Living Desert‘s Garden “Bighorn Railroad” Captures Railroader’s Attention

when we think of a zoo, we usually associate it with a collection of wild and exotic animals in a safe and protected environment. We also expect to learn something about those   creatures and to enjoy their beauty and grace as they go through their daily routines such as feeding time. 

But the Living Desert has added to the Desert Zoo experience with the addition of an expansive and imaginative Garden Railroad!

As Zoo visitors make their way among the many Living Desert Zoo exhibits, their attention is immediately drawn to the “Bighorn Railroad”, with more than 3,000 feet of model railroad track winding through a beautiful garden setting, resplendent with hundreds of miniature scale buildings and vehicles set in a variety of modeled landscapes. Children are particularly drawn to the garden railroad experience and bustle from one vantage point to another to catch a glimpse of one of four model trains making their scheduled runs to multiple destinations.  In many ways, the Garden Railroad layout presents National  Monuments, such as Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, coal mines, mountain timber cutting operations, and depiction of large scale rail yards serving  Southern California communities.

A Garden Scale freight train rolls past Mount Rushmore.

While the Garden Railroad represents a fabulous community investment, it is an all-volunteer force of railroad modelers who come to work, enjoying their passion through the eyes of Zoo visitors, young and old. 

A G-scale Volunteer conducts the daily train talk for visitors young and old alike

“With the desert winds blowing, we have to clean the sand off the tracks almost daily,” advised a train-talk volunteer to a group of visitors gathered for a train talk at 12:30 PM under a nearby shade tree. ‘All of the hundreds of scale model vehicles in the garden have been donated by our volunteers, who have also built the miniature buildings you see as you watch the trains go by.” The volunteer railroader went on to say that the Garden railroad was first unveiled in 1998, when three loops along with a few buildings and a couple of bridges were placed on the ground and the trains ran for the Living Desert’s annual Wildlights program.  The trains became so popular that many requests were made to make the trains a more permanent exhibit.

In 2000, the adventure began.  In order to create the necessary landscape, forty two dump truck loads of dirt were brought in and the Logging and Mine rail lines were created.  Next came the Indio rail yards and to the east of the yard, a large flat area was used to turn the trains around.  In order to get the trains from the lower part of the layout to the upper part of the layout, the idea of a large trestle came about.  The trestle was made in five weeks, taking another four weeks to install. 

Made of redwood, the trestle is believed to be the longest G Scale trestle in the world.



Behind the scenes, there is a train control tower, called “The Little Tower”. In this building, all train activities are controlled by wire on an individual basis.  Each model train has its own switch and in the Little Tower, making stops at depots freight and passenger stations along the way. Even in model railroading, someone has to control the engines on a long shift (13:00 AM to 6:00 PM), all staffed by volunteers.

What can you do with 542 bags of concrete?  Why, you build a replica of the Grand Canyon!  Working with chicken cooping and concrete, the Living Desert volunteers on the Bighorn Railroad build a garden-sized model of the Grand Canyon. The project reflects in miniature what was carved out of Arizona landscape millions of years ago.  Additionally, the volunteers also detailed Indian cliff dwellings of Arizona and New Mexico, complete with the red clay hills, rivers and lakes. 

Other additions to the Garden railroad also include several waterfalls cascading over rocks, with fishermen catching fish from miniature canoes and rowboats. 

Now that construction of the Bighorn Railroad is complete, the goal of the volunteer tra1n crew is to maintain the layout on a daily basis, add more landscape details, a sound system, and more that will add to the enjoyment of the Garden railroad, helping the Living Desert visitors to better understand the importance of the railroad, both culturally and historically.   Note:  for more information about the Living Desert Zoo, located in Rancho Mirage, California, see their website at    Article by Chip Deyerle  and copy write (c) 2014.


Update on the “Fire Up 611″ Campaign by VMT

The dream is coming true!

The Norfolk & Western Class J 611

Steam Passenger Locomotive Rolls  

to Restoration May 24  


Fundraising campaign halfway to goal of $5 million

Restoration must start now to participate in 2015
Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam Excursion Program

Apr. 1, 2014 – ROANOKE, VIRGINIA – The Virginia Museum of Transportation today announced the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 Steam Passenger Locomotive-known affectionately as the Spirit of Roanoke-is ready to head to Spencer, N.C. for restoration. An “All Aboard” send-off party is scheduled for Saturday, May 24, from 10 am to 5 pm.   

After leaving the Virginia Museum of Transportation on May 24, the Class J 611 will arrive at the North Carolina Transportation Museum on or about May 29, 2014. She will be the guest of honor at the museum’s Streamliners event, to be held May 29 through June 1. Restoration work will begin shortly after the event.  

The restoration will be open to the public, but with limited viewing. Planned work includes a complete overhaul to meet current Federal Railroad Administration and strict safety guidelines.  

“We’re pleased to send the 611 on to our fellow train enthusiasts at the North Carolina Transportation Museum where this exciting restoration will get underway,” says Beverly T. Fitzpatrick, Jr., executive director of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. “We’re grateful for the tremendous amount of support that allows us to reach this step of the program.”  

The Fire UP 611 Committee of steam locomotive technology experts, business leaders and railroad consultants conducted a feasibility study in 2013. The study revealed that the Virginia Museum of Transportation would need $3.5 million to restore, operate and preserve the Class J 611. An additional $1.5 million will be raised as an endowment for the iconic locomotive.  

Although the original plan called for raising approximately $3.5 million prior to the start of restoration, the Fire Up 611! Committee and the Museum’s Board of Directors decided to move ahead with restoration now that $2.3 million has been raised. Fitzpatrick cites a tight timeline to participate in Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam Program in 2015, Amtrak’s return to Roanoke, the momentum of the fundraising efforts and strong results as reasons in support of the decision.  

“The restoration will take approximately nine months and needs to begin this spring so we can participate in Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam Program in 2015,” says Fitzpatrick.   “As she travels the Norfolk Southern rail system, our 611 will draw the attention and interest of new donors and fans of the Class J 611 from the region and beyond.”  

A picture of an old Norfolk & Western Lubritorium.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation will base the Preservation and Education Facility on this design.


Steam Forever: Protecting the investment of a one-of-a-kind American treasure

The Fire Up 611! Committee recommended that a preservation and education center be built at the Museum to keep the locomotive in top operating form. “The goal from the very beginning was not only to get her running, but to keep her running for generations to come,” said J. Preston Claytor, chairman of the Fire Up 611! Committee. “The facility secures the investments rail fans have made in the Class J 611.”  

Amtrak’s plans to extend passenger rail service into Roanoke will play a role in the location of the preservation and education center. “Amtrak may need land owned by Norfolk Southern and leased by the Museum at present,” he says. “We are looking at ideas for the preservation and education facility’s location in conjunction with Amtrak Service, the Class J 611’s restoration, and the overall planning of this facility.”  

In recent months, the Fire Up 611! Campaign saw major momentum, and the Museum is confident the remaining funds will be raised. “We’re going at full steam,” says Fitzpatrick. “Based on our success to date and projection for the campaign’s final stages, we decided we could send her to Spencer for restoration sooner rather than later.” In nine short months, donations to the campaign have been received from nearly 3,000 donors from every state and the District of Columbia in the United States and 18 foreign countries.  

Fans of the Class J 611 are invited to visit to learn more and to donate to the Fire Up 611 Capital Campaign. They can also visit the Fire Up 611 Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter feed (#fireup611).  

The Fire Up 611! Study

The Study determined that a minimum of $3.5 million is needed to return the locomotive to the rails. The costs include a complete mechanical restoration of the locomotive, a preservation and education facility and support to develop the excursion program.  

The Preservation and Education Facility will preserve and maintain the iconic steam passenger locomotive. Educational exhibits and viewing areas will also be included.  

The locomotive will be restored through a partnership with the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina. The 37-bay Bob Julian Roundhouse on the grounds of the Museum is one of the last remaining roundhouses in the United States that can handle a locomotive the size of the Class J 611.  

To be successful and remain on the rails, personnel and tools are necessary to complete the restoration and operate the excursions. Included in these costs are marketing, human resources and business operations.  

Click here for a list of the Fire Up 611! Committee Members.