Golden Gate Model Railroad Club Secretary-Treasurer Jim Wilcox running a train on the Golden Gate Model Railroad layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)
Golden Gate Model Railroad Club Secretary-Treasurer Jim Wilcox runs a train on the Golden Gate Model Railroad layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)

There’s a long ramp leading down to the basement of the Randall Museum in San Francisco. Down there is a world in miniature — a model-train layout 40 feet wide by 70 feet long, about two-thirds the size of a basketball court.

The layout is a miniature engineering marvel — hundreds of yards of track, mountains and tunnels, switching yards and towns. Small model trains weave their way slowly through the setup, hauling boxcars of coal and featuring the iconic logos of the Northern and Southern Pacific and Pennsylvania railroads.

The trains and the layout belong to the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club, a group that has called the Randall basement home since 1950.

The club has just a few dozen members, but the layout entertains hundreds of parents and kids who visit the trains on “Junior Engineer” days six times a year and on evenings when a member is present.

“People tell us they come here just for the trains,” says Jim Wilcox, the club’s secretary treasurer. “They want to keep the trains the way they are.”

Well, not everyone.

The Randall, located in the city’s Corona Heights neighborhood, is operated by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, which is planning a $5.4 million upgrade to improve the museum’s seismic safety and to provide more access for the disabled.

Nicholas Wright and the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)
Nicholas Wright and the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club layout. (Cyrus Musiker/KQED)

That plan would dramatically shrink the space available for the trains, says member George Wright, who recently volunteered dozens of hours digitizing the train controllers and tracks.

“They’re going to take about 75 percent of our space away,” Wright says. “That means we’d have to tear out this layout that’s been here for 53 years, and build a very small layout.”

One too small, Wright says, to be worth it for club members.

And rebuilding would cost money the club doesn’t have — up to $350,000 for even a small layout of similar quality.

Club members are hoping public support will convince the city to leave their space alone.

Sarah Ballard, director of policy and public affairs for the Recreation and Parks Department, says, “The department is absolutely committed to having a publicly accessible railroad exhibit at the museum.”

The Golden Gate Model Railroad Club’s relationship with the Department of Recreation and Parks is complicated. Club members say they can’t find a written lease. And Ballard says the deal might always have been a handshake arrangement. The club has been paying a nominal fee for rent but the Recreation and Parks Department refused the last payment, Ballard says, in anticipation of redefining “the legal relationship in a new space. And this is just an administrative way of insuring that that’s going to happen.”

But Ballard says the department and the architect in charge are still refining the plans, and it may yet be possible to get an exemption to building codes for the basement, leaving the current train layout intact.

Club members say they have yet to hear such reassurances.

But maintaining the staus quo would definitely suit Nick Wright. He’s an 18-year-old club member who got his first train set when he was 3 hours old.

Wright worries that model trains will wither as a hobby if layouts like this disappear. “I think so, yeah. Because of there’s no children seeing them, there will be no future for it.”

There’s no date yet for a meeting between club members and city officials.

  • bear_in_mind

    Dear Cy,

    Thanks for this insightful report! This seems to be another example of greed taking precedence over preserving one of the many jewels that make San Francisco unique. The real irony is that San Francisco is the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad with the Southern Pacific railway headquarters on Market Street near the Ferry Building.

    There’s no sensible reason why the club’s layout cannot be preserved in its current configuration, nor any reason why Ms. Ballard and “… the Recreation and Parks Department refused the last (rent) payment, Ballard says, in anticipation of redefining “the legal relationship in a new space. And this is just an administrative way of insuring that that’s going to happen.”

    That quote says it all, doesn’t it? That’s the administrative way of saying the Golden Gate Model Railroad Club is being given Ellis Act treatment.

    I hope fellow San Franciscans make their voices known to put a stop to this travesty. There’s no reason a tiny slice of the Twitter, LinkedIn and Sir Paul McCartney $millions$ couldn’t be used to ensure the GGMRC’s layout remains in the same configuration, at the same monthly fee, in the basement of the Randall Museum.

  • Simone Chosse

    you know, i grew up in this city and have always loved this exhibit. I use a manual wheelchair and in all honesty, this place doesnt need accessability improvments that would alter the train display. i really hope they just let it be, my kids love this exhibit. its awesome to bring them somewhere i went as a kid and have it be the same charming place…it would be a shame to see it go :(

  • Pa Stark

    I am a member, and it is a beautiful railroad, and it would be a shame to destroy it.

Author

Cy Musiker

Cy Musiker co-hosts The Do List and covers arts and politics for KQED News and The California Report.  He loves good theater, roots music, Berlioz, Mahler and serving the people. Cy has an MJ from UC Berkeley's School of Journalism, and got his BA from Hampshire College. His work has been recognized by the Society for Professional Journalists with their Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Journalism. When he can, Cy likes to swim in Tomales Bay, run with his dog in the East Bay Hills, and hike the Sierra.

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