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Model railroad hobbyist shares expansive project

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Jim Niehaus's 1/48 scale model railroad project has been under construction for the past 15 years. (Press photo by Caroline Rosacker)

By Caroline Rosacker

The world of model railroading in America has changed throughout the years, but enthusiasts who meticulously build their own train sets are as passionate as ever. 

Jim Niehaus

Model trains have intrigued Jim Niehaus of Guttenberg since he was a young boy. He investigated model railroading more seriously when his boys were young. "When I started I built them for the kids," he began. "They liked HO trains because they traveled faster." 

As the boys' interests shifted, Jim switched to a different layout, but had trouble with train derailments. "I tore down that set, sold it, and started all over again," he explained. 

What began as miniature trains circling family Christmas trees in the mid-20th century has now expanded to include detailed miniature railroads displayed on elaborate sprawling layouts in buildings specifically built for hobbyists. 

15-year project

The model builder's current project is 1/48 scale and has been under construction for the past 15 years. His carefully crafted landscapes are just as realistic as the trains themselves. 

Connie, Jim's wife of 45 years, described his layout. "He designed it to look like the Colorado mountains," she shared. "I enjoy watching the trains make their way through the mountains and tunnels and detailed villages along the track." 

Jim added, "I enjoy the building process and the unique challenges that arise, and the artistry involved in making everything appear realistic." 

Uses drafting skills

Jim credited Harold "Bus" Kann who educated him as a draftsman, and his experience working at Hilton Homes and  Trademark Homes, Inc., in Guttenberg as a draftsman. "I learned a lot about construction which has been very useful in pursuing my hobby."

Jim's impressive villages include a collection of kits, out-of-the-box, and handmade and designed pieces. He tries to bring familiarity to his project and pointed out a miniature Pierce Furniture Store, a nod to his maternal grandmother's family; and a gas station/car repair piece named after a good friend – listing only a few. 

Dubuque 4th Street elevator

The draftsman's talent is showcased in many of his hand-crafted buildings that are an exact replication of full-size structures. A duplicate of the Dubuque Fourth Street Elevator caught my attention. "I really enjoy the challenge of handcrafting a building to be an exact replica," he commented. "I took several photos of the Fourth Street Elevator so I could get the specific layout and angle of each cable car. There is an electric eye on each end so it stops and switches directions," he explained. 

Satisfying hobby

With the flip of a switch Jim's attention to detail and artistry in the structures he creates brings his Colorado Mountain prototype to life. "Connie has no idea how much money I have spent on model trains throughout my life," he said with a laugh. 

She replied with a smile, "Oh yes I do. It's probably as much as I spend on shoes." 

The scale model builder attends approximately 13 train shows a year with his friends who also enjoy model trains. "We have a lot of fun attending shows and discussing the projects we are working on. It's been a lot of fun," he concluded.

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