Backyard train layouts

A few weeks ago I interviewed two gentleman who have turned their backyards into a pretty extensive train display. These gentleman, along with a few others, open up their backyard to the public, so they too can enjoy the train layouts. The pictures they sent me were stunning.

Train enthusiasts chug into backyards for tours

Published March 15, 2014 in SanTan Sun News

Valleywide members of the Arizona Big Train Operators are opening their backyards to the public to provide rare glimpses into their garden train layouts.

Sun Lakes resident Rich Hill says Arizona Big Train Operators, a club dedicated to garden railroad enthusiasts, boasts 90 members mostly in Chandler, Mesa, Apache Junction and Gold Canyon.

The Spring Open House Tour is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 29, and Sunday, March 30. For all locations, as well as a map, visit Five members who live in Chandler and Sun Lakes will have their railways on display.

“There are usually about 14 or 15 families that participate in this,” he says. “Everyone that is involved really are the leaders of our club. They take an interest in this and make sure their layout is pristine for the public to see. It’s a big deal for everyone at every age.”

The tour is the first of two this year. The Christmas event in 2013 attracted more than 1,300 people over two weekends, Hill says. This is the second year the club has held a Spring Open House Railway Tour for the public. Last year the two-day event attracted up to 500 people.

“Just about everyone is putting a lot of effort in the Spring Open House,” Hill says.

Ennis Thompson, also a Sun Lakes resident, says in 1997 he began an open house by himself to showcase his train layout.

“One year, we had 11,000 people in 16 days in my backyard,” Thompson says.

At one time, he held an open house for 20 straight days for four hours each day, which increased the crowd.

Now Thompson is among the ABTO members who participate in the spring and Christmas open house tours.

Backyard train layouts

Once Thompson moved to Sun Lakes, he built another railroad in his backyard. Thompson’s layout is 34 feet by 12 feet and which runs fi ve trains at a time. The railroad tracks run up a mountain and back down to a station where there is a pond with fish. He fashions his own buildings for the layout.

Ennis Thompson's layout. Photo provided to SanTan Sun News.

Ennis Thompson’s layout. Photo provided to SanTan Sun News.

“I’m going to put up a little car dealership at the end,” Thompson says. “I would like to build a covered bridge.”

Hill’s layout is just as elaborate. He began setting up his 35 feet by 70 feet program as soon as he moved into his Sun Lakes home. The layout, dubbed Rooster Creek Railroad, includes more than 500 feet of track. The layout has a fictitious town set in the 1950s with buildings named after businesses in his hometown Atlantic, Iowa.

Richard Hill's train layout. Photo provided to SanTan Sun News

Richard Hill’s train layout.   Photo provided to SanTan Sun News

“I like the era of the 1950s,” Hill says. Attending school during that decade, “a lot of things stuck in my mind. That’s what I tried to recreate.”

The layout also includes an oil refinery with 400 lights, a mine building, a farm with silos and about 400 people. A movie theater with a marquee and flashing lights is also among the layout, one of only two-made in the United States.

“Most of my buildings are now five to six years old and they look almost brand new because I put them inside,” Hill says.

Hill has a three-car garage that he turned into a hobby room containing memorabilia from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“My son and I are building a Ringling train from the 1950s,” Hill explains.

Hill conducts a scavenger hunt for the youngsters who visit his layout during the open house. He says the scavenger hunt includes items that can be found on the train layout.

Donations, which are tax-deductible, will be accepted at the homes participating in the tour. The money donated will support ABTO activities and a train layout at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa.

Founded in 1996 for those interested in g-scale trains, ABTO meets monthly.

Early love of trains

Hill’s love of trains started as a young boy when he and his brother received one for Christmas.

“I grew up in an area where four railroads went within 20 miles of our house,” Hill explains. “My parents always made sure my brother and I were around when the famous trains came through. I had a real interest in real trains and I still do.”

Thompson says his dad was an engineer on the North Central when he was a young boy. He says he got through college by working on the railroad. After graduating, the railroad crews began getting cut and he became a teacher in Indiana for 12 years.

When he moved to Arizona in 1976, he spotted Arizona Train Depot, which ignited a new hobby.

“By the time I got out of there, I joined the club and held about every office in the club,” Thompson says.

Open house enjoyment

Thompson says he enjoys participating in the open house because he loves watching the people.

“I really enjoy seeing people enjoy the railroad,” he says. “It brings back their pasts and some kids just stand there in awe.”

Hill agrees that people, particularly the young, are the reason he participates. He says there have been times when parents have to take their children away in tears because they do not want to leave.Some of the youngsters make sure to tell Hill what he has added from tour to tour.

“The older adults enjoy it because chances are they had a model train as a child,” Hill says. “They notice things on the train layout and it brings back memories from their childhood.”

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