cumbersome and didn't allow that many individual trains to be operated at once. In addition, it was easy for a member to lose control of his or her train if it inadvertently ran forward into a block that was occupied by another train and therefore under the control of someone else. This block control system also resulted in literally miles of extensive, complicated wiring.

In the fall of 1997, the club abandoned its conventional block control system and installed a new type of system called Digital Command Control (DCC), which was purchased from Digitrax, one of several companies that had begun to offer such systems. In a DCC system, each locomotive is fitted with a small computer chip called a decoder, and is assigned a unique address. The model engineers use a small handheld throttle set to the address of their specific locomotive. That way, members can control a virtually unlimited number of trains all running simultaneously, without any of the restrictions imposed by the old-style block control. The BSME was one of the first large club layouts in the country to switch over to DCC. Many other clubs and individuals consulted with BSME club members as DCC became an accepted standard among model railroaders.

In 1999, club members added another new dimension to the layout. The DCC standard also presents the ability to control sound and lighting effects. Several members began experimenting with installing sound-equipped decoders and speakers inside their locomotives. Model engineers could now not only control the speed and direction of the trains, but also blow the whistle. Suddenly, the miniature locomotives sounded like the real thing. Diesel locomotives feature the deep thrum of massive generators and steam engines mimic the distinctive chuff and clatter of actual engines, all digitally recorded and stored on the miniature chips inside the scale models. The addition of sound was an immediate hit and many of the trains running on the club layout now have realistic sound.

 

The BSME layout grew into one of the largest model train layouts on the west coast. It was housed in a space measuring over 100-feet by 30-feet. In addition to the layout itself, there was also a club meeting room, workspace, library, and storage areas. There was also additional space into which the layout could have grown in the future.

While the layout was not based on any specific railroad, its many lakes, rivers, and mountains captured the flavor of railroading in the Pacific Northwest. As part of that flavor, the track climbed over a mountain pass, which culminated with a large curved wooden trestle that proved to be a focal point of the layout. Club members subsequently completed a second adjacent focus, a deep canyon with a lake at the bottom and a waterfall in the distance. The canyon was spanned by an impressive steel arch bridge. Both the wooden trestle and steel arch bridge were loosely based on actual structures and were built from scratch by club members. Each took over six months to complete.

During the second phase of construction, which was completed in 2000, members added a major city representing Spokane as the eastern terminus of the railroad. With its completion, trains no longer ran in circles, but rather ended their journeys in Spokane, where they disappeared down a spiral helix, descending to a hidden staging area where members could "make up" a new train and send it out onto the layout. But the staging is usually hidden from view, so that visitors can imagine that the train has continued to additional destinations beyond the boundaries of the layout. It turned out, however, that many visitors were as equally intrigued by the helix as they were by the rest of the layout, and a decision was made to create windows into this hidden area so they could watch the train descend.

Phase three commenced with work on the "other end" of the layout, the western terminus of Seattle, which also had a hidden staging area at the bottom of a helix. Another aspect that members began to experiment with was the addition of live closed-circuit television broadcast from a moving scale model train. For the first time, visitors could experience the layout from a scale engineer's point of view. Using a miniature video camera, both the image and sound was broadcast from the moving train to several televisions located in the layout space, helping to further immerse visitors into the scale environment.

The original HO-scale BSME layout contained more than 10 scale miles of mainline track (over 600 linear feet of actual track). Since most of the layout consisted of a double-track mainline, however, and since that figure did not include the many industrial sidings, there was nearly 2000 feet of track on the layout. There were also more than 100 switches or turnouts.

The more than 30 members of the BMSE bridged a wide age span and represented a very diverse cross-section of backgrounds including people who work on real railroads and those who simply dreamed as children of someday being an engineer. Members included doctors, architects, engineers, computer programmers, teachers, electricians, machinists, truck drivers, and lots of others. Model railroading is actually one of the largest and actively growing hobbies in the world, yet some people are embarrassed to admit that they "play with toy trains." BSME members were very proud of the miniature world they built in downtown Bellingham. After nearly seven years of work, it rated as one of the most extensive and progressive model train layouts on the west coast, and was fast becoming one the best in the U.S.

In 2004, the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA), the largest organization for model railroad hobbyists, held its national convention in Seattle. The BSME layout was scheduled to be part of a tour of home and club layouts in the area. Unfortunately, the BSME lost its lease in June 2003 and had to demolish the layout. The club held its final open house at 111 Grand Avenue on Saturday, May 31 and Sunday, June 1. More than 2,000 people visited the layout during its final two days of operations. These final days were recorded in a video titled "The End of an Era."

 

In April 2004, the BSME moved into a new home at 1469 Silver Run Lane. In the spring of 2010, members voted to change the name to the Whatcom Skagit Model Railroad Club (WSMRC), in recognition of the fact that in its new location the club attracts members and visitors from both Whatcom and Skagit counties. The name may have changed, but the mission remains the same.