Citrus Empire Model Railroad celebrates 50th year at Los Angeles County Fair!

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By Rocky McAlister
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

POMONA, Calif. - ''It's NOT Lionel!''

Oh sure, so maybe it's the same size as Lionel ... you know, those model trains that are bigger than HO and smaller than the big stuff that people run in their gardens?

But if you had walked into the Education Building at Fairplex between Sept. 10 and Sept. 27 during the 76th annual Los Angeles County Fair and even whispered Lionel, burly curmudgeons would have surrounded you and happily explained just what the Citrus Empire Model Railroad Club really was all about ... and it's NOT Lionel.

''It's O SCALE,'' someone says, which means this railroad isn't a bunch of toys. The operative words are model and railroad and club. And at one time, this area was the Citrus empire, so it all fits one way or another.

Empire22-2.jpg (32935 bytes) It's 45 members of a club that's celebrating its 50th anniversary as a continuous fair exhibit. Since 1948, it's been a permanent fixture beneath the racetrack grandstand, amid the educational exhibits. Another fixture at the fair is Bob Pinney, a retired meatcutter who works at the Train Stop in San Dimas helping people build their own model railroads. While the club prides itself on not being a hotbed of Lionel model trains, Pinney has modified a few during his 45 years with the club that have run the main lines.

The club actually formed in an Upland building in 1937, then moved to a machine shop at the fairgrounds in 1938, operated as an exhibit until the war, then the club reorganized and regrouped and began its current run in 1948.

Today, depending on what equipment the members have running on the three main lines, trolley and narrow gauge track, club treasurer Chuck Barnes estimates the layout's value from $250,000 to $500,000. As a 52-year charter member of the club, he has witnessed most of the work and countless hours members over the years have put into building, updating and maintaining the layout.

George Pence, of Pomona, has been with the club for 33 years. The retired trucker specializes is building from scratch items the club needs to flesh out a scene - cars, trucks, anything to liven up the layout. Realism is important to the club, as evidenced by a traffic collision scene, burning building and workman dangling from a light standard.

Tom Geer doesn't build from scratch, but the 39-year member from West Covina does concede that seeing his father build an O gauge model train back in the Thirties sparked his interest in model railroading and he brings Southern Pacific diesels to operate.

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The club meets Tuesdays at the layout as part of its agreement with Fairplex to maintain and operate the exhibit, so it is in a constant state of change and improvement. The latest layout addition is the installation of a hobo jungle, reminiscent of the Depression era when America's railroads were the Interstates of the mobile unemployed.

Two-rail O scale model trains are relatively rare. While Lionel and other companies make the popular O gauge model trains (in the usual three-rail), O scale implies that this stuff is different, that it mimics real-life equipment. Essentially, these toy trains aren't toys. The trains, engines and rolling stock, are scale replicas of railroad equipment that used throughout California during the past 100 years or so.

Empire14-2.jpg (34248 bytes) In fact, giving the layout a local feel is a precise model of the Pomona train station that was for hundreds of thousands of Americans during the first half of this century their first glimpse of Southern California
life.

The 105' by 25' layout - with 3,000 feet of track, mountains, cities, ranches, refineries, depots - resembles the real thing as if you were cruising overhead in a helicopter. And viewing the layout from all perspectives, and seeing its intricate nuances, is what the club wants everyone to do during visits.

Jim Riggs, of Pasadena and retired from the county flood control district, has been a member for 10 years. He is vice president and likes to roll out his Southern Pacific cab forward steam engine modeled after the burly boxy brutes from half a century ago that put engineers up front so they wouldn't be overcome with smoke going through the many long tunnels that pierced the Rockies and Sierras.

The Citrus Empire Model Railroad is the result of 50 years of painstaking re-creation of hills, valleys, tunnels, roadbeds, crossings, towns, traffic collisions, noisy stock yards, vehicles and trains and cars.

It is a genuine feast for eyes - young and old. While it's primarily a viewing treat for youngsters, for anyone with a few years and memories of when trains woke us in the middle of the night with their plaintive whistles, it's a wistful step back in time.

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Today's models from Mike's Train House, Williams, Weaver and even a few rare, modified Lionels create a familiar feel to this 2,500 square feet of miniature Americana.

Four-year member and Club President Larry Carr, of Altadena and an NBC news cameraman, captures today's railroad look with his pair of Santa Fe diesels. He is a contemporary model railroader and hopes to attract new members to the club. There is always a lot to do to maintain the layout, Carr says, and plenty of experience for new modelers to draw from.

Empire15-2.jpg (27680 bytes) And while it's true that diesels made America's railroads profitable, steam made them fun. So seeing the classic black and gold and red Southern Pacific Daylight 4-8-4 steam engine glide by with a long consist of similarly colorful passenger cars is a happy jolt of the past to some visitors (especially this writer who rode the Daylight every summer for years).

There is a little something for everyone at the Citrus Empire Railroad, an O scale world ripe for memories and video cameras. If you live in or are visiting Southern California, Pomona is just a half hour's drive east of Los Angeles on Interstate 10. Take Fairplex Drive north to McKinley Avenue, east to Gate One and tell the guard where you want to go.

The club has an open door policy and guests are always welcome to visit the layout on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. And if you just can't keep your hands off the intricate models or want to add your own touch to the empire, you can join the club for a fee of $30 a year (add $5 for initiation) and become part of this small army of model railroaders.

For more information, write to the club at:

Citrus Empire Model Railroad
c/o Fairplex
P.O, Box 2550
Pomona, Calif. 91769

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