Model railroad museum is Gulf Coast destination

Model railroad museum

A small portion of a layout at the museum. Image courtesy of the Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) – Founded more than 20 years ago and initially housed in a now-shuttered shopping mall, the Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum has grown from that single store space to a facility that now boasts three buildings filled with trains and intricate displays and an outdoor area that includes a small working train that kids and adults alike can ride.

Now the museum’s already impressive collection is about to unveil its most massive expansion to date.

Just down the street from the museum’s current facility, the membership has acquired a small shopping center which will provide some 40,000 additional square feet of display space.

Inside the structure, members and volunteers have been working diligently to get the new addition ready for the public. The original plan was to open it in conjunction with the museum’s fifth anniversary at the Pass Road facility on March 22, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak that celebration has been delayed.

When the expansion does open, it will feature some of the most impressive model train displays found anywhere in the U.S., including an almost unbelievable set built by a Miami train enthusiast for $250,000.

“He got older and was looking for a museum to house his layout,” said museum president Richard Mueller. “Most clubs didn’t have the space, because it’s such a big layout. So our club moved it in two semi trucks. It’s an incredible display.”

Also on display in the new building will be the former Orange Grove Hobby Shop layout. Built by five men over a 15-year-period, it was the showpiece of the hobby shop, Muller said.

“The hobby shop had new owners come in and they ended up donating the layout to us and we’re restoring it,” Mueller said. “That is by far the piece I’m proudest of across the street. (Layouts) are never really completely finished, but it will be essentially complete a year from now.”

While the new facility will be remarkable, there is plenty to entertain young and old alike inside the three current buildings. Club members say they lost track long ago of exactly how many trains are in the museum, but there are 87 different trains running inside displays at any given moment.

There is also a collection of antique model trains, ranging from the oldest, built in 1865, to the latest models, according to club member Jon Gray. The model trains run the gamut of sizes, from standard (largest) down to the 1:450 T scale, smaller than a finger.

The museum also houses what Mueller said is likely the largest collection of Lego train displays in a 500-mile radius—with another 2.5 million-piece Lego set under construction in the new facility.

Also inside the new facility will be one of the largest American Flyer train collections in the country, courtesy of member Rob Mooney. The American Flyers are primarily pre-World War II collections, Mueller said.

Mueller himself is working on a prewar Lionel set.

The museum has about 51 active members, said member Michael Hesser, with another 150 non-active members, who pay the membership dues to help keep the museum operating.

“We have a lot to offer the public,” Hesser said, “but we are still a club. We rely on donations and memberships to keep going. We receive no public money.”

Mueller likely spoke for the entire museum membership when he was asked about his obvious love-affair with model trains.

“My brother and I played with trains when we were young boys,” he said. “I got my first set when I was 10 years old in 1959. We had space in the attic, which didn’t have air conditioning or heat, so in the winter we had to wear coats and in the summer we perspired a lot, but we eventually had a monstrous layout in our attic.

“My brother would do the scenery and I would put the track down and we would run trains and have a great time.”

Mueller, who has been a member for seven years and the museum president for the past three, also said many model train enthusiasts may have gotten away from it during years they were raising families, but returned to it during their empty-nest or retirement years.

“It’s amazing how every one of our members has some part of this they just love doing,” Mueller said. “We love model making. I’ve enjoyed every part of this.”

By WARREN KULO, The Mississippi Press

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AP-WF-03-29-20 0401GMT