Iron Spike Museum brings model railroading to life

Model railroad enthusiasts create a year-round facility to promote the hobby in Washington, MO

Story and photos by Leigh Elmore

Do children still "play" with toy trains in our age of the Internet and electronic gaming? Well, probably not as many as in previous eras, but the art of model railroading can still spark the imagination – not only in youngsters, but in the adults who still pursue one of the most popular hobbies in the world.

A Rio Grande locomotive on a turn.

And if Don Burhans has anything to say about it, more and more Midwestern kids and their parents will be immersed in realistic model railroads that he and a band of dedicated volunteers are building at the Iron Spike Interactive Model Railroad Museum located in Washington, MO.

"Remember when you were a child and you either put up the train for Santa, or an adult took you to see a train display window or holiday layout?" Burhans asks. "It's like that every day here at the Iron Spike! The museum is about many things, but mostly it is about that sense of wonder that emerges as the train chugs around the track, through the towns of imagination, the landscapes of the past and places yet unknown," he enthuses.

Donald Burhans and Claire Saucier Burhans, museum founders.

Living the dream

Burhans is board president of the Iron Spike Museum, Inc., which operates as a 501c3 not-for-profit organization. He and his wife, Claire Saucier, founded the organization and secured its current location in 2015 along the commercial strip in Washington at 1498 High St.

"The Iron Spike Interactive Model Railroad Museum is the result of inspiration. It's a dream come true for people who grew up playing with model trains, and who bring that spirit to the museum," Burhans said.

The building is a former Toyota dealership complete with a large open area that currently houses the Iron Spike's most prominent layouts: a 22,000-foot-long HO gauge layout that merges several private ones that have been donated to the museum and 15,000 feet of N gauge track in a layout formerly displayed at the train station in Augusta, MO.

The N gauge mountain scene.

Other areas of the building include a scenery workshop, library and meeting space. The lobby showroom is highlighted by a large HO gauge layout depicting a Midwestern town as well as a hands-on switching layout to teach users how real trains are assembled in railroad yards. And very young kids are immediately attracted to the adjacent Thomas the Tank engine room, which was the first operational layout of the museum. Long-term plans call for building an addition to house O gauge and G gauge railroads. (G is the largest model railroad gauge originally intended for outside runs through gardens and lawns.)

Certainly, one of the early successes that the Iron Spike founders experienced was an up-swell of community support, both in monetary donations and in forming a good staff of knowledgeable volunteers. Burhans said that currently about 32 people act as volunteers from the region including Washington, Fenton, St. Clair, St. Louis and St. Louis County.

"All work together and they bring a variety of skills that we put to use on the layouts, the library, the committees and in restoration," Burhans said. "We have work times scheduled in the mornings, but we also hold evening hours for family volunteers. We don't turn anyone away," he said.

This HO scale town greets visitors entering Iron Spike.


Keeping memories alive

The large HO layout that visitors see first when entering Iron Spike was originated by the late Don Sibole and his wife, Joyce, who now works as a volunteer, often at the "ticket window" at the entrance. It grew too big for the Sibole family basement, so it has attained new life and has grown while at the Iron Spike.

"Their memories live on in our showroom and they can share these happy times with children and grandchildren, and with other families who didn't have the space, skills, time or money to build a layout of their own," said Burhans.

Jim Alsop is a volunteer from St. Clair, MO who puts in about five hours a week at the Iron Spike. "I got interested in trains as a kid. My main interest is the Frisco line," that used to run out of St. Louis to the West Coast. "Model train layouts are never really done," he says as he views the massive HO/N gauge layout room. "Plus, there are so many different hobbies contained in the hobby of model railroading," Alsop said.

Volunteer Jim Alsop, with his HO gauge engine.

For example, some enjoy the carpentry required to build the support structures. Others are meticulous detail painters, electricians gravitate toward the wiring schemes, and now more and more computer-generated effects are popular attracting the computer nerds of the family.

Eight-year-old volunteer, Owen Benkert.

Another volunteer, Charlie Benkert of St. Clair, brings his son, Owen, age 8, who serves as a young expert on the G gauge trains. "We started out about four years ago and ran the train around the Christmas tree," said Charlie Benkert. "Then it took over the dining room and then the deck. After that we had to come here." Benkert's G gauge train currently chugs around tracks that circle the showroom near the ceiling as a constant reminder that "it's about trains, silly." Recreating reality

The true "stars" of the Iron Spike are the huge HO and N gauge layouts. The N gauge layout will represent the area from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, Burhans said. "Ultimately, it will take an hour for a train to make the complete loop," he said. "All industries will be represented. We are trying to make everything as realistic as we can."

Trees to scale are made in a special workshop.

The scenery construction room is a case in point. All materials are carefully stored in bins and drawers full of all kinds of materials. Some trees are made with the frayed bristles of floor waxing machines. Others are glued with organic plant material harvested around the yard.

The museum highlights the undeniable relationship between transportation and commerce in the Midwest. "Kids will learn, in a hands-on way, about the history of our region, the development of commerce, and the railroad's impact on our economy," Burhans said.

Burhans refers, by example, to grain production and processing, which involves the railroad connecting farms to mills. "Throughout the Midwest you see grain elevators and silos alongside the train tracks, sometimes at one person's farm and other times in the heart of a small town that's quaint and picturesque. You will also see train tracks that lead right up to industrial complexes." Burhans posed the question, "Did you ever stop and think about which came first?"

Lumberyard detail with hand-sawn "lumber."

All of the Iron Spike's layouts are being built to museum-quality standards. This means they will feature detailed, hand-made features that are geographically and historically accurate. Layouts also contain lights, sound and animation to really top off the experience. There's nothing like watching a real movie at the drive-in theater, for example.

Burhans is very proud of a diorama depicting the grain elevators and train tracks in Walcott, IA. "We had a man come in and see it and remark, 'I know where that is," and he was right!" Burhans said. Another nearby display shows intricately constructed wooden railroad bridges. They are hand-built by Burhans, who cut each tiny beam individually. The attention to detail is remarkable. In fact, one diorama that Burhans constructed is now owned by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Steve Meador operates the N guage line.

Newer computerized technology will enable visitors to operate some trains with iPads and iPhones. Yes, visitors will be able to operate trains as long as they bring their own engines. Burhans hopes to soon be able to produce a DVD of a visiting engineer's run on the Iron Spike's lines.

More than train layouts

Iron Spike is building a reference library that volunteers hope will be unmatched in the Midwest. Already the group has collected a complete set of Model Railroading magazine, which is the monthly bible for all HO enthusiasts.

Sue Stewart, left and Joyce Sibole sell tickets.

Furthering its outreach, Iron Spike is establishing relationships with area schools and community colleges to use its displays to interpret historical information into the curriculum. "The museum will encourage problem solving though hands-on learning," Burhans said. "There are applications for science, technology, engineering and math, that is STEM, which schools are emphasizing. And there are lessons in physics, supply chain logistics, and lessons in Midwest history, not to mention the economic aspects."

An old kit for a cast metal railcar.

The Iron Spike Interactive Model Railroad Museum remains a work in progress, and the vision for the future is grand. As Dave Meador, a volunteer from Washington remarked, "This has become a community project where people can come in and work or to visit, and then return in a few months and see the changes that have been made."

The Iron Spike Museum is creating a space for people of all ages: diehard model railroaders, the general public, teens and children to whom it hopes to pass along the fascination with both the railroad industry and scale railroading, as well as attracting people to Washington, MO.

All that comes at great expense. Museum backers have embarked on a $2.5 million capital campaign. "Our success or failure depends on attracting investors, benefactors and visitors to support our efforts," Burhans said. The first $1.5 million raised is going to complete the purchase and renovation of the existing building. They foresee another $500,000 needed for capital improvements in the next few years and another $1 million for expansion and programming. It's a big goal, but one Burhans feels is attainable.

Brothers, Billy, 7, and Augie, 5, Diestelkamp of New Haven, are enthralled with the trains.

But at least on this sunny Sunday afternoon, a mom and her sons found a lot to enjoy at the Iron Spike. Seven-year-old Billy Diestelkamp and his five-year-old brother, Augie, just couldn't get enough, and their mom, KyLee Diestelkamp of New Haven, was nearly as taken with the miniature worlds created in front of them. "We'll definitely be coming back."

If the wonder in a child's eye could be converted to dollars, Iron Spike would have already reached their financial goals.

To find out more about the Iron Spike Interactive Model Railroad Museum or to find out how to donate or volunteer, go to the website,

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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