Tiny Trains

Written By Mason Edwards

Video By Jules Jackson and Seth Carpenter.

For kids, adults and seniors alike, there’s no substitute for the wonder and delight of winding through a model railroad’s path of track and town. The Tennessee Valley Model Railroaders, inc, hand-painted eight real settlements along their custom-made track, which runs passengers and cargo from the rolling hills of eastern Kentucky to its riverside stop near Lookout Mountain. 

The group’s president, Nick Giordano, personally connected miles of wires and assembled dozens of houses. 

“Well, like most kids, as a little boy I was into model trains,” Giordano joked. “And then you get a little older, and you discover girls and cars and model trains go away.”

A diorama of logging workers go about their jobs at a logging operation while a cargo train passes by. Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Seth Carpenter)

Luckily, thanks to Chattanooga’s significance in railroad history, locals can immerse themselves in a model railroad experience in the basement of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. A team of dedicated model railroaders placed over 1,000 feet of model train track to cover a section of track spanning 350 miles: the Rathole Division. 

With all the “super details,” visitors can get lost in TVMRi’s miniature world. The volunteers place miniature figures of people inside the houses and around the scenery, creating stories out of static pieces. Their prize piece, a lumberyard, follows the entire timber-making process from logs to lumber. Considering the work involved, there’s a task for every interest.

“It’s not like a hobby that does one specific thing,” Giordano explained, seated next to a sprawling model railyard. “A big advantage of railroading is there are so many different avenues that you can take from woodwork to electrical to scenery, painting, flocking, making trees.”

Every piece represents life at 1:87 actual size, which model railroaders call half HO scale. Their layout replicates the Rathole Division: a legendary stretch of track between Danville, Kent. and Chattanooga, Tenn. infamous for its steep slopes and dozens of tunnels.

“What we’ve done here is we’ve tried to model geographically of where there were cliffs, where there were tunnels, where there were certain bridges and things like that,” said Giordano.

They’ve built more than a scale model, as a trip down the tracks is a ticket to the past. Every piece— from vehicles to locomotives –lives in frozen time, anchored to the decade between 1955 and 1965.

Seth Crawford, Roy Masterson, Nick Giordano, Dave McMahon and Caroline Akridge (left to right) admire the TVMRi’s Rathole Division model train track. Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Shannon).

“There’s one bridge that we have that was actually destroyed in 1970, but we have it here because we are 1950, 1965,” Giordano added. “That’s why a lot of the vehicles and everything that were older from the thirties and forties and things like that, we try to keep it that way.”

Many of the model kits and pieces come in pristine condition; and while they keep some newer parts clean, the group’s pursuit of realism drives them to intentionally and precisely rough up, or weather, some of their locomotives, railcars, buildings and vehicles. 

“You make them look older because when they’re real, real shiny, they look good,” Giordano explained. “And some locomotives, we keep that way—but a lot of the locomotives, we try and weather them to make them look like they’ve been used a lot.”

Some pieces were restored, as the group saved many of the buildings and scenic elements from the Chattanooga Choo Choo’s model railroad. Locked away in storage from 2015 to 2017, those parts have a new life out of storage and on public display.

Years in the making, the model railway is a collaborative effort bigger than any single TVMRi member. Their community of 35 members have a monthly meeting where they cover their agenda, voice ideas and debate opinions on future railroad additions.

Seth Crawford cleans one of the TVMRi’s model locomotives with isopropyl alcohol. Friday, March 31, 2023. (Photo by Mason Edwards).

“A lot of people get aggravated when they get stuck at a railroad crossing into the trains. I love it,” Giordano’s arms motioned the passage of a train. “I sit there and just watch the train go by and see the different kinds of cars and, you know, think about what they’re delivering.”

Giordano and the TVMRi community hope to use the model railroad to share their passions and inspire future railroad modelers. They recently decided to open on Saturdays, ensuring that a wide range of people have an opportunity to visit. 

“It’s not been a struggle to get younger people interested in it. It’s been a struggle to get them to come,” Giordano said. “And again, the biggest reason is that with a lot of us being retired, we all come during the day and they can’t either for school or jobs.”

Their future plans include creating an interactive scavenger hunt and the model railroad experience as a part of the cost of admission to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. By Christmas of 2024 they aim to be open and running a regular schedule. 

As they work to link tracks across generations, their current progress proves that awe and joy come in every size. Despite its small scale, their model railroad serves as a testament to their dedication, creativity and community.

Audio By Matthew Cook.

Meet The Storytellers

Seth Carpenter is a photojournalist and the photo editor of UT Chattanooga’s student-run newspaper, the University Echo. Seth has covered stories on a nurse working through COVID-19, the life of a former prisoner, the backslide of LGBTQ rights, and much more. Seth hopes the stories they tell will make a difference in the lives of others, and they will be graduating with a B.A. in Communication at the end of this semester. If you have a story that needs to be told, reach out to Seth at Sethcarpenter101@gmail.com.

Jules Jackson is a passionate Chattanooga-based filmmaker who sees film and video as profoundly important, thought-provoking artistic mediums to share stories.When he isn’t out with a camera or in his painting studio, he serves local artists through his work as ArtsBuild’s Programs Assistant. If you have an idea for a story you would like to share through film, email Jules at julesjacksonartist@gmail.com.

Mason T. Edwards seeks unity and commonality through his writing. A junior Communication major, he’s known for his human-interest storytelling, investigative work, published creative writing and cheery personality. Mason writes for UTC’s student newspaper, interns with the Rhea County Herald-News and volunteers in two of his school’s student support programs. He’s always ready to schedule a meeting, so contact Mason at zsp239@mocs.utc.edu.

Stephanie Shannon’s work as a writer, photographer and volunteer reflects her compassionate personality. A junior studying communication science with a minor in psychology, Stephanie desires to continue her education by seeking a master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology. She’s a student ministry leader and group photographer for Silverdale Baptist Church. Throughout her writing she hopes to inspire change as she illuminates on social issues in the community. To contact her, you may reach her at phc522@mocs.utc.edu.

Elizabeth Wynne is a senior studying Communications and Promotion at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is a visual storyteller through writing and photos, and in addition focuses on audio pieces for Rising Rock media. Elizabeth is passionate about shedding light upon social issues and inequality, and also enjoys photographing landscape. Outside of media, she is very interested in pursuing a career in the music industry as a promoter or manager. To get in contact with Elizabeth, you can reach her at zbc439@mocs.utc.edu

Matthew Cook always snaps the perfect moment as a photographer, and he’s recently tested his skills in audio and videography. A senior Communication major at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Matthew looks forward to working in Automotive Photography. To contact him, please reach out to matthewcook444@gmail.com.

Keslin Moore is social media savant, ready to bring your organization exposure and engagement. A senior at UT Chattanooga,  Moore studies business marketing and a minor in communication. She serves as UTC’s AMA President and works for UTC’s Campus Recreation’s social media team and UTC’s Marketing and Communications Department. Passionate for communication, her unique combination of creativity, storytelling and social media excels at bringing people together. For questions or collaboration ideas, contact her at vlz857@mocs.utc.edu 

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