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The 'King Kong' effect: Why the history museum's Model Train Festival is magical

Model trains at the state history museum in Tacoma
Simone Alicea
The Model Train Festival at the Washington State History Museum opened Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.

School was still in session for many kids Friday, the opening day of the Model Train Festival. But there were still a handful of children and adults spread across multiple floors of the state history museum in Tacoma to watch miniature locomotives chug.

One young boy pressed his face against the plexiglass surrounding the state's largest permanent model train display that represents 79 real-life miles of railroad around Tacoma. The train was in a far-off corner, still coming around the bend. But the boy was fascinated by the scale model of Tacoma's Union Station, especially the tiny figures that seemed to bustle inside.

"Hey," the boy exclaimed, "people are going in there!"

This experience is common among the children who come to see the model trains, says Jennifer Kilmer, director of the state historical society.

"I think of it as like the King Kong effect," Kilmer said. "They usually feel really small in their world, and so one thing about model trains is it makes them feel like a giant."

In addition to the permanent display, the 24th annual Model Train Festival features layouts from five other clubs. The trains range in size from those provided by the Kitsap Live Steamers, which are about knee-high on an adult, to what are called N-Scale tracks, with trains barely an inch tall.

Each display is crafted by multiple modelers, showcasing a variety of skills. On one table you can go from an industrial scene based on the Port of Seattle straight into an imaginary mid-20th century town with cute storefronts. 

"You can't build anything wrong," said Mike Slease, who runs a group within a local divisionof the National Model Railroad Association. "You can only build it to your own standard."

There's something about trains — traveling through snow-kissed landscapes or around a Christmas tree — that seems to evoke this time of year, Kilmer says.  She says the festival is where the museum sees some of its most diverse audiences.

"I think we can all relate to loving tiny things or seeing our surroundings that we recognize sort of duplicated in miniature. I think that spans generations, ethnicities, gender, everything," Kilmer said.

And even on a small scale, watching trains can be a visceral experience.

"There's something about that movement, that motion, that power that I think kind of grabs people," Slease said.

The Model Train Festival runs through Jan. 1 at the state history museum in Tacoma.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.