Keeping Up with the Miniature Railroad & Village

by R. Jay Gangewere

Did you know that this Carnegie Science Center exhibit...
• Draws 250,000 people a year, including travelers from California to Florida who call ahead to check visiting hours?
• is open 10 months a year, with the highest attendance in the holiday period and the height of the tourist season, July?
• needs 68 volunteers to assist the two full-time and two part-time staff in presenting it to the public?
• is always changing, sometimes dramatically, and sometimes in small details?
The Miniature Railroad & Village is a classic attraction in western Pennsylvania, with a national reputation. This exhibit draws miniature railroad afficionados from all over—the people who like small things, who have elaborate memories about the way things were, and very high standards about putting the past on display. Four years after being featured in Classic Toy Trains and O-Gauge Railroading, the Miniature Railroad & Village regularly draws dedicated hobbyists like a magnet, in addition to regional crowds who know the display as a Pittsburgh tradition that delights grandparents, parents and children alike.

At 30 by 83 feet, with five Lionel trains, two trolleys and four boats running, it is a big, varied exhibit. While it doesn’t claim to be the largest train layout, the MRR&V is unmatched anywhere for its appeal and class. For one thing, it has a mission that provides it with integrity—it interprets Pennsylvania’s industrial and social history in the first decades of the 20th century, when science and manufacturing were impacting small towns to shape the modern society we live in. The transportation is here—early automobiles, trucks, trains, trolleys, inclines, airplanes—as is the industry—a large steel mill, a coal mine, stone quarry, brickworks and sawmill. All are signs of the basic industrial powers that transformed Pennsylvania. Juxtaposed against the industrial forces of change are realistic small-town scenes—the general stores, local hotels, businesses, apartment houses, "company" houses for workers, churches, library, ballfield, visiting circus, and railroad station. In the countryside the autumn fields are rich with produce and the details of daily life on the farm.

It is a vision of real life, set forth in such convincing detail that the visitors walk around it like giant gods, inspecting and commenting on every human action, from the girl on the backyard swing to the mother rocking the baby, the men loading barrels on wagons and sawing wood, the suffragettes parading on Main Street, and the fisherman casting his line. This world of little figures is in motion—there are 97 animated figures, each with its own tiny motor. Night falls, the lights in the town and countryside go on, but soon morning comes again. At all times of day the trains and the riverboats continue their transportation routines.

The greatest changes to this miniature world occur every few years, when the prime movers behind the scenes, coordinators Michael Orban and Patricia Everly, refresh the whole vision with a new look—such as a seasonal change to all the trees to reflect a colorful autumn landscape, or add a large component like a steel mill. The smaller adjustments to the display go on continuously, as new details are added, usually reflecting even more Pennsylvania history than before.

A recent example is the addition of the Pittsburgh Courier building, the site of Pittsburgh’s famous newspaper for African-Americans. This structure on Center Avenue in the Hill District was for a long time the home of the newspaper started in 1910, and still publishing today. A crusading weekly that advocated racial equality, the Courier achieved a circulation of 400,000 by 1947. But this building was later demolished, and the model had to be reconstructed from views in old photographs to add this story to the experience of the Village.

The Pleasure of Recognition

Many buildings in the Village draw upon the communal memory of western Pennsylvania—and volunteers help visitors enjoy the exhibit by explaining such details. This exhibit becomes interactive not through a computer keyboard, but through the helpfulness of the many volunteers who care about the display. One of the operators of the miniature railroad, for example, is a former engineer who operated real trains on the Pennsylvania and Penn-Central lines for many years.

Volunteers will point out, for example, Andrew Carnegie’s youthful visits to Colonel Anderson’s library in Allegheny City in the 1850s—a library that is recalled in a miniature storefront based on an old illustration. The first courthouse in Allegheny City is also reconstructed from an old print. There is a good deal of Pittsburgh’s North Side in this exhibit. The North Side was formerly known as Manchester and Allegheny City, and the Buhl Planetarium itself was named after Allegheny City businessman Henry Buhl, Jr. Years ago the "Honeymoon House" in which Buhl once lived with his wife (1511 Buena Vista Street) was reproduced as a model, and other models include the Mexican War Street house, 1201–26 Resaca Place, and now restored houses on 1300 Liverpool Street.

Below:  A model of the Pittsburgh Courier building (now demolished) in the Hill District is being added to the Village - after being replicated on the basis of photos such as this one.

The North Side business district of East Ohio Street is seen in miniatures of extant buildings at 413–15, 520 and 531. This last is now the Photo Antiquities building, one of the key restored buildings on the street.

Pittsburghers will recognize their familiar Monongahela Incline, and the East Street Bridge, and some will remember the now-gone Point Bridge. People from Lawrenceville will note their old Number 9 Firehouse at 5255 Butler Street in the Village.

At right:  The Railroad Watchtower is a visible presence at Sixth and Walnut in downtown McKeesport.

Visitors from other towns also enjoy familiar landmarks. The Donora Post Office of 1929 is a landmark in that town, as are the Lark Inn in Leetsdale, the Rachel Carson homestead in Springdale, and Searights Tollhouse along Route 30. Homestead residents will recognize their railroad station, and people who know about Old Economy will recognize the St. John Lutheran Church in Ambridge. McKeesporters will see their Watchtower, and everyone should recognize a classic turn-of-the-century "company" house—generic workers’ housing which in this case is based on houses in Webster, Pennsylvania (across the river from Donora, on the Monongahela).

Many of the original models are based on structures in Brookville, and full documentation does not exist for all the sources. But Brookville itself, located north of Pittsburgh on Interstate 81, today has a charmingly restored downtown that reveals a lot about early 20th-century Pennsylvania. Perhaps somehow the celebration of the Jefferson County seat in miniature by creator Charles Bowdish, starting in the 1920s, eventually helped the town itself achieve the remarkable restoration of the real thing.