LYNNWOOD — Jim Noonan filled a garage-size building in back of his suburban rambler with a masterpiece in miniature.
Over 15 years, he re-created Colorado’s famed Rio Grande Southern railroad, a favorite of model train hobbyists.
Noonan’s scale rendition winds through eerily realistic mining towns with coal heaps and buildings of real wood. Tiny aspens and evergreens add to an optical illusion that transports onlookers to the Rocky Mountains, and back in time.
Noonan died in 2006, at the age of 80. Often, model train layouts get thrown out after their creator goes to the grave.
In Noonan’s case, family members and like-minded hobbyists don’t want to see that happen.
“Our interest is pretty much in finding somebody who would like (to have) it, rather than selling it,” son Jim Noonan Jr. said. “So often, the fate of these things is the Dumpster.”
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Passing along orphaned train sets to surviving hobbyists is a legacy issue many people don’t consider.
It’s become a specialty, though, for Bobj Berger of Edmonds, who goes by “Bob Jay.” Berger said he fell into that niche about a dozen years ago when he joined up with Roger Ferris, who’s been at it even longer.
“We didn’t plan to do this,” Berger said. “People would call him or I and ask for advice.”
Both avid model railroaders, Berger and Ferris devoted much of their professional careers to helping people through end-of-life issues, albeit from different angles. Ferris is a retired Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Berger a retired state geriatric social worker.
Paid on commission, they try to maximize the return for families, including Noonan’s, who need help unloading inherited model-train collections. They’ve also assisted with appraisals and disposing of train collections caught in limbo after divorces.
“Our basic philosophy is that we want train collections to stay in the hands of modelers as much as possible,” said Ferris, of Shoreline. “We don’t buy anything. We take it on covering our expenses. We don’t see it as a profit-making venture; we see it as a service venture.”
The collections can range in size from a few boxes to multiple 40-foot-long storage containers, and then some.
Ferris and Berger typically are working with about a dozen collections at a time. The number fluctuates. They have no retail outlet, but do participate in local model railroad shows.
For one family in Bellevue, they said, they were able to sell $17,000 worth of assorted trains collected since the 1940s. Before they got involved, a dealer had offered the family $1,000.
“We sort things over and we look for the gems — and there are some, particularly in the older estates,” Ferris said.
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At Jim Noonan’s old house, which his family is preparing to sell, a gem occupies a metal, garage-size building off the back patio.
Noonan spent his working life in the grocery industry, first as a food broker and later doing store layouts for Safeway. The father of three also was a ski instructor, right up until the time he died.
A 2004 story in Railroad Model Craftsman magazine features Noonan’s 19-by-23-foot layout and describes how he got early exposure to model railways through a club.
Adult life pulled him away from the hobby, as he served in the Army Air Corps toward the end of World War II and later set out to establish a career.
He rekindled his interest in model trains during the 1950s. By then, he had settled into family life. He nurtured his pastime over the next four decades by building models and visiting other setups, according to the article.
He didn’t get around to building his layout until after retirement. That was in 1991.
Noonan told the magazine it took him a year and a half to complete the original track and another year or so to correct mistakes. Over the next decade, he tinkered with staging yards and the scenery.
“A number of local fellows worked with him on the layout, but he did most of it himself,” said Russ Segner, a model railroader from Newcastle and a division superintendent for the National Model Railroad Association. “The track work is very delicate and takes a great deal of finesse.”
Segner called Noonan “very quiet, very dependable. And a very skilled modeler.”
Noonan, like Segner, focused on narrow-gauge railroads, so called because the real-life prototypes ran on tracks that were closer together than the standard width of 4 feet, 8 inches. Narrow-gauge railways were common in Colorado, where they serviced the mining boom in the late 1800s. They included Noonan’s inspiration — the Rio Grande Southern.
“He picked it because it’s such a renowned narrow-gauge line,” Jim Noonan Jr. said. “He’d go down there occasionally just to see it.”
He brought back rocks and dirt from the trips to incorporate into the layout, which was built at a scale known as HOn3, in which 3.5 mm is equal to one foot.
Jim Noonan Jr., of Perrinville, helped to finish the landscapes, where his workmanship shows. He is a professional painter by trade, and many people in the Everett area likely remember the celebrity murals he did for about 20 years at the Clyde Revord Motors dealership on Evergreen Way.
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Noonan’s finished work looks like a museum-quality diorama.
The line runs through the Dallas Divide, Placerville and Vance Junction. Gradients vary in scaled-down terrain. A branch line heads to Telluride, which in more recent times has become a world-famous ski area.
“These places actually exist,” Berger said.
Berger estimates it would take at least $20,000 to replicate Noonan’s work. Like other layouts, however, it likely holds little resale value beyond the tracks and other components.
“It’s just too cool to have it end up in the garbage can,” Berger said.“Our real goal is to save it.”
They’ve received inquiries from museums, Berger said, but nothing solid.
Moving the setup poses challenges.
Noonan’s layout will break down into 8- to 10-foot sections, but that requires sawing through the scenery.
Another option involves no sawing, but it is far-fetched.
The layout could potentially be kept in one piece by removing the building’s roof and hoisting it out with a crane or helicopter.
There’s also a possibility that involves no moving at all.
Berger and Ferris said they once worked with a widower from Oso who had built a model railroad layout larger than Noonan’s. When the man remarried and left the area, a buyer snapped up the Oso house — model railroad and all.
That’s also a possibility in Lynnwood.
“Somebody could buy the house and the railroad would stay,” Berger said.
Said Jim Noonan Jr.: “Somebody who was looking to move would have a ready-made hobby.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, email@example.com.
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