BELEN — It’s been a long and sometimes rocky ride, but the Southwest Model Railroad Museum has finally found a permanent place where they feel right at home — at Belen’s Doodlebug Park.
The nonprofit organization’s members and Belen City Council signed off on an agreement last fall for a 20-year lease of the Doodlebug Park, located at 120 S. Second St.
“It’s an exciting thing to have the Southwest Model Railroad Museum active again in the Hub City, within the Railroad District,” said Belen Mayor Robert Noblin. “I look forward to continued revitalization of the Doodlebug and forthcoming improvements by the members.”
The plans for the park will be spread out over the next three years, said SWMRM President Jim McKelvey, starting with the placement of a 28-foot by 60-foot portable building at the site, installation of a restroom, sidewalks, temporary parking area, a temporary museum display, with a 29-foot HO-Scale model railroad layout in the building.
Once the temporary layout and restroom are operational, sometime this spring, the SWMRM will open its doors to the public, McKelvey said.
“The end goal is to have a fun, educational, ADA accessible, interactive, quality museum environment for all to enjoy — free of charge,” McKelvey said.
Formerly known as the Belen Model Railroad Club, and then the Southwest Model Railroad Club, the members decided last year a rebranding of the club was in order.
“The reason for the name change was because we act pretty much like a museum,” McKelvey said. “We do exhibits and that sort of things, we have historical items and moving forward that’s what we’ve become.”
They also realized it was time to find a permanent home after years of moving from place to place.
When the club first organized in 1995, they would meet in members’ homes and set up modular HO layouts in the local area from Belen to Albuquerque. In December 1999, the club set up shop at the Belen Harvey House, where they were housed in several rooms for the next 14 or so years.
In January 2015, the club moved out of the Harvey House and rebuilt the layout in the rear of a hangar at Mid Valley Air Park in Los Lunas, and changed its name to Southwest Model Railroad Club.
In September 2020, they were notified the owner of the building at the airpark sold it, and a month later received a notice of eviction.
“We were doing about five to eight modular exhibits in both 2020 and 2021,” McKelvey said.
Peter Klon, past president of the organization said they were able to set up displays at several locations, including at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, in Magdelena, in Albuquerque and at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts.
“We’ve been active, doing things all over,” Klon said. “We just didn’t have a permanent home or club house.”
Needing and wanting a more permanent location, members went looking for a new, larger facility to create a model railroad museum. They met with city of Belen officials and discussed the possibility of remodeling the old city hall to use as a museum, but McKelvey said it needed too much work and the cost to fix the building was too expensive.
That’s when city officials approached the SWMRM about the possibility of locating at the Doodlebug Park.
“It’s in a great location — it’s near the Harvey House, and of course the railyard,” Klon said. “The city wants us here to help promote tourism.”
“The project has exceeded any budget I’ve ever written before,” McKelvey said. “It’s all been funded by our membership and donations and a really good supporter of ours.
“We will need the support of the city of Belen, local business and the general public,” he added. “We need to raise an unknown amount of money for the M-190 restoration and pay for the purchase and installation of the second portable. We will need more artifacts for the museum, and we will need docents to help in the various museums.”
The SWMRM has initiated a GoFundMe account to help with raising funds for the project.
As time and funding allows, phase 2, will begin as soon as the first phase is completed, hopefully within two years. This phase adds another portable building, which will be used as a museum, and display an O-Scale and N-Scale layouts.
They will install a façade around the buildings, which will be made of wood and resemble a Santa Fe Depot, similar to the 1900’s depot in Belen and Los Lunas.
Phase 3 is the final phase of the overall M-190 Doodlebug Park experience. It includes installing a G Scale railroad outside, working with the city of Belen to get the M-190 cosmetically restored, adding an ADA lift for the M-190 and opening it as a museum.
SWMRM has received a $12,000 grant from BNSF to help fund the museum project at Doodlebug Park. Documentation must be sent to BNSF within a year as to how the money was spent.
This past October, SWMRM purchased a 28-foot by 60-foot portable building from Albuquerque Public Schools for $11,330. They are currently on hold, waiting for the architect to complete the blueprints before sending them to the city and the Construction Industries Division for approval.
The group is also looking forward to bringing in community members to teach them about model railroading, by offering classes and hosting different events throughout the year.
The Santa Fe M-190, known as the Doodlebug, was originally transferred to the New Mexico History Museum from the state of California, where the commuter train spent several years under the care of Sacramento’s California Railroad Museum.
During the 2007 legislative session, $40,000 in capital outlay funds were appropriated to relocate and restore the Doodlebug train. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Arnold Schwarzenegger worked together to get the Doodlebug back home to New Mexico in May 2007.
In 2011, more than $15,000 of restorations for the historic train and a portion of the landscaping were funded by the production crew of “The Last Stand,” a modern-day western starring Schwarzenegger, which was filmed in Belen.
The ownership of the Doodlebug was finally transferred from the New Mexico History Museum to the city of Belen in January 2012.
According to the agreement, the city will allow the SWMRM to utilize the in-kind city service policy in relation to rent payments, which would be $4,800 per year.
In lieu of rent payments, the members of the Southwest Model Railroad Museum will provide services equivalent to the dollar amount, such as regular maintenance such as weed control, hazard removal, and snow and ice removal on the property. The agreement also states the members will make pre-approved repairs and enhancements to the Doodlebug, and provide docent services.
Utility costs are not included in the lease, and the SWMRM will be solely responsible for the cost.
The SWMRM also agreed to construct a facade in the form of a historic train depot within two years of the placement of the portable building, which would have to be approved by the Belen Historic Properties Review Board.
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.