Mike and Lee Dunn’s model train layout is one of several Sandy Springs stops on an open-house tour called the Piedmont Pilgrimage.
Mike and Lee Dunn’s model train layout is one of several Sandy Springs stops on an open-house tour called the Piedmont Pilgrimage.

There’s a train that runs past a drive-in theater showing “Gone with the Wind,” over Savannah’s famous River Street, alongside an Atlanta Steel plant, and into the Georgia mountains. It’s called the My Way Railroad, and it makes the entire trip in a basement on Nesbit Ferry Road.

Mike and Lee Dunn’s enormous model train layout was one of several Sandy Springs stopped Oct. 25 on an open-house tour called the Piedmont Pilgrimage. Hundreds of model railroad fans made the trip, and will visit more layouts in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs as the open houses continue through November.

“It gets bigger every year,” said Dave Bennett of Woodstock’s Train Installations, who built the layouts for the Dunns and many other model-railroaders.

In fact, Sandy Springs is an epicenter of the old-school hobby. The regional Piedmont Division of the National Model Railroad Association meets monthly at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, sometimes drawing 100 members. Bennett stays busy working with many members, making home visits in a locomotive-style van outfitted with a cowcatcher and a smokestack. He also maintains the train layout running in the Children’s Healthcare hospital on Pill Hill, an item donated by one of his customers.

Building a model train layout can take years and cost $1,500 to $15,000—or way more, for layouts such as the My Way line, said Bennett. The Dunns’ layout fills a 30-by-25-foot room with 500 feet of track and realistic murals providing a 360-degree background.

“I guess it’s in the genes,” said Mike Dunn. He got hooked on model trains as a kid in Los Angeles, then became an entrepreneur and a fan of trap-shooting. Years later, after coming South, he learned his great-great-grandfather was a trap-shooter and president of the Central of Georgia Railway.

“I’m the historian,” said Lee Dunn, who’s writing a book about her husband’s ancestor. She pointed out some of the layout’s small details that were often charming or humorous, such as “Wicked Wanda’s,” a miniature railroad brothel.

Small details and family roots were themes in all the local layouts. At Joe Nichols Jr.’s Ridgemont Drive home, father Joe Sr. helped him run a recreation of 1917-era Colorado gold-hauling train.

Joe Jr. and Joe Sr. share a name, a profession—they’re both surgeons—and the family hobby. They’re both NMRA-certified “Master Model Railroaders,” only the third father-son pair to have the status, Joe Sr. said. The elder Nichols will open his home on the Nov. 7 Piedmont Pilgrimage date, and his son will return the favor by helping to run it. “He’s got one of the biggest layouts in town,” around 1,000 square feet, said Joe Jr.

The space, cost and time needed to build a layout mean that most hobbyists get into it later in life, Joe Jr. said.

“The biggest limitation is cost,” he said. “The second limitation is getting permission from your wife.” That’s Lynn Nichols, who confirmed some complex negotiations underway about some extra basement square-footage.

Many of Joe Jr.’s Colorado mountains were still unfinished Styrofoam carvings, and he isn’t picky about the complexities of switches and signals on the miniature railroad. “I don’t care if they derail,” he said, explaining that he enjoys building the train models more than running them.

For Robert Young, who runs a miniature Pennsylvania Railroad in his Hunters Trace Circle basement, the appeal is creating trackside scenes—people fishing, fire trucks leaving a station and hundreds more events packed into the landscape.

“It’s vignettes,” said Young. “You pick an area and it tells a little story. That’s the part I enjoy, is detailing it.”

Young has worked on his layout since 2006. His love for the hobby was passed on by his father, who built a layout about 50 years ago. Some components of that layout are in Young’s setup today.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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