One day, in the 1950s, a young, wide-eyed school boy watched a train rumble into Union Station in Dallas, Texas. Surrounding the depot, the hustle and bustle of daily life loomed large. Diners served hungry patrons, businessmen hurried to work, police officers monitored traffic and skyscrapers stood tall, with the red Pegasus sign illumining the sky. Yet, all the boy heard as he held his mother’s hand was the train rambling into the depot — its wheels slowly clacking along the tracks and the horn blaring, announcing the train’s arrival to passengers waiting to board, anxiously anticipating their journey west.
Unbeknownst to him, this would mark the beginning of a fascination with trains that would stick with him for the rest of his life — a fascination that resulted in the collection of one of the world’s most unique model train collections that would become a gift and an educational glimpse into America’s railroad history for generations to come.
Steve Sanders was Texas-born and bred. A military veteran, he did several tours in Vietnam with the Army Green Berets. “The train collection is sort of a story of our life and his life as a boy,” Jane Sanders told NBC 5 in February 2017. “He would go to camp in Colo. His mother would take him to Union Station in Dallas. He would take the train to Colo. and he loved trains ever since then.”
As the years went by, Mr. Sanders started collecting model trains and it became a passionate hobby. His model train layout just got bigger and bigger, consisting of more than 200 cars and locomotives. After collecting throughout his life, the train was professionally assembled in the family’s 2,000-square-foot attic just a year before his death in 2013. His military service had exposed him to toxic chemicals, which led to lung cancer.
After his death, Mrs. Sanders and their daughters decided to donate the massive collection to the Museum of the American Railroad (MAR) in Frisco. The City of Frisco’s Community Development Corporation (CDC), seeing the value of the layout as a major attraction, graciously provided space at the Frisco Discovery Center. It has been quite an undertaking, but worth it. The exhibit is extremely impressive.
This new exhibit, TrainTopia, features a year-round $1 million model train exhibit of the donated train set up. The backdrop depicting scenes of Mr. Sanders’ travels, including a 1950s view of downtown Dallas, West Texas oil refineries, the famed Palo Duro Drive-In, mountains in Ariz. and sawmills in Colo. The exhibit was funded by a $300,000 donation from Amanda and Brint Ryan of Dallas.
“A lifelong train enthusiast, Steve began building his model train collection, piece by piece, at his home in Corsicana. When Steve and his wife, along with their two daughters, moved to Dallas, he added a new wing to the second floor of his home to house his passion. He enlisted Fort Worth-based Robert Reid Studios and Pat Neil of Collectible Trains & Toys to design and turn his collection into a working layout he could only dream of,” says Kellie Murphy, the chief operating officer for the museum.
“TrainTopia is already generating a huge amount of excitement. We are getting calls from all over the U.S. asking about the new exhibit, which opened in July 2018,” says Bob LaPrelle, the CEO of the MAR. “After considering dozens of possible names, ‘TrainTopia’ jumped out at us. The name just fits, and visitors will see why when they first walk in the door. You have to see it to believe it! The exhibit adds a whole new dimension to the museum’s visitor experience.”
Ms. Murphy shares, “A team of workers specializing in removal and reconstruction of model train layouts reassembled the exhibit at the Discovery Center. As you can imagine, the work is incredibly detailed. Every effort was made to ensure the layout looks and runs exactly as it did in the Sanders’ home. The spectacular mural backdrop, that was hand-painted in their North Dallas residence, has been re-created in the new space to depict the vivid landscape of Texas and the American Southwest. The last feature installed was the dramatic lighting that gives visitors a truly unique experience, allowing them to see the set with both daytime and nighttime effects. The museum is excited at the progress that has been made and is looking forward to its continued expansion.”
“With an estimated value of more than $1 million, the G-Scale model train layout spans more than 2,500 square feet and has six precision trains that run simultaneously. It is remarkable, not only for its size, but also for its exquisite detail and originality. The layout spans Ariz. to Texas, from the dramatic rock formations of the Four Corners region near New Mexico, to a thriving Northeast Texas in the early 1960s. Among its many features are a stunning reproduction of an animated downtown Dallas street scene, including a bustling Union Station, the famed Palo Duro Drive-In Theatre (with an actual movie playing), West Texas refineries and working saw mills in the mountains of Colo. The set includes more than 200 G-scale cars and locomotives, a majority unused and still in their original boxes,” Ms. Murphy says.
The exhibit really is like no other in North Texas, especially in terms of size, uniqueness and experience. “People should definitely check it out and bring the entire family! When adults view the exhibit, they become children at heart again. It is great to see families experience the exhibit together on so many levels.”
Mr. Sanders’ collection now serves the community as a virtual history and geography lesson. The public is now free to explore the trains at TrainTopia and the MAR. Exhibits and educational programs are provided year-round. Visit historictrains.org for more information or to schedule a tour.
Karen Thomas is a local freelance writer who enjoys sharing good news about the community and its people.