Hidden in a Masonic Temple in old downtown Mobile, Alabama, is buried treasure. It isn’t hard to find but you could walk by it for years and not know that through the ancient and huge double doors of the Temple and up a flight of creaking stairs near the women’s section of the Temple is a glass door to the left hiding an amazingly wondrous world. While the sign says “Train Store” and the dim, dusty nature of the entrance may intimidate, be brave and walk through the door.
What greets you first, is what I call the real antiquities, dusty cardboard and plastic boxes house trains parts, pieces, cars, landscape, buildings and miniature railroad building paraphernalia. Step forward two steps and turn again to the left and enter a magic world of Gulliver.
As you move down the long shotgun length room that travels the length of the half block long temple, you tower over villages and cities all interconnected by railroads. Dozens of different styles of trains, from modern commuters all silver and sleek to coal black steam engines puffing away bring light, color, and sound to this dungeon of a second floor shop. The whistle sounds and chugging engines catch your eye with their movement looping in and around the landscape of this 85 foot long country.
Started about three years ago, the Azalea City Model Railroaders Train Club created this small shop and expansive train exhibit working weekend and one night a week, and it has become the largest miniature train exhibit in much of the South and Southeastern United States. Their enthusiasm for the hobby outgrew their homes and they wanted to create a massive landscape, covering mountains, deserts, farmland, cities, crisscrossing the United States. They aren’t done, but what they have done in those three years is a testament to their serious dedication and passion.
Featuring over 1000 car trains, the layout is about 85 feet long and 20 feet wide, widening and narrowing as you walk along. There is some representation of Mobile, highlighted by the GM&O Train Station that once was the main train station for the city, but which is now a government building. They dug up the blue prints and photographs of the original train station building and Jack Castleberry spent ages painstakingly recreating the original building in miniature. For the most part, the cities and villages are representative of the US circa 19th century to modern times.
One village is dedicated to the wives who were originally big supporters of this move to the new spot in the Temple. They joined in and helped a lot, so the men decided to dedicate a village to them called Wivesville. The train station bears the name of the town and all the businesses in the town are named after or for one of the wives, like Marilyn’s Flower Shop. According to Bob, Cleveland, the shop proprietor, most of these wives are dead or gone now, divorced or just not interested. My mother, exploring Mobile with me, told him it should be renamed “X-Wivesville”. I thought that was clever.
Wivesville features the most amazing miniature lumber yard with stacks of lumber in a warehouse going up two stories with fork-lifts and trucks, and people working the yard. There are people and vehicles in the streets, waving out windows, and going about their normal would-be lives in the towns and cities.
Near the door is a great mountain with mountain climbers climbing by tandem rope up the steep slopes, and a bear and her cubs walking into the woods near a cabin in the mountain woods. Hikers climb the narrow mountain path heading also towards the cabin. Around the mountain, a huge train trestle supports the train passing through the small tunnel and around the mountain, and water flows down below. Peek down below the trestle and you will see a lake and beach with nude sunbathers!
On the back side of the mountain there is a small farm community, complete with pigs and cows, and a clapboard house. A dog chases children around the yard and the hanging laundry “blows” in the wind. On the front side of the mountain, a carnival has come to town with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster rides.
The scale is HO or 1:87.1 and the attention to detail is amazing. Towards the end of the narrow room the tracks narrow into what resembles the great old train yards where trains go to rest, await hookup, and never move again. Along the tracks in this Mid-West feeling area of the landscape, miniature gravel and scrub line the tracks, like the many I’ve walked over the years exploring the United States. The train club members have even painted blue sky and clouds on the wall as a backdrop to the landscape.
The Azalea City Model Railroaders meet upstairs in the Temple every Thursday night from 5PM until they wear out, working on this major construction. The shop and display is located in downtown Mobile, Alabama, at 351 St. Francis Street in the Egyptian looking cement Temple at St. Francis and North Claiborne Streets, just one block north of Cathedral Square. It is open Thursday through Saturday from 10AM to 5PM. You can call for more information at 251-463-0919. Just a few minutes drive from Interstate 10, it is worth a stop and visit if you are passing along Highway 10 through Alabama to or from Florida or Mississippi.
For more information on model trains:
- National Model Railroad Association
- National Model Railroad Association’s Directory of World Wide Rail Sites
- Google’s Reference List of Model Railroad and Train Resources
- The Bay Area Rail Roader Club of Mobile and Baldwin County
Update – Winter 2005
I just took some friends to The Azalea City Model Railroaders Train Shop for a look at this amazing train display and Bob Cleveland greeted us, remembering my last visit. It seems that this article has been discovered by quite a few train enthusiasts. In fact, they have several new members who discovered the group through this article. Nice.
Bob eagerly showed off two new sections which add several square meters of train towns and stations since my last visit. One area under construction will be a bay featuring shrimp boats and shipping containers. Awesome. I’ll have new pictures coming soon, so keep an eye on on this article for new information.
If you are a minature train collector or enthusiast, call Bob and get involved with this group in Mobile, Alabama. Members come from all over the whole state and neighboring states to participate in this huge model train world they have created. It’s great fun!