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August 2013

Railroads on Parade

Pottersville's astonishing model train mecca

Clarke and Barbara Dunham at Railroads on Parade. Photography by Nancie Battaglia

When I was a child my parents of­ten took me on “mystery” trips around the Adirondacks, never telling me where we were going. Now, as an adult, I find myself taking similarly unexpected adventures.

One day last summer my mind was going numb during a long trip home to Jay from the southwestern corner of the park. Then I saw it: the flashy Art Deco sign in Pottersville that seemed to scream, “Exciting things happen here!” I was prepared to be amazed.

When I first stepped inside Railroads on Parade, I said, “Wow!” Apparently, that’s what everyone says, according to co-owner Barbara Dunham. “It’s just like a Broadway production,” she said. “When the lights go on, your breath gets taken away.”

Within the 5,000-square-foot exhibition space, a former auto-parts store from the 1920s, the lighting fades from day to night on a timer as more than 50 electronically controlled trains move through five separate exhibits. The tracks take visitors back in time, starting in 1945 in Weehawken, New Jersey, and traveling to Manhattan, then north to the Adi­ron­dacks through the Hudson Valley and the Cats­kills. Standing in the huge space, you can feel the rumble of the trains on every level above and be­low, parading over bridges and disappearing into tunnels.

During my hour-long visit, I was mesmerized by the details within the displays: flashing neon signs, children fly­ing model airplanes, and a drive-in mov­­ie theater playing the 1952 Western High Noon. If you wanted to watch the entire movie you could, but your eyes would have to adjust to the scale. The in­­side of the Trestle Café was best at “night,” with the red-and-white checkered floor illuminated and an aproned soda jerk making miniature milkshakes that looked realistic enough to drink with one small sip.

Once the train arrived in the Adi­rondacks, the mountainsides were covered with fall foliage and homes were decked out with jack-o’-lanterns—a re­minder that winter was just around the corner. Soon skiers huddled around a glowing campfire, and I began to fear for the safety of the children making snow angels next to the tracks.

I felt a bit voyeuristic peering over all these villages, trying to see into the windows of the tiny homes. But I was snapped out of my trance when a train derailed and an em­ployee stepped out from the dark to take it off the tracks and bring it into the “Yard Office.”

The creators of this extravaganza are 76-year-old Broadway set designer Clarke Dunham and his artist wife, Barbara. They employ six at Railroads on Parade, along with five freelancers—artists, modelers, painters, carpenters, electricians and electronic experts.

In the early 1980s Clarke won two Tony nominations, and ad agen­­cies be­gan calling him for commercial work. Then, in 1985, when Citi­corp wanted a model train village for its atrium in New York City, Clarke edged out the competition—thanks to a childhood train ob­session—and Railroads on Pa­rade was born.

To work on the project, the Dunhams headed north to the Adirondacks. They contacted a Realtor from Chestertown and purchased the old Catamount re­sort in Pottersville, building a barn for workspace and turning the hotel into their home. A Railroads on Parade ex­hibit was dismantled and reassembled at Citigroup Center every Christmas for the next 20 years. When the display finally ended, in 2008, it had been seen by millions.

Luckily the train extravaganza was only unavailable to the public until July 2011, when the Dunhams opened Railroads on Parade in Pottersville. In addition to the train journey from New Jersey to the Adirondacks, visitors can see the Hell Gate exhibit, with an impressive railroad bridge; the NYC subway, complete with teensy phone booths; and the World’s Fair of 1939, where Clarke Dunham first be­came fascinated with trains while watching an exhibit named Railroads on Parade.

New last summer was a Prince Ed­ward Island scene with Canadian Na­tional Railway trains chugging by tiny fishing villages and, of course, the farm from Anne of Green Gables. Al­though I couldn’t see red-headed Anne Shirley with her carpetbag, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s there the next time I visit. It’s that kind of detail that makes Railroads on Parade so spectacular. As Barbara said, “We’re not nuts, we’re ab­solutely in­sane.” Clarke added, “You could probably just say we’re extremely dedicated in that, having done Broadway for 40 years, you have to be a little unbalanced, but in a good way.”

Visit Railroads on Parade at 7903 State Route 9, in Pottersville. The museum is open Memorial Day through the end of October. Call (518) 623-0100 or see www.railroadsonparade.com for details.

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