Tasha Oates updated December 28, 2010


Tasha Oates's Tags


Browse Articles » Feature

  • Why We Remember The Batavia Club

    By Jeff Lemke

    The model railroad club in Batavia, Illinois was one of the pioneers in the concept of “Modeling from the Prototype,” but the layout is now dismantled. The members went on to build some of the best layouts in America, and they learned their craft at Batavia. So can you.

    There’s an index of all previous articles on layout design and on prototype-based layout tours that have appeared in “The Journal” on our website at www.railmodeljournal.com

    For readers of  “The Journal,” Bob asked me to share my perspective on the topic of a well-known railroad club located in the Chicago area. This layout was a proving ground for many progressive techniques and products that have been used by countless others over the last decade. It existed at a time when the act of creating hi-fidelity prototypical models in HO scale was still a bit of work.

    During the 1980s, and compared to today, HO scale model railroaders had a limited selection of models with high levels of scale fidelity – or even accurate factory-applied paint jobs. Of course, things today have changed. But in the 1980s, the members of this club wanted accurate models that looked and ran well. Many of the models that ran on this layout were kit-converted or heavily modified stock items that their creators lovingly crafted to represent a particular car or locomotive. And it was a meeting place to be enjoyed and a place of higher learning for both experience modelers and people new to the hobby.

    Those of us involved with a local club know there’s something familiar and comforting about a model railroad open house at the “train club” as many large layouts have come to be known. Of course the chance of the open house event is always exciting in itself. You never really know for sure who will show up, which equipment will perform flawlessly or go up in smoke, how large the public crowd will be, or whether or not the club will make a few bucks to put towards the project that needs to be finished (or even started).

    Back in 1977 I was involved with a local model train group in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. One night during an open house there, a friend mentioned he’d heard about another club that was just starting out in the western suburbs. The layout was reportedly going to be very large and operating philosophy behind it sounded remarkably prototypical (as opposed to simply running trains in circles.) That was enough to get me interested in finding out more about this new club. I pressed my friend for more information.

    He explained how they formed the club in November 1974 and actually started construction on January 1, 1977. The group was building a generic Midwestern landscape theme to allow for a reasonably accurate appearance of most any Midwest/Upper Midwest railroad’s equipment on the layout. Other features would include a single track transportation system with passing sidings, double-ended and stub-end staging at multiple levels, a point-to-point branchline, a stub-end passenger terminal with separate station, coach, Pullman, dining, and baggage areas, a large freight yard with receiving, departure and classification areas, a nearly full-circle roundhouse that would support steam and diesel locomotives, working signals, un-tethered walk-around throttle control (without receivers, heck, receivers hadn’t even been invented yet) that allow you to actually follow your train around the 40 x 60-foot room (with a 20-foot-high cathedral ceiling and NO posts), and a dispatcher’s office, that when completed, would feature an operating CTC panel and radio communication to a dozen locations along the mainline. There was even an elevated balcony from which you could view the entire room. This vantage point allowed unrestricted viewing of trains as they snaked along the narrow shelf design benchwork that supported almost 12 scale miles of mainline.

    I looked at my watch. It was about 7:30 p.m. Three more questions needed to be answered. Where was it located, how much were the dues each month, and how late did they stay open on Friday nights! Of course the club I’m talking about was known as the Midwest Railroad Modelers in Batavia, Illinois. The club was located in an old legion hall about the town pharmacy. To most who visited the layout, it was simply known as the Batavia Club.

    That night, an hour or so later, we pulled up in front of the pharmacy. The club used a side entrance with ancient wood-framed double glass doors. A small sign was taped in one of the windows. “Midwest Railroad Modelers” is all that it said.

    I grabbed the door handle and pulled the door open. The door hinges let out a shril1 squeal sounding so loud it was obvious they hadn’t been oiled in decades. A long flight of black linoleum covered stairs sucked up almost all of the available light, leading up to the second floor where a dimly lit landing indicated an open and inviting doorway. As sounds of friendly conversation flowed down the stairway, we overheard someone speaking about re-motoring a Hobbytown drive with a Canon coreless motor. We were definitely in the right place!

    As we headed up the old staircase it welcomed us with a crescendo of creaks, groans, and moans. Each step we took seemed to reverberate louder and louder until we reached relative peacefulness on the landing at the top of the stairs. As we entered the club the smiling faces of a half-dozen gentlemen greeted us. After some informal introductions, they pointed into the big room, find told us to help ourselves to a look around.

    In 1977 roughly one quarter of the huge space was occupied with benchwork that held the main staging and freight yards, the belt line connecting railroad, and the beginnings of a huge engine facility. The track was hand-laid, the roadbed was Homasote hand-cut and beveled to give a prototype slope on each side of the track, and everywhere I looked there were scratchbuilt (or at least modified) freight cars that were handsomely weathered.

    Over the next 10 years the group filled the 40 x 60-foot room with an elaborate walk-around maze of benchwork, backdrops, scenery, and buildings. It was a joy to construct, operate and view. I’d continue to visit Batavia for many, many years as a member and active participant in much of the construction and operation. Many people have since come to say this was one of the finest and most imaginative layouts ever constructed. This is especially true when you consider this was a club setting. In clubs it’s generally difficult to get a diverse group of interests to agree on standards and that inevitably slows progress and continuity of theme. Not so with Batavia.

    In particular, the method benchwork construction, the smooth, wood-spline roadbed, and the narrow shelf-style scenery with Masonite backdrops was almost unheard of at the time it was constructed. Coupling that with hand-laid track, excellent modeling, and a flail” for prototypical realism made this an awesome find and a welcome opportunity for me to learn from others.

    Each Tuesday and Friday a working group of 10-12 people gathered at the club to work on the layout. Some ran or tested equipment. Others showed slides in the break room until the wee hours of the night. Some even came down on Sundays to enjoy peaceful work or operating sessions. November hosted the huge annual open house that invited the public in for a small fee, though they could visit any time a member was present. And of course, there was always the champagne/cookie party/operating session we held each New Year’s Day. Talk about your Rule G violations! Yikes.

    The most recent open house I attended there was on November 22, 1997, which was one of four days scheduled for what was also the last open house series of the Midwest Railroad Modelers in Batavia. In October 1997 we all learned that the lease was lost, the layout would need to be dismantled, and the layout room to be completely emptied by January 1st, 1998. Just three months to dispose of something that took more than 20 years to construct. And so it was with a heavy heart that I pulled up in front of the pharmacy that last time in November 1997. Twenty-two years after I first walked up those stairs into the layout room, many of the same sights and sounds greeted me again, as if to say

    “Hello, old friend.”

    The door still squeaked as I pulled it open. The stairs still had the familiar groans and creaks. The echo of my ascent on those stairs still made it sound as if I was an army coming to visit; not simply a single person. The light at the top of the stairs shone dimly as always. And on entering the club, the customary welcoming committee greeted everyone who entered with a friendly smile, a map of the layout, a short history of the club, and a friendly gesture to let them know which direction to go to find the trains.

    As it had done for 22 years before, the layout performed admirably, and hundreds of people were enlightened and awed by the wonders of HO scale model railroading. Questions about the 1/87th scale trains and the scenery flowed from the crowd. Polite answers were returned from various club members. Trains moved about as they always have, in concert with their operators who carefully guided each consist from town to town, watching signals and sliding into passing sidings as the need arose.

    If you didn’t know this was the last time the Midwest Railroad Modelers would gather for an open house, it would have been difficult to figure that out for yourself. No one wanted to bring up that subject. Most visitors wanted to enjoy seeing the layout one last time. People who had never seen the layout before were taking in the grand, miniature vistas for the first time, and marveling at the detail and prototype fidelity. And of course, club members wanted to enjoy operating over the track and terrain that has become second nature to them, for a final trip.

    Most who came to the last open house knew this was the end of the line for Batavia. Many familiar faces from the past showed up to pay their last respects to this wonder of model railroading. Some people had visited dozens of times prior. Many brought friends with them for a chance to see something special one last time.

    Construction techniques and operating schemes too numerous to mention were experimented with and perfected on this layout over the years. Members of this club had an incredible opportunity to try their hand at benchwork, wiring, signaling, scenery, lighting, painting, weathering, or learning about prototypical operations on a model layout. Many of the original members worked either for a railroad or for the railroad industry. A wealth of knowledge was available for the asking. And when it came to model building, everyone shared tips and tricks to make their own models better looking, not just the layout.

    The Batavia layout provided seed ideas for more than a dozen other layouts over the years. Numerous articles have been published either about the layout, techniques, or the actual models operated here by many of its alumni. Hundreds of new commercial products were marketed either as a result of ideas cultivated here by the manufacturers themselves, or through the efforts of individual members who researched and developed various parts and models that the modeling community didn’t have already . . . and likely wouldn’t have today without these creative efforts.

    Batavia is certainly not alone in the creativity department. However, I want to acknowledge that this group of modelers went out of their way to create things that weren’t commercially available at the time on a consistent basis. And over the years, many manufacturers called on them for ideas on new production models, parts, paints, decals, books, and ways to improve existing products.

    Over all of the years, one challenge was the hardest of all, and that was being one of the individuals who dismantled and discarded a layout that took 22 years to construct. In the end it wasn’t a fire or a flood that snuffed out the layout. It didn’t go out in flames of glory or get ravaged in a storm while its owners slept unknowing. The layout went out a piece at a time at the hands of its trusted creators and caretakers and it’s gone forever because of simple economics.

    The memory, talent pool, and wisdom of this lot lives on. Hopefully, this creativity will continue through individual efforts and through the pages of magazines like “The Journal”.

    Here’s some final wisdom passed down from Batavia:

    • Believe that nothing lasts forever. Seize available moments to have fun, be creative and learn by doing.
    • Nobody knows everything, but many people know something. Never be afraid to ask questions. Trial and error takes time and costs money. Finding answers to our questions allowed us to move forward faster.
    • Participation is always optional and that’s okay.
    • Layouts get built one piece at a time. If you always add at least one piece every time you get together, you’ll always feel confident that progress is being made. Without that simple effort even a small layout will not get built.

    We found that we always stood to gain far more by trying something, compared to what we lost when we didn’t give it a shot. We didn’t have to be expert at anything. But trying what hasn’t been done yet is where we truly excelled. So I like to think I’m in pretty good company when I tell people I’m an expert at trying new things. And when the results of the effort were less than what we wanted, then an old saying helped us out on occasion: “Art is knowing the difference between what to keep and what to throw away.”

    Our modeling efforts were far from perfect most of the time. We rebuilt many parts of the layout as we found problems. And as the manufacturers upgraded their product offerings, we did our best to update our locomotive and rolling stock fleets to keep pace with the increasing accuracy of new and affordable models.

    In the five years since the Midwest Railroad Modelers layout in Batavia has been gone, the model railroad industry has evolved far beyond my hopes and dreams. Manufacturers like Athearn, Atlas, Bachmann, Challenger, Kato USA, Life-Like, Overland, and Walthers (to name just a few) have long led the way with incredibly accurate scale models. Gone are the days of having to cut plastic diesel shells in half to get scale-width hoods. Gone are the days of having to replace open-frame motors with can motors to be able to run long powered diesel consists. Gone are the days of having limited choices of freight car kits. And gone are the days of complicated wiring schemes and block control systems that focused our attention on more on the face of the layout than on actually enjoying prototypical operation. We overcame these obstacles the hard way. It was fun and rewarding. And in many cases, by sharing our results, we helped to show today’s manufacturers how things could be better for more people than just our small operating group.

    Enjoy the photographs that accompany this article. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take an operational tour of the layout and look at some of the features and construction techniques that worked-and some that didn’t. Thanks for all the valuable lessons, Batavia. You’re gone but you’re not forgotten.


    Each town had a familiar Midwest look and feel although  the street track at Hamilton seemed at bit out of place during certain operating sessions. This 1970s-era BN train is one such example. Note the boarded-up windows indicating that this town is suffering from a downturn in business. -- photo by Jeff Lemke

    Batavia tried to create interesting scenes in each town that incorporated an obvious indicator of past history. A crowd favorite was the torn-down building turned into a parking lot at Hamilton created by Bill Neale. Note the plaster and paint remnants of the old building still evident on remaining exterior walls. A nice touch that is easily related to and seldom modeled with this level of sincerity. -photo by Jeff Lemke

    The "Batavia Concept" is well illustrated in this view of the backdrop, benchwork and isle between County Line and Statewide. Aisles were narrow but negotiable, about 36 inches wide but as slim as 30 inches in places. Much of the layout scenery along the mainline was built on narrow shelves 12-14 inches deep. Backdrop was a continuous Masonite sheet painted several shades of blue with hand-painted clouds. -- photo by Jeff Lemke

    Scratchbuilt features such as the hand-carved bridge abutments under this short girder bridge enhanced many scenes on the Batavia layout. Backdrops were placed just far enough behind the mainline so that when we photographed our models at F22 or F32 apertures, the backdrop was slightly out of focus to make the sky look real. Jeff Lemke detailed and painted this Athearn GP35 and photographed the scene.

    This BN GP9 is a highly modified Athearn GP7 pulling an Overland Models caboose. This scene at Hamilton shows how realistic trackside views are enhanced with careful attention to the roadbed. Mainline tracks were slightly higher than the sidings. Heavy Code 83 rail was used on the mainline and lighter code 70 rail on siding and code 55 on spurs. This scene is on a broad 90-degree curve. Buildings in the background have just two walls each helping to conceal the curving backdrop. -- models and photo by Jeff Lemke

    The main terminal at Glenwood featured this diesel sanding facility that was kit-converted from commercial products.Two caboose tracks behind it served the west end of the terminal, while a third caboose track served the east end. Note how the paneling under the yard was sloped under the benchwork to allow operators to get very dose to the track while holding their throttles very low. This simple trick allowed us to make the aisle very narrow but highly functional and practical. -- photo by Jeff Lemke

    Part of the layout theme included an industrial belt line railroad that served large industries in the industrial area around Glenwood. This view shows a pair of EMD switchers lettered for the Lake Superior Terminal &Transfer Railway - a real switching line that operated in Superior, Wisconsin. Even though this photo was taken on the Batavia layout, it wouldn't take much imagination to think we were looking at the lakefront in Superior with Lake Superior stretching out behind. -- models and photo by Jeff Lemke

    Here's a McKeen 40-foot double-door box car with a modified sidesill, painted and weathered for Great Northern. All cars on the layout needed to be weathered to some extent. This car features flaking paint on the roof revealing the bare galvanized metal underneath. Members shared their ideas on weathering with airbrush, oil paint, and chalk. The realistically weathered equipment really made the layout feel right, no matter where you looked. -- model and photo by Jeff Lemke

    Every effort was made to create groups of buildings that looked different than anything we could buy in the hobby store. Standard kits, when used, were modified to look different. This view shows a modified Magnuson (Walthers) kit, a large factory built of plexiglass and styrene, and some small scratchbuilt buildings that serve at the railroad maintainer's office. -- photo by Jeff Lemke

    The single-track mainline design at Batavia meant there was a lot of operation because trains would have to meet and pass each other during their trip across the layout. BN 654 has just departed Cedar Falls.The small highway bridge is scratchbuilt and typical of rural communities. Note how each end of the bridge is"treed in"to hide where it begins and ends. Many such view-blocks made the short distances between towns seem longer because they made it difficult to see very far down the track. -- models and photo by Dan Holbrook

    Long before the modeling community had multiple versions of scale EMD F­ units to choose from, modelers at Batavia were breaking new ground in the innovation department. Dan Holbrook may have been the first modeler to create late-version F7s with slit louvers between the portholes. This highly detailed Athearn F7A duplicates a Burlington Northern (ex-Great Northern) prototype.The louvers were scale-size decals.Very convincing. -- model and photo by Dan Holbrook

    The first benchwork and the first yard to be constructed was the staging yard. We called it the FiddleYard. Most track was hand laid, but the Fiddle Yard was flex track with commercial turnouts. We calculated the car capacity we needed but were uncertain about the exact track arrangement that would work best to feed the layout in multiple directions. Good thing too since we changed the turnout configuration several times over the life of the layout. 1978 view shows original setup. -- photo by Jeff Lemke

    Here's a Prairie Skyscraper at the little town of Ada that was scratchbuilt by Bill Darnaby. He even hand-painted the signs on the building. Ada was a very small town dominated by a fairly large elevator.This convincing nlodel proves that a 12-inch-deep scene can hold a lot of detail. -- photo by Jff Lemke

    Article Details

    • Original Author Jeff Lemke
    • Source Railmodel Journal
    • Publication Date December 2002

    Article Album (22 photos)

    Share - Report
1 comment
  • Bart Overton likes this
  • Bart Overton
    Bart Overton This was a awsome layout. I was one of the lucky ones that was able to visit this layout and enjoy the 'New' concept for it's time. I could only wonder what this layout would be like in today's age of model railroading with the advancements of'DCC' and va...  more
    March 22, 2011