By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Model train sets have been around since the 1840s and have stood the test of time, but chances are you haven’t seen a set like the one in Coon Rapids. It covers 5,000 square feet and connects 12 cities.

In this week’s Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen takes us to the North Metro Model Railroad Club where despite its impressive display, there’s no end in sight.

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“You just walk in and you see their eyes get wide and you’re like, yep, it’s this big,” Jeff Dombrowski said.

In the basement of an old grocery store tracks have been laid so that trains and towns can come to life.

Everything here is made possible by lights, animation, and hobbyists who all have a similar train of thought.

“It is really impressive. I know when I had a home layout it was on a 4×8 sheet of plywood so, one city. But here we have so much space. It takes so long to get around somewhere it’s really, really amazing,” Simon Awcock said.

It can take up to a half hour or longer for a single train to go all the way around and it’s all connected. Each little town is a replica of the real-life city it represents.

“Big Lake is where the North Star gets serviced. They do air tests for trains to go,” said Kyron Tarmann.

Tarmann is a club member who actually works for Canadian Pacific railroad. If Brainerd, Staples or St. Cloud make a change to their respective cities, that same change will happen in this basement. North Star in Big Lake is a prime example.

Related: North Metro Railroad Club Facebook Page

WCCO’s John Lauritsen asked Tarmann if they would extend the North Star if it goes to St. Cloud someday.

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“Yeah, it would go both ways,” Tarmann said.

It’s come a long way since the club first laid its tracks back in 2011. There are now 40 active members and their day jobs range from college students to police officers to repair techs. Each one plays an important role.

Members don’t just act as engineers, they also act as planners and even artists for farm sites, cities, rivers and railyards. Creativity is encouraged.

“One of our guys builds all the trees by hand,” Dombrowski said. “The scrap metal actually came from a club member who makes steel guitars. Use your imagination and it can turn into something.”

Even the clouds in the sky are made out of chicken wire and pillow filling. Further proof that this isn’t your father’s model train set.

“We can also control it on our phone through an app called engine driver,” said Awcock.

There is a continuous merging of old school trains with new technology. Computer chips help Awcock honk or blow a whistle as he runs the Northtown Hump in Fridley.

“Some of the locomotives are super detailed. I spent hours working on mine, adding extra details. Making it look like the real thing,” Awcock said.

The club itself has spent close to $80,000 in the layout and scenery, trying to take what you see every day and bring it home. There’s still plenty of room for more towns, cities, and club members — so there’s no telling where the tracks will end.

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“It’s not done. It’s never done. Because you can always add details. You can always change it up a little bit,” said Dombrowski.

John Lauritsen