Making Colorado

A St. Thomas professor recreatesa lifelike picture of the past with his model of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad

Dennis Ferguson, B.S., M.A., Ph.D., has a little bit of Colorado in his basement. An adjunct professor at the St. Thomas Graduate School of Applied Science and Engineering, Ferguson sometimes uses a model rail car or engine to illustrate a point to his injection molding and automatic assembly classes, but few students guess the passion and artistry that lie behind his examples.

Entering Ferguson’s basement in Mahtomedi is like walking into a time warp, or perhaps an art gallery. Circling the basement walls are 55 feet of the tracks and trestles and trains of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, a narrow-gauge railway in southern Colorado. The line began in 1891, flourished during the heyday of silver mining and was abandoned in 1952.

Popular with modelers and railroad aficionados for its beauty, the line’s craggy mountain scenery is punctuated by dozens of high wooden trestles. Ferguson’s layout models the Ophir district as it appeared in 1940, although the town itself no longer exists. The model is strikingly realistic — almost like being there — and Ferguson’s attention to detail is apparent at every turn.

What truly is amazing, however, is that everything is made lovingly by hand. Rails are laid on hand-cut and stained basswood ties. Aspen trees have twig trunks and polyfiber foliage and, to create perspective, get smaller and smaller as they recede into the background. Rock cliffs and mountains are built from crumpled newspapers, paper towels dipped in Hydrocal and, finally, plaster, which Ferguson carves while still wet and then paints with acrylics and a wash.of India ink. A tiny tow trucAuthenticity is important to Ferguson. All the structures, built one-quarter inch to the foot, and surrounding scenery are matched to old photographs he uncovered in his research. The accuracy even extends to missing shingles from the depot roof. Although it is faster to buy kits to make the buildings of his town, Ferguson prefers to do it all from scratch.

Only 2 or 3 percent of modelers are as historically accurate as Ferguson. "Half the people don’t model any particular area," Ferguson said. "Forty percent might do a specific railroad, but they just capture the flavor of the route. Not many model in such detail that they create specific rock outcroppings." Ferguson does just that.

It’s not surprising that, at age six, Ferguson asked for a train for Christmas. "Inherently, I always was interested in mechanical things, in drawing and in engineering," he said. "I started with HO-scale trains, making everything from off-the-shelf kits." As he got older, Ferguson’s trains and layouts got a little better, a little more elaborate.

He began building his Rio Grande Southern line in 1991, this time using the relatively unusual On3-gauge track. (Around the same time he built a dollhouse, a copy of an actual brick and stucco English Tudor home that stands near 3M, where Ferguson works as an injection molding engineer in a research lab.)

Ferguson decided to focus on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad after several visits he made to the area and after studying its history. Dozens of books have been written about the Rio Grande Southern — more than any other line in the world, Ferguson said.

After settling on the area he wanted to model, the next step was teaching himself how to paint. Ferguson claimed creating rocks and cliffs is a particular challenge. "I tend to make them too flat and ice-cream colored. Rocks may look grey but they actually have a lot of color," he said. Ferguson, however, has the touch and his mountainous backdrop is a work of art.

Recently, attendees at the National Model Railroad convention in the Twin Cities toured Ferguson’s Mahtomedi basement. Shaking their heads and murmuring "unbelievable," they were stunned by the size of his layout.

Others are equally appreciative. Ferguson’s model has been featured in "Model Railroader" magazine seven times. Because it’s built as a permanent installation, Ferguson doesn’t enter it in competitions, but his photographs of the layout were awarded a second, first and best of show at the National Narrow Gauge convention.

But Ferguson’s biggest reward is in the creating, and bringing pleasure to others. "When my children were growing up, my son loved to bring his friends by and show the place off, and my daughter would bring her boyfriends. They thought it was a real treat," Ferguson said. Now it’s his grandchildren, ages 2 and 4, who watch the trains with open mouths.

A steam train circles the basement as Ferguson sits at his rolltop desk and corrects his St. Thomas papers. It passes over a trestle, runs along a rocky gorge and disappears behind the stairwell. On the other side, it reappears, this time on bare, undecorated plywood, for Ferguson’s model is still a work in progress. Above one small section of track there are rocks that need paint. Another part needs trees. Then there’s his next big project, a large new section containing the Ridgway Yards, complete with roundhouse and turntable.

And there’s still lots of room left in the basement, Ferguson said with a smile. Behind his eyes you could see new trestles take shape and new mountain peaks rising.