Model Railroading in 1:1 Scale…aka Volunteering at the Toronto Railway Museum

I know what you’re thinking, is it really modelling if you are doing it in full scale?  Maybe not, but this post is a bit of a push for many like me who spent a long time going to museums and preserved railroads, and never doing anything to help create those places for others to go and enjoy.  You don’t need any railroad skills (or any skills really), there are opportunities for all sorts, even model makers!!!  You don’t even need to commit a lot of time to be really helpful to making something happen either, just a few hours when you have them spare can make the difference between a small museum staying open or closing.

P1050595.jpgMe working the TRHA/TRM Booth at the Barrie-Allandale Train Show, a chance to meet the public and introduce them to the museum.  No skills other than being personable required!!  An example of the range of tasks that a volunteer can be a part of.

I had never been a part of any preservation group or museum prior to me joining the Toronto Railway Historical Association in 2009.  The TRHA is the volunteer group that has constructed and operates the Toronto Railway Museum in the former Canadian Pacific Railway John Street Roundhouse in Roundhouse Park, Downtown Toronto.  I had visited the roundhouse at Doors Open, and seen the TRHA at train shows, and truthfully didn’t pay them much attention until June 2009 when I saw that they were having Canadian National 6213 moved from its long time home at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds to Roundhouse Park.  After this, I took a look at what they were doing, and said hey, these folks are right in my backyard and actually getting things done, I should get up of my rear end and do something to be helpful!  I had alsways wanted to be a part of a museum/restoration group.  I was always very jealous of my friends in the United Kingdom who have a wealth of preserved railways and museums for people to pick and choose from.  Here, there are several good museums and groups around the GTA, but most for me mean hour long drives each way to get there, which limited my motivation to be active.

3613951306_3a56bffb4e_oCN 6213 loaded up at the CNE Grounds, and starting the overnight move to her new home at the Toronto Railway Museum, just under the CN Tower in the distance.

When I started volunteering at the roundhouse with the TRHA, I met some fantastic people who were volunteers, who I am now friends with and see both at and away from the museum.  When I started, my first tasks included scraping rust off two big air tanks and painting them aluminum, and getting right at it in the cab of 6213 and repairing the wiring that had been cut when the locomotive was moved from the CNE.  Trust me, no skills were required to scrape off the rust with a metal wire brush or slap on aluminum paint on the tanks.  It was must definitely grunt work!!  When I started, the museum was in the “Construction Phase”, restoring buildings, preparing our three stalls, and building the 7.5” Gauge Miniature Railway in the park.  It wasn’t open to the public, and the historic railway vehicles in the collection were all tarped over for their protection.

A picture from my first weekend at the TRM, cleaning and painting the air reservoir tanks from the Machine Shop.  Me working in the cab of CNR 6213 to repair the wiring, and a Goal Achieved, making the first runs on the complete loop of the Miniature Railway on New Years Eve 2009.

After the museum opened in May 2010, I did some work operating the miniature railway, but focused on getting involved in restoring historic vehicles, as that was where most of my fellow volunteers attention went after the big push for construction.  Our first project was a four year long restoration of Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway caboose No.70.  I also worked regularly on restoring the interior of the cab of Canadian National Railway F7A 9159 (only the cab remains of this locomotive). I am neither an expert woodworker or metal worker, or any other kind of handyman, but I can work with all these materials under supervision, and take direction to be helpful to those who have the serious skills.  I can definitely say that the skilled people who make up the regular Thursday/Saturday volunteer restoration team at the museum are friendly and willing to help new volunteers learn how to safely use the tools and learn the skills to help with restoration of historic vehicles if that is your interest.  Similarly, if your interest is in dealing with people and operating the miniature railway, there are opportunities for that as well.  It all starts with coming out and volunteering to help however you can, and building trust to get given the opportunities to do the things you want to do!!

Me working on the Cab of CN 9159 on the left, and drilling a part for something (I have no recollection of what I was working on) on the right.

As time went on, I found I was having less time to get down regularly, and work on restoration, but the museum had continued to grow, and following a production of The Railway Children play in the park in 2013, the museum was able to convert space that had been rented by the show into our initial display of historic artifacts.  This space which takes up about half of Stall 17 and a third of Stall 16 is our initial museum, until a future project to fund raise and build a permanent building is launched.  After several years, the initial displays in the Stalls were getting a bit tired, and left opportunities to improve our visitor experience by working on new displays.  As I was having less time to go get dirty on restoration/maintenance, and the Museum Manager and executive knew I had interests in display, I wound up getting involved in the ongoing process to create new displays and update older ones.  This worked as it also allowed me to leverage skills I have from my day job in designing displays and graphic materials for the museum space.

Partially installed exhibit on The Canadian on the left, and updated board on the CPR 3100 Northern Locomotives on the right.  Both new/updated exhibits now on display in the Toronto Railway Museum.

While I know not everyone has the desire to go out and volunteer, if you have even a tiny bit of interest, go out and meet your local museum or historical society.  If they are anything like any museum or group I’ve ever met, they always need willing and motivated people, and any organization worth being a part of will work with you to find out what you are interested/able to do, and help to get you involved in that part of their operations if they can.  I can speak from experience that you will meet plenty of good people in doing so.  The past 8 plus years have been very rewarding (though not without their challenges as with anything else in life), and I am definitely proud of  whatever small contribution I have made to preserving and protecting Toronto’s railway heritage for future generations.

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