When Jane Sanders decided to sell her home in North Dallas, she was in a unique situation. Her husband Steve, who’d recently passed, had created an enormous model train layout. Now, this wasn’t your average train set — this one was as large as some homes. Steve’s trains were his passion, and Jane and her daughters wanted to do the right thing. Fearing that the layout might not survive the home sale, she contacted the Museum of the American Railroad and graciously offered to donate the layout along with more than 500 model cars and locomotives.
The museum had plans for an operating model train exhibit, but not until a permanent building was constructed on its new Frisco site. Upon seeing the layout, museum leaders agreed it was too good to pass up, and decided that an immediate home should be found to house and present the exhibit. Enter the City of Frisco. The mayor and other city officials made the trip to the Sanders home and immediately fell in love with Steve’s creation. Seeing the value of the layout as an added attraction to the Railroad Museum and Frisco, the city’s Community Development Corporation agreed to provide exhibit space in the Discovery Center.
With the layout secured and space now available to house and present it to the public, funding was the final remaining piece of the project. Amanda and Brint Ryan, also of North Dallas, saw the importance of adding the highly detailed animated train layout to the museum’s visitor experience. Brint, a train enthusiast himself, whose family had worked for the Texas and Pacific Railway in West Texas, was thrilled to have the opportunity to fund relocation and reconstruction of the Sanders layout for the enjoyment of future generations. The Ryans’ community-minded spirit gave a green light to the project.
But how would a custom-built 2,500- square-foot train layout be moved from someone’s home through a set of second story double doors, then some 30 miles up the road to Frisco? Answer: very carefully and methodically!
Originally built by Robert Reid Studios of Fort Worth and Pat Neil of Collectible Trains & Toys of Dallas, the layout was constructed in sections (modules) in Reid’s studio. After careful examination, the layout was separated into its original 37 modules by making strategic cuts in the scenery, track – age and wiring. All other features, such as buildings, vehicles, foliage and people, were carefully tagged and removed. Extensive photographs, video and cataloging was also employed. Disassembly and transportation to Frisco took a total of 500 man-hours over a two-month period.
By late 2017, all of the layout modules, along with boxes of their many features, had been moved to Frisco and placed in storage. In early 2018, work began in the 3,000-square-foot space in the Frisco Discovery Center, which included painting the 35-foot-high ceiling and upper walls black, filling in three existing doorways and constructing an overhead grid for theatrical lighting. While the Sanders home featured a sky painted on the ceiling along with fiber optic stars at night, its new installation in Frisco features a programmable lighting system that cycles from daylight to dark, including majestic sunrises and sunsets.
Over a period of five months, following preparation of the space, the Sanders layout was carefully reconstructed, including reproduction of the original hand-painted murals that served as backdrops. Each of the 37 modules were moved from storage and reassembled piece by piece. Scenery was filled and blended, and track was reconnected along with wiring for train operating systems and lighting. Great care was given to maintaining the original integrity of the layout.
Once the “bench work” was complete, the task of placing buildings, foliage, vehicles, signage and figures began. Everything from the tall pine trees in Colorado and vintage cars parked at the Palo Duro DriveIn to the young lady hailing a cab in front of Dallas Union Station were reapplied according to photo documentation.
Finally, after some 1,000 man-hours required for reassembly, the Sanders layout was ready for opening to the public. Branded TrainTopia, the exhibit debuted on July 18, 2018, to thousands of visitors, adding a whole new dimension to the visitor experience at the Museum of the American Railroad.
Thanks to the generosity of two families and the City of Frisco, what was reserved for a privileged few is now on display for the enjoyment of everyone.