After nearly five decades winding through miniatures mountains, rustic towns and train yards, the model trains of the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society are now winding their way through courtrooms.
On Wednesday, the historical society squared off in a Napa courtroom against the operators of the Napa Valley fairgrounds who want to evict the railroad as part of a sweeping plan to modernize the fairgrounds.
Historical Society President Daniel Jonas said the group was given until the end of last December to vacate the buildings that house the club’s 3000-square-foot model railroad. Instead, the group dug in and filed a lawsuit accusing the Napa Valley Expo of failing to first conduct an environmental review.
“It would be like a death in the family,” longtime member John Rodgers lamented about “losing something like this that we put so much into.”
Expo management didn’t return several NBC Bay Area messages requesting comment. But the Expo Board’s recently-adopted master plan calls for the removal of several dated buildings on the site, including the railroad.
“The Napa Valley Expo Board concluded that in order to successfully fulfill its mission and vision,” the report said, “the 25th DAA [District Agricultural Association] must upgrade existing, relevant facilities, remove limiting and currently irrelevant facilities and construct new facilities that respond to the needs of the Napa Community.”
The model railroad has occupied a pair of World War II Quonset huts on the fairgrounds since 1970. Inside, HO scale trains snake through fastidiously accurate rural settings and train yards representing terrain from Stockton to Portland.
“The idea is to be able to show the public how a real railroad works,” Jonas said. “We then it run it exactly like a real railroad runs: trains are dispatched, they’re put together, they pick up cars, they drop off cars.”
The trains are operated manually by members as a dispatcher sits in an overlook perch, monitoring the various lines of track via computer screen. On a recent day, a small engine billowed smoke as it ran across a trestle while a Santa Fe engine hauled its industrial load into a long tunnel cut into a mountainside. Around the corner, the screen of a model drive-in theater flickered with the Wizard of Oz.
“A lot of us have spent time in watching real trains,” Rodgers said. “Then you develop a certain interest in certain locomotives and cars and locations.”
The railroad is open to the public the third Saturday of every month as well as during fairground events. Jonas emphasized the club doesn’t charge admission and accepts kids as young as eight years old into its ranks.
“The community loses all the recreational value that this brings for them to come in here,” Jonas said. “Certainly, our members won’t have a place to meet.”
The fairgrounds have gotten more attention in recent years with the addition of the annual BottleRock Napa Valley music festival, which draws 120,000 visitors over three days. The event has helped the Expo edge closer toward becoming financially sufficient, according to the draft plan.
The Expo hopes to revamp the property with modern buildings, open space and ties to nearby transit facilities. Just outside the grounds, new development has sprung up including the Oxbow Public Market and the Culinary Institute of America.
Jonas questioned why the railroad would have to become a casualty of the progress.
“This is a lot of acres and we’re one teeny corner of it,” he said.
During a court hearing this week, a judge set a Jan. 26 date to hear the club’s challenge to its ouster — on the grounds the Expo hasn’t yet explored the historical or cultural impact of evicting the group.
Jonas said if the group is evicted, there is no way to move the massive train layout that winds through two rooms — and even if they could there is no place for them to go.
“We committed all of our resources and more to stay in the fight,” Jonas said as a small freight train zipped by, “and make sure that when the fair opens this year and the following year, that this is still here.”