Model train club faces departure from Napa Valley Expo

A model train enthusiast uses a wireless handset to control one of the trains circling the rails at the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society during the club’s annual Christmastime open house in December 2016 at the Napa Valley Expo.

Howard Yune, Register file photo

Facing the loss of its longtime home, Napa’s miniature railroad may get at least a temporary landing spot – with help from a full-size railroad.

Members of the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society have begun talks with the Wine Train to explore moving part of the club’s model train collection to the rail company’s station house on McKinstry Street, according to members of both organizations.

Later, the train display could be reconstructed at a five-story, $100 million resort the Wine Train seeks to build on land it owns near the rail depot, according to Scott Goldie, a partner in the Brooks Street real estate development firm that co-owns the wine-and-food rail tour service.

News of the discussions broke two weeks ago after the Napa Valley Expo’s board of directors declined to extend the model train society’s lease at the fairground past Dec. 31. A master plan for the Expo site on Third Street calls for a parking lot to replace the train club site, serving visitors at a multi-use pavilion to be built nearby.

The hobby club has occupied two Quonset huts on the Expo’s Third Street grounds since 1971 and pays the fair authority only $180 in monthly rent, far below current rates and a savings that club members cannot hope to match elsewhere in Napa.

Members of the model-train group and the Wine Train leadership first discussed a possible move in late July, then decided to resume talks after the annual Town & Country Fair that concluded Aug. 13, according to club president Wayne Monger.

Although the club’s collection of 1/87-scale engines, boxcars and cabooses initially would be exhibited in the Wine Train’s existing depot, its long-term home would be a luxury hotel the rail service hopes to build just north on its 3-acre property, Monger said. The 348,000-square-foot resort would include about 148 guest rooms along with a rooftop restaurant, spa and pool, tiki bar, retail market and enclosed parking to serve the train station, hotel and restaurant.

“We hope to (take this) to a new hotel or another part of the property, because it’s a natural tie-in,” Goldie said last week. “It really helps everyone.”

In a lobby or another large public space, he predicted, the model train collection could draw a much wider audience than at the Expo – and potentially more donations and allies.

“They’re open only 68 days a year now (at the fairground), so it could help with fundraising and education and knowledge,” said Goldie, who planned to send the model rail society a schematic for a station-based train display within two weeks.

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Whether the miniature trains’ migration is for a few years or the long term, the complexity of a rail system built, extended and overhauled for more than four decades will require a substantially rebuilt track layout, said Monger.

Most challenging will be the replacement of a train control system that has overlaid computers and Wi-Fi data transmission on a web of rails and wiring built before the electronic age, he explained.

“You have to think of it as a 1970s Ford Pinto, but with electronic systems laid on top of it,” he explained. “If you cut it up and move it, you’ll still have a 1970s Pinto. … On limited money, to just cut up the current layout and move it just will not work.”

Wherever the historical society’s trains, rails and pint-size buildings go next, its members will need to shut down the Expo center by the end of October to prepare for a move, according to Monger. A swap meet will take place Oct. 7, and open houses are planned for Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 – the train club’s last public event at the fairground.

Dismantling of the model train layout would begin Nov. 1 and continue through year’s end, with the contents going into a shipping-style container at a site to be determined.

“We need 60 days to remove what we want out the building, but there’s a lot that will still be there when we leave,” he said. “We will salvage the (display) bridges and buildings, but most everything else in that layout will have to be left for the bulldozers.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.