A holiday tradition of trains at Capitol makes its final call

A model train display at the Oregon State Capitol is making its last appearance this holiday season. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Sitting at the base of the 30-foot tall Noble fir in the Capitol is a remnant of Americana.

An antique black American Flyer locomotive pulling several freight cars runs alongside historic buildings dotting the tiny fall landscape. The chugging of the train can be heard until it disappears under a tunnel, only to re-emerge in front of a replica of Bush House.

Visitors to the display can press a button to watch the train make a loop around the nearly 40-foot track. If 70-year-old train needs a break, there are three others to take its place. All the trains are from the American Flyer brand, a nod to A.C. Gilbert, a native son known for selling chemistry sets and making toy trains more realistic.

The display was the brainchild of former Gov. Victor Atiyeh, who served as Oregon’s governor from 1979 to 1987. Atiyeh wanted a model train railroad displaying Salem’s historic homes to encircle the tree during the holidays, and Don Curtis took on the task.

Curtis was teaching woodworking to inmates at the Oregon State Correctional Institution at the time, and he and his students completed the project.

That was in 1984.

Now 35 years later, the trains will make their final passes around the track.

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On Tuesday, Curtis, his son, three grandkids and two friends pulled pieces of the display out of a white trailer parked in front of the Capitol.

The crew worked together screwing down train tracks and raising the boughs of the tree so they wouldn’t touch the tiny houses.

David Curtis screws in train track on a model train display at the Oregon State Capitol on Tuesday. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Don’s son, David Curtis, said he was 6 when his father first set the train up for the holidays.

After his dad retired and inmates weren’t helping set up the display, it became a yearly tradition for the Curtis family.

When Don Curtis started planning the project, he went around town and took pictures of homes like the Deepwood Estate, Bush House and the Gilbert House Children’s Museum.

The Monmouth resident and the inmates who helped build the model cut notches into the wooden houses using a table saw, moving the blade fractions of an inch to create little sidings.

Not all the buildings hail from Salem. There’s a bank building from Independence and a service station modeled after one that Curtis’ father owned in Montana.

A miniature house on the model train display at the Oregon State Capitol during the holidays. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Curtis said the home everyone enjoys – a yellow “sort of a gingerbread house” – came out of Ideals Magazine.

“It just takes a lot of imagination,” Curtis said of the display.

Curtis said there are a lot of memories with the set. He’s taken it up and down the West Coast to train shows, where the layout wins awards.

“People look at it and they’ll say: ‘Oh that looks just like the town I was raised in back in Montana.’ Another lady, ‘That looks just like the town in Eureka, California.’ Because it’s so Americana and people identify with it,” Curtis said.

Curtis holds onto the display, while Alan Bennett of Keizer, takes care of the trains that date back to the 1940s and 1950s. Curtis said the trains are worn out, and the aging equipment can’t continuously run around the track.

As far as the Capitol display goes, Curtis said, “I’m not in the position of putting it back up next year. I’m getting too old for it.”

The trains run during regular Capitol hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. They don’t run during performances which take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday from Dec. 4 to Dec. 24.

On Tuesday, there is a tree lighting ceremony from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. 900 Court St. N.E.

A model train display at the Oregon State Capitol is making its last appearance this holiday season. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.