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Pandemic project: Been working on the railroad: Rural Spokane resident building fanciful replica of 1888 to 1930 railway in his basement

Calling Craig Smith a train hobbyist would be an understatement, as Smith has been a lifelong train enthusiast for full-scale operable locomotives and model trains.  (Libby Kamrowski/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Calling Craig Smith a train hobbyist would be an understatement, as Smith has been a lifelong train enthusiast for full-scale operable locomotives and model trains. (Libby Kamrowski/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Craig Smith has been working on the railroad all the live-long day.

Well, actually just several hours a day in his basement.

“I started this six months ago,” he said. “I still have a lot to do.”

“This” is a replica of an 11-mile railway line that ran on the Long Beach Peninsula of Washington’s coast from 1888 to 1930.

“It is a ‘garden railroad’ size usually for outside, but being built in my basement for a number of reasons,” Smith said.

One of those reasons is he can work on the project year-round, another is the basement houses his trove of railroadiana.

Smith’s collection includes books (700 to be precise), depot prints, dining car menus and china, blotters, switch lanterns and uniforms. Winold Reiss Great Northern calendars line the walls. Reiss’s work for the railroad often featured Native American themes or Glacier National Park.

A sign for the Dishman Depot hangs over a doorway and a working signal light and refinished railway depot walkover bench vies for space in a room filled with model railroad buildings waiting to be assembled.

As a member of the Inland Northwest Garden Railroad Society, Smith is delighted the group can once again meet in person.

He traces his passion to his childhood.

“My grandfather had a train layout in the basement of his house in Seattle,” he recalled. “We lived two blocks away and my brother and I would go over and play.”

However, he didn’t start collecting in earnest until his children got a train set in 1976.

“The kids launched my hobby,” Smith said.

The idea of recreating a previously existing railway line and reimagining it in the future is what launched his pandemic project.

“It’s only 11 miles long. I can model the whole thing,” he said.

Though the railroad ceased operation in 1930, Smith envisioned what it would look like in 1960.

“The tracks are now gone, but two stations still exist, one in Long Beach and one in Seaview,” he said.

So far, the model railroad fills an entire room, and by the time he’s finished, it will encompass two.

Blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds and a green forest surrounds the railroad.

“I painted the artwork behind it to give it depth,” Smith explained. “I built everything you see.”

That includes the Ilwaco wharf and its waiting room benches. A hardware store with vintage cars and trucks nearby; a Trustworthy truck with a lawnmower in the bed waits at a crossing. There’s a diner/bar with tiny replicas of beer and cigar signs, and Charlie’s Bait and Tackle shop, with a fishing pole leaning outside the door. And of course the train yard, with cars and engines ready to roll.

Smith demonstrated his man-powered Armstrong turntable – a device for turning locomotives so they can be moved back in the direction they came from.

“I actually pushed a real one in Carson City, Nevada,” he said.

The radio-controlled train complete with realistic sound chugged slowly down the tracks. The tracks pass a small graveyard and for now, end at a replica of the Shelburne Hotel in Seaview.

Smith grinned.

“In Craig’s world, it’s reimagined as a resort hotel with cabins.”

He estimates the railroad will take another year to complete, but time flies for him, whether he’s laying tracks, building roads, painting backdrops, or constructing buildings. His imagination soars as he ponders who might have lived and worked along this railroad.

“I’m hooked on this,” Smith said. “It comes alive for me.”

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Correspondent Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com.

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