BELEN — The Hub City’s newest attraction, which celebrates the area’s rich railroad history, is open for business.
The Southwest Model Railroad Museum, located at the Doodlebug Park on the corner of Second Street and Castillo Avenue, is up and running on a part-time basis as members continue to improve and develop the space.
Bill Trefsgar, who started his model railroad hobby 40 years ago when a coworker introduced him to the activity, volunteers his time and expertise at the museum.
Since the museum members placed the 28-foot by 60-foot portable building at the site last spring, members have been busy on the building’s renovation. Trefsgar said for the past year, they have donated their time and talents creating a space for the members as well as the public.
From installing a new restroom, swamp cooler and sidewalk, to placing a museum exhibit and a whole lot more, the members have been working hard.
After years of moving from place to place, the group — originally named the Belen Model Railroad Club — signed a 20-year lease with the city of Belen in 2021 for the space at the Doodlebug Park.
Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photos
Bill Trefsgar and George Cusack, who is secretary of the club, stand outside of the museum, which will soon be painted.
The club first organized in 1995, meeting at members homes to set up modular HO layouts. For 14 years, the club was able to utilize several rooms the Belen Harvey House Museum for their layout, but were forced to move in January 2015 to the Mid Valley Air Park in Los Lunas. That’s when they changed the name to Southwest Model Railroad Club.
Three years ago, the club was notified the owner of the building at the airpark sold it, and a month later received a notice of eviction.
With a lease in hand and the determination to bring the museum to life, the members purchased the portable classroom from Albuquerque Public Schools and installed it in March 2022. Trefsgar said it’s been a lot of work but a lot of fun.
“We were able to buy it with our own money, and with donations and from a grant,” Trefsgar said. “When we got it, the only thing working was the heaters. We came in and starting tearing all the stuff out.”
Trefsgar said all of the members helped with the renovations, including the club’s junior members.
“Everybody helped,” he said. “They helped tearing things down and building it back up.”
Like many of the other members, Trefsgar has been interested in model railroading for many years. He was working in Baltimore, Maryland, when a co-worker asked if he wanted to go to his house to see his HO layout.
“He handed me a box, a complete HO set, and asked if I wanted to buy it — $20,” Trefsgar said. “I said, ‘Why not?’ And the rest is history.”
Trefsgar’s first model railroad layout in the early 1980s was 4-feet by 8-feet, and they just kept getting bigger and bigger. By the time he and his wife, Mary, moved to Rio Communities in 2006, he had several layouts.
“I happened to go to the Harvey House one day, and I got interested in the club,” he remembers. “I put in my application and became a member in 2009.”
The museum’s model railroads are operated by volunteers, who provide information about local historic railroads and can give tips on the basics of model railroading.
Many of the items on display at the Southwest Model Railroad Museum were donated by Bill Trefsgar, including memorabilia flatware, menus, photographs and more.
Trefsgar, who had never participated in a model railroad club before, has served in various positions in the SMRM, including as vice president, secretary and treasurer. Today, years after retiring, he continues to volunteer a few hours a week at the museum.
George Cusack, the club’s secretary, has been involved with the club since 2015, when it was exiting the Harvey House. He said while the work at the museum is far from over, they’ve made a lot of progress.
“We also had to replace all of the utility connections, which was pretty expensive,” Cusack said. “We’ve gotten a lot of help from a BNSF grant. They covered a lot of that cost.”
After chasing a few leaks for a few months and other renovations to the buildings, the club members continue their work, including to the façade.
Cusack said one of the members, JB Reber, has been able to acquire a large amount of ceder fencing material.
“We had a field day knocking all the nails out of it,” Trefsgar said.
Bill Trefsgar, a member of the Southwest Model Railroad Museum, became interested in model railroading 44 years ago.
Over the past several weeks, the members have been placing the wood on three sides of the building — north, south and west sides. The east side faces a cinder block fence and is not visible to the public.
“As soon as the west side is done, then we have to do the horizontal trim,” Cusack said. “When that’s all done, we’re targeting sometime in March, we’ll then pressure wash it all. We’ll let that dry for a couple of weeks, and then paint it yellow.”
Cusack said the color scheme is reminiscent of old passenger train depots around the country, including the old depot in Los Lunas that is being used as the VFW post.
“A lot of them have been preserved in that color scheme around the country,” Cusack said.
While the museum had its soft opening in December with its two modular displays, the work on its permanent HO-Scale model railroad layout in the building will be starting soon. They hope to have it completed by the tentative grand opening on Sept. 24, the day of the annual Rio Abajo Becker Street Festival.
“That gives us time to finish the façade, and we have a huge amount of work on our permanent layout,” Cusack said. “A lot of what was original at the Harvey House and the airpark will be back here in a 400 square-foot space.”
Train enthusiast of all ages will enjoy the model railroad display at the Southwest Model Railroad Museum in Belen, where model trains crisscross a sprawl on large tables, featuring a bustling city, small towns, countryside and real-life landscapes.
Both Trefsgar and Cusack said the layout will be similar but will have traces of the rail yards in Gallup, Belen and Clovis. Nothing has been finalized, as club members continue to meet on Wednesday evening to work and make decisions on the displays.
“This is a dream come true,” Trefsgar said of the museum and the property. “It makes us feel good to finally have a home.”
The Southwest Model Railroad Museum is open from 12:30-3:30 p.m., Thursday-Friday, and from 12:30-5 p.m. every Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. For more information, visit swmrmmuseum.org.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.