Catch The Last Train To Harwich: Model Railroad Display Coming Down

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Local History

Ross Hall of the Nauset Model Railroad Club (right) and Harwich Historical Society volunteer Al Raneo watch as a locomotive lumbers through downtown Orleans.   

HARWICH For the last decade, visitors to the Harwich Historical Society’s Brooks Academy Museum could climb the stairs and explore a model railroad display depicting Harwich in the first half of the 20th century. But in a couple of weeks, the display will be dismantled to make way for new exhibits.

The circular layout depicts scenes from Harwich, Brewster and Orleans, and even has a bit of the old Hyannis switching yard.

The circular layout depicts scenes from Harwich, Brewster and Orleans, and even has a bit of the old Hyannis switching yard.

The sprawling display will be available for viewing for two more Saturdays, Dec. 9 and 16, from 1 to 4 p.m. After that, it’s the end of the line for the model railroad, which was never intended to remain in place so long.

“The original plan was for two years,” said Ross Hall of the Nauset Model Railroad Club. The layout was a collaboration between the club and the historical society and was supposed to be taken down in 2008. But the display proved popular with class after class of schoolchildren, scouting groups, even small tour groups from local nursing homes.

Visitors see tiny scenes from various villages in Harwich and Orleans as they looked between 1900 and 1950. The details are captivating, and meticulous.

“These are replicas, not approximations,” Hall said. Club members contributed the scratch-built structures that tell the story of early Harwich. There’s the tiny screen house, showing the stations where local people worked to sort and process freshly harvested cranberries. It’s architecturally correct, down to the number of panes in the windows, and features a cut-away roof to show the conveyor belt and work stations inside. Built by club member Andy Reynolds, the replica won an award for its detail and craftsmanship.

The little structures are there to convey history, historical society volunteer Albert Raneo said. And they do so accurately, he said, peering at the tiny Pleasant Lake General Store built by Hall.

The tiny Pleasant Lake General Store, scratch-built by Hall.

The tiny Pleasant Lake General Store, scratch-built by Hall.

“I remember it,” Raneo said. Raneo said he remembers the kindly man who owned the store. “He’d give us boxes of broken crackers,” he said with a chuckle.

The little building doesn’t match the way the store looks today, but it is a precise replica of the way it looked in the early 20th century. Using period photos provided by the historical society, Hall scratch-built the tiny building, painstakingly crafting paper shingles that matched the originals in style, even installing the correct number of courses and staggering the shingles’ seams, just like real ones. The information Hall couldn’t get from the photos, he collected himself.

“My wife and I went out and measured,” he said.

Hall will be donating the replica to the museum. The other pieces will return to the club members who built them, and portions of the display may be incorporated into the Nauset Model Railroad Club’s display in Orleans.

“I’m going to miss it,” Raneo said of the Harwich display. But interest in the layout was starting to wane, and the historical society is looking ahead to 2019, which will be the 175th anniversary of the museum building, built as Pine Grove Seminary. The large upstairs exhibit room will likely be used for exhibits related to that anniversary, Executive Director Janet Cassidy said.  

The screen house, as it looked in North Harwich.

The screen house, as it looked in North Harwich.

There were four stations and one flag stop in Harwich. This one was at the Main Street railroad crossing, about a mile west of Harwich Center.

There were four stations and one flag stop in Harwich. This one was at the Main Street railroad crossing, about a mile west of Harwich Center.

This hopper car of sand is an exception to the builders’ meticulous attention to scale detail. Rather than using scale sand, which would look like talcum powder, they used actual sand taken from the same area in Provincetown where it would have been mined at the time. The fine, clean sand was used for various industrial purposes around New England.

This hopper car of sand is an exception to the builders’ meticulous attention to scale detail. Rather than using scale sand, which would look like talcum powder, they used actual sand taken from the same area in Provincetown where it would have been mined at the time. The fine, clean sand was used for various industrial purposes around New England.