All Aboard!

From Dec. 22 through New Year’s Day, the Washington State History Museum will host the Model Train Festival. A multitude of tiny trains will run along tracks through elaborately constructed tiny towns and miniature landscapes. Santa Clause will be there Dec. 22 and 23. Photo courtesy of Washington State History Museum

Why do model trains go so well with the Christmas season? My speculation is that toy trains were one of the earliest mass-produced children’s toys and were common Christmas gifts. Vintage images of Santa Claus almost invariably feature a train locomotive among the toys in Santa’s big sack of gifts (along with toy drums, horns, teddy bears and dolls). Another iconic image of the season is that of a toy train set running on a track that circles the base of the family Christmas tree.

Overall, model trains are part of the human fascination with miniaturization (think of the movie “Downsizing” that is due for release on Dec. 22). Traditionally, girls had doll houses and boys had model train sets to use in creating a miniature version of the world. Given enough room, kids could lay out a train track and then proceed to create little towns and landscapes for their trains to travel through.

The Washington State Historical Society’s 22nd annual Model Train Festival begins Dec. 22 and is open through Jan. 1. The festival takes place at the History Museum at 1911 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma. The state’s largest permanent model train layout is always featured at the museum, operated by Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers. The Model Train Festival brings other railroad clubs from around Puget Sound to share their amazingly detailed layouts. Visitors can travel among the many displays, watch dozens of tiny engines rolling across trestles and through tunnels, talk with the operators, and make their own train creations in a special activity room.

In the activity room, kids can explore, create, build (and destroy) their own Lego train creations. There will be thousands of Lego bricks just waiting to be snapped together any way your child desires, while you take a seat and recharge for more Model Train Festival fun. Or, if you’re feeling more hands-on, get down on the floor and join your kids for playtime with the toy train sets and other kid-friendly activities.

“It’s certainly the most wonderful time of the year at the museum,” said Molly Wilmoth, the museum’s lead program manager.  “Every available nook and cranny is activated by trains, enchanting kids of every age with intricate, realistic layouts. And the hands-on activity room is stocked with toy trains, Legos and Lincoln Logs; it is always a highlight for families.”

Santa will be at the Model Train Festival on Fri., Dec. 22 and Sat., Dec. 23, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The jolly old elf will be available for free holiday photo opportunities.

“The Historical Society really enjoys hosting the Model Train Festival. The festival has become a popular holiday tradition for families and their guests because it delights the child in all of us. Everyone has fun watching the model trains and just enjoying the festive atmosphere, not to mention learning a bit about the history of railroads while they’re here,” said the museum’s Director, Jennifer Kilmer.

In addition to the model trains, in the Great Hall of Washington History, visitors can see artifacts and find out more about how the railroads influenced growth and development in Washington. The Telegraph – Morse Code Club will present an interactive display chronicling the history of the telegraph as it relates to railroading. Visitors can also stop by Operation Lifesaver’s exhibit, educating the public about safety at railroad highway crossings and the dangers of trespassing on railroad property. Their current focus is the new Amtrak route between Tacoma and Nisqually.

The Tacoma Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) will be on-site to celebrate and promote the 20th anniversary of Rail Camp, which gives teens the opportunity to spend a week with other teens who share railroad interests. The NRHS crew will also honor the end of an era: Since 1914, at least one train per day, almost every day, carried passengers from Portland to Tacoma, rolling along the Puget Sound shoreline and Commencement Bay. That passenger service ends on Dec. 18. NRHS will share photos and stories of the route’s 103-year history.

Bring the railroad buffs in your life to the Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., for this annual celebration of holiday cheer and history. For more information visit

Check out the clubs who will have model train layouts on view


The PSMRE’s 25-foot-by-95-foot exhibit at the Washington State History Museum features highlights of the Tacoma area during the 1950s from Tacoma’s Asarco Tunnel to Stampede Pass. More info at

  • MOUNT RAINIER N-SCALE: Mount Rainier N-Scale is an N-Trak modular model railroad club with a history going back to the early 1990s. The theme of the layout is the railroads and beautiful scenery of western Washington. More info at
  • KITSAP LIVE STEAMERS: Kitsap Live Steamers is a group of scale outdoor railroad enthusiasts operating a nonprofit 7.5-inch gauge railroad at South Kitsap Regional Park. More info at
  • PIERCE COUNTY LIONEL CLUB: The PCLC is a group of three-rail toy train enthusiasts with interests ranging from pre-World War II toy trains up through the modern era. More info at
  • TACOMA NORTHWESTERN MODEL RAILROAD CLUB: The mission of this group of about 25 model railroaders is to share the fascination and fun of model railroading with the general public. The club owns a large, HO-scale DCC layout. More info at
  • NMRA PACIFIC NORTHWEST REGION’S 4TH DIVISION: Nearly 700 model railroaders in western Washington and Alaska make up the National Model Railroad Association’s PNR 4D. More info at
  • NMRA PACIFIC NORTHWEST REGION’S 4TH DIVISION NTRAK: The 4D NTRAK modular group has been up and running trains for 14 years. They have about 20 members, more than 50 modules and welcome all skill levels. More info at

Hours and pricing

Model Train Festival is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Dec. 22-Jan. 1, except for Dec. 24 and 25 when it will be closed.

The museum will be closed on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, and Dec. 25, Christmas Day.

Teen Tix day Sat., Dec. 23 – Teens with Teen Tix cards get in for just $5.


• Free for Historical Society members

New this year: Family rate $40 (up to two adults and four children younger than age 18)

• Adults $14 (age 18 and older)

• Seniors (age 65+), students, active and retired military (with proof of service) $11

• Free for children ages 5 and younger

• Washington Quest EBT Card admission is $1/person and $2/family (card required)

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