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Clarke and Barbara Dunham have created miniature worlds, using model trains and tiny dioramas.  (Photo:  Andy Flynn)
Clarke and Barbara Dunham have created miniature worlds, using model trains and tiny dioramas. (Photo: Andy Flynn)

An imaginary world made of model trains

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As we've been hearing, trains have become a flashpoint for debate in the Adirondacks. But in Pottersville, in Warren County, a Broadway set designer has opened the Adirondack Park's newest tourist attraction devoted entirely to model trains.

There's no controversy here. Just dozens of tiny trolleys, steam engines and locomotives, each surrounded by its own tiny world, sort of a Disneyland in miniature.

Clarke and Barbara Dunham brought "Railroads on Parade" to the North Country last year, after exhibiting it for years in New York City.

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Reported by

Andy Flynn
Adirondack Correspondent

While in New York City, in 1987, Clarke designed a model train exhibit called “The Station.” It was set up during the Christmas holiday season at the Citigroup Center’s lobby in Manhattan.

“Originally ‘The Station’ exhibit was supposed to be a one-year project for Citibank and then it would go to the dump. They expected 30,000 people and got 141,000 people, and somebody decided, ‘Maybe we better do this again,’” Clark said.

And so they did, on and off until 2008, when the Great Recession gripped the nation. Citigroup Inc. collected a $45 billion bailout from the federal government, laid off more than 50,000 employees and shut down “The Station” for good.

Now it’s in Pottersville at Railroads on Parade.

“People keep asking us, ‘What is it about model trains? What is it that makes them magical?’ And the only answer that I’ve ever been able to come up with is that it lifts you out of your moment and puts you in another moment which is perhaps better or more interesting, but whatever it is, it’s magical,” Clarke said.

“The Station” features sets of tracks on three different levels, each using separate scales of model trains, O, S and HO. The journey takes the visitor from Weehawken, N.J. in 1945 to the Catskills and Adirondacks in 1955.

“And those trains that are actually below our eye level are actually eye level for a five-year-old. So imagine one of these guys coming right at you on eye level. And it’s a very different experience, an important one,” Clarke said.

The idea for Railroads on Parade came from the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York City. There’s a model train exhibit here honoring the fair. After all, Clarke was there.

“Now this is the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. When Clarke was a little boy, his grandparents took him to see it, and he keeps describing looking up at these immense trains. And that was the trains in the Railroads on Parade exhibit in which there were what they called dancing locomotives. Now they don’t really dance; they come forward, meet each other and back, each line of trains being from a different era in American trains,” Barbara said.

There was also a model train exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. It made a lasting impression, and you can see it here at Railrosds on Parade.

There’s a lot going on in this room for the eyes and ears. Visitors first walk into a wall of sound and are soon enveloped by a din of 50 tiny trains and trollies, scooting around half a mile of track. There are hundreds of buildings and thousands of trees.

A man painting a billboard, a farmer with his tractor and animals. A fairground or cabin in the Adirondacks. A drive-in theater with Gary Cooper on the big screen. It’s “High Noon.” But why is the movie subtitled?

“I’m going to refuse to answer that because it’s not supposed to be subtitled,” Clarke said.

And the movie only plays at night, when the lights dim in the exhibit. The entire room is transformed into a nighttime scene, and several minutes later, the room slowly turns into daytime again. 

The Dunhams keep making plans to educate and entertain. Many their own age are retired, but they continue to run the mom-and-pop shop as they always have.

“I have no intention of stopping. I’ll fall over someday and that will be the end of it. The idea of retirement is sort of my idea of suicide. You’ve got to do this because you’ve got to do it, this or theater, it doesn’t matter what it is ... You get through if you’re an artist by doing a lot of different things. And basically we’re artists who got lucky,” Clark said.

Railroads on Parade is located on Route 9 in Pottersville off Northway exit 26.

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