A History of the Coosa Valley Model Railroad Club

Gadsden, Alabama

(The following history was updated from an original newspaper article in The Gadsden Times written by Lisha B. Lonnergan.)

It is autumn in the tiny city cradled by the Appalachian foothills and nourished by the gentle Coosa River.  The riverbanks are lush with foliage, birds and other wildlife - including skinny dippers and diligent fishermen.  The wind is blowing downtown, causing shoppers to hold onto their hats and walk headfirst into the current.  Republic Steel is blazing, the postman is making his deliveries, and the railroads are running on schedule.  The clock is stopped somewhere between 1940 and 1950.  In the cityscape of Gadsden, Alabama, inside the Mary Hardin Center for Cultural Arts,the days of big band music and passenger trains will never end.

The 72 foot long model railroad layout of Gadsden in the 1940's and 1950's and the collection of HO gauge trains offers visitors the opportunity to travel backwards in time to the clanking sound of The Birmingham Special bound for Washington, D.C.  The miniature city contains everything from a once common "full service" gasoline station to the locally owned Lilly Pure Ice Cream Company.

A tribute to the time when railroads were king, the model is much more than a museum exhibit.  The town's creators, the original members of the Coosa Valley Model Railroad Club, worked from old photographs and their own memories.  They put pieces of themselves into every building and every part of the landscape.

The Club was organized in 1988 by a group of men and women dedicated to the preservation of railroading as well as the history of Gadsden.  They began meeting in the Downtown Recreation Center in Gadsden where they were introduced to Bobby Welch, Executive Director of the Cultural Arts Foundation, which was then raising money for an art center.  As plans progressed for the Center for Cultural Arts, interest grew in featuring an historical layout of Gadsden.  An agreement was reached between the Club and the Foundation to feature an HO scale site specific model railroad on the second floor.  According to the then president and founder, Herman Schmuck, the group chose to build a model of Gadsden during the 1940's because there were four railroads serving the city at that time.  The Alabama Great Southern (AGS), a part of the Southern Railway, ran four passenger trains from Birmingham to Washington, D.C.  Two locals and two trains named The Birmingham Special passed through the neighboring town of Attalla running heavy freight.  The TAG (Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railroad) was in the business of hauling material to the steel plant in Gadsden from Chattanooga.  The L&N (Louisville & Nashville Railroad) ran two passenger locals a day from Birmingham to Calera, Alabama, which is actually located south of the city of Birmingham, on a "circle route" north through Gadsden, then south to Anniston and then to Carlera.  A train ran in each direction.  The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis (N.C.&St.L.) Railroad completed the foursome with two local trains traveling from Gadsden to Guntersville, Alabama, where freight cars were put on barges and floated on the Tennessee River to connect with rail lines again near Huntsville, Alabama.

For the length of the layout, club members decided to block in the areas from Broad Street downtown to points north, and for the width to include the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant of the east and the Republic Steel plant and Attalla on the west.  Buildings on the layout include scale models of the Southern Railway Attalla station, the L&N Gadsden station and the N.C.&St.L. station. Part of the Republic Steel Company, the blast furnace and yards, were created along with the Dwight Mills building, the Goodyear plant, the Emma Sansom monument, and the Locust Street railroad bridge over the Coosa River as well as approximately forty buildings located on the north side of Broad Street (on the viewing side of the layout) and Locust Street (with its street trackage).

Original members of the club conducted extensive research at the Gadsden Public Library.  Using the 1939-40 Gadsden City Directory, they obtained the name of all the stores on the north side of Broad Street, the city's main street, from Second Street to Seventh Street.  A local photographer and club member, Bobby Scarboro, donated old photographs to fellow club members who scratchbuilt models of the buildings.  Original scenery use dried wild hydrangeas for trees, moss, lichen, and kitty litter.

In November, 1989, the benchwork was started and, after laying 700 feet of track with 130 turnouts and over three miles of wiring, a golden spike was driven close to the Emma Sansom Monument.  In November, 1990 the Coosa Valley Model Railroad Club celebrated the running of the first train.

The club now enjoys an expanded membership and has been updating the layout, refurbishing the scenery, adding more buildings as additional photos are located, and refining the operational abilities on the layout with DCC operating systems including sound in many of the locomotives as well as enhanced electronics for accessories on the railroad.

A portable N scale layout travels to train shows in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.  The club also sponsors an annual tarin show in the spring at the Gadsden Convention Center which draws individuals and dealers from around the southeast.  The show also includes layout displays from other clubs in the area with the CVMRRC N scale layout being a centerpiece display.

The HO scale layout is located on the second floor of the Mary Hardin Cent for the Cultural Arts at the corner of Broad Street and 5th Street in the historic downtown Gadsden area.  The club meets every Tuesday night at 6 p.m for work sessions.  The monthly business meeting is on the third Tuesday of the month at 6:30 p.m.

HO scale layout pictures

N scale layout pictures