A model train – the detailed replica of a Union Pacific SD 70 locomotive pulling five railcars - is now circling around inside of the visitor center, mounted high overhead on a track suspended from the building’s ceiling. The project marks the first phase of a series of model train displays planned for the visitor center by Bob Nilson, tourism supervisor for the City of Benson.
Funding for the train, track and support structures came through a $6,000 grant from the Union Pacific Railroad Foundation. “I wrote the grant and received the award about two years ago, but it took a little over a year to design and fabricate the support for the track,” said Nilson. “This is an 11-foot high ceiling, with the top of the train about 8 feet from the floor. The track itself is suspended 32 inches from the ceiling.”
While the project was under construction, word of the visitor center’s newest addition attracted railroad fanatics of all ages.
“I was getting regular visits from a 9-year-old boy named Henry, who would pop in to check on the train’s progress,” said Nilson. “He loves trains and would come by to talk about them and ask questions. I was constantly amazed by how much he knows. He’s the youngest train expert I’ve ever met.”
Dan Bolin, president of the Cochise and Western Model Railroad Club out of Sierra Vista and a couple of the club’s members learned about the train through Nilson, who has been a guest speaker at some of the club’s meetings. “Bob told us about the train and his plans for a display, so we offered to go to the visitor center to help assemble it and gave him suggestions for the display,” he said. “I haven’t gone back over there since he got the train up and running, but we plan to stop by there to see the finished product. It’s a neat project. I think the display that Bob is planning will be fun for adults and kids both.”
Another model train enthusiast following Nilson’s project is Dirk Carmichael. “He has a garden railroad in Dragoon and is really excited about the idea of a model train display at the visitor center,” said Nilson. “Actually, all of these guys know a lot about trains and were great support through this entire project.”
Once it was assembled, Nilson showcased the train in a static display until he had completed mounting the track.
“I’m planning the model train display in three phases,” said Nilson. Phase 1 was putting in the main track and getting the train running. In phase 2, I’ll be adding side tracks and switches and in phase 3 I’ll be adding more trains,” said Nilson, who is planning to write more grants to pay for the projects.
“The train we’re running right now is a Union Pacific SD 70 general electric locomotive, with five current-day railcars, much like what you see traveling by here every day,” said Nilson. “We have a tanker, a car carrier, two box cars and a hopper car,” he added.
Nilson also has a model of a Mikado 2-8-2, a replica of a steam locomotive from the 1930s, he plans to add to the display. The Mikado will be pulling older-style cars from the 1930s era and will be displayed on a sidetrack.
“There is a huge following for these model trains, and I would like Benson to be the model train capital of Arizona,” said Nilson. “Our original goal was to have a train museum here, but it takes a lot of money and acreage, which we just don’t have. People love the models, especially these incredibly detailed replicas of actual trains, so that’s what we’re going with,” Nilson said. “The detail on these trains is phenomenal.”
As more grant funding is made available, Nilson wants to add an1880s wood burner steam locomotive to the model display, also with the era appropriate passenger cars.
“All the locomotives in our collection will be pulling period-correct cars,” he said. “With Benson’s historic connection to the railroad, I think the model trains make a great addition to the visitor center, especially with the train town designation that Union Pacific gave Benson a few of years ago.”
In April 2012, Benson was awarded membership in the Union Pacific Railroad “Train Town USA” registry, as part of Union Pacific’s 150th anniversary celebration. Benson was the first city to receive the train town designation in Union Pacific’s western region. Benson’s connection to the railroad dates back to 1880, when the Southern Pacific Railroad first rumbled through town.
Benson became the railroad hub of Southern Arizona, connecting Tombstone, Charleston, Contention City and Fairbank. In addition, the town connected the Southern Pacific line with the Sonoran Railroad line into Mexico, which extended as far south as the seaport town of Guaymas.
When Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific line in the late 1990s, it also acquired its colorful history.
Thousands of train enthusiasts visit Benson each year to watch the trains roll through town and read the archived documents that capture those historic times.
“And now they’ll be able to stop in the visitor center and see the smaller-scale replicas of those very trains,” said Nilson.