EMRA - History

Searching for a New Home

by Ian Jenkins

Published in Highball in 1992
Repeated for the benefit of new members

We thought readers would be interested in what has been happening in Edmonton with the Edmonton Model Railroad Club (EMRA). No doubt many have talked with Spikes and have learned of our ambitious project. Others may have heard the hammering and sawing and wondered what scale of modeling we were up to. In a nutshell, the EMRA undertook the task of sponsoring the building of a freight shed in Fort Edmonton Park and, although not planned, constructing a large part of it. Having had a layout for most of the club's existence, it was quite a shock for the Club to find itself without one. In looking back over the last ten years, some good has come out of this drastic change. Many Spikes decided to build their own little empire and the club has promoted the hobby far more than it ever did while in the Edmonton Gardens.

It all started in 1980 when, as we were expanding our HO layout, we requested from Northlands permission to convert an unused washroom into a club meeting room. We were summoned before management and told it was okay but suggested not to incur any expense as the building was to be torn down.

Reporting our news during the following club meeting resulted in disbelief. "We were here forever, how dare they, it's not true, it's a hoax, it will never happen" were some of the responses. We had one senior member who at every business meeting and at any other opportunity would expound on that our days in the Gardens were numbered, unfortunately he passed away before seeing his prediction come true. At the conclusion of our meeting, it was decided to wait for an official announcement before taking any action as many felt it could not be true.

When it had sunk in that the impossible was about to happen, serious discussions followed to decide what to do. Northlands management, being sympathetic to our problem, did find space in a school they were about to purchase but when the local residents learned about the deal, they kicked up a ruckus and won the right to convert the school to a community center. Northlands suggested we wait until all the construction planned for the grounds was finished and then they would see what was available. This we felt would take too long, we wanted a place now (ha ha).

The subject of much debate was whether we should rent or buy space. Finally, the renters won out, with only two votes for buying and, in typical railroading fashion, the two members who voted to buy were elected to find new premises. It was, however, conditional; if after a year we had not found a room then we would consider buying space.

Our last big open house had something different; a layout was for sale. We had plans made up with shaded areas showing the portions of the layout on the block and the asking prices. We were very successful in selling off all the layout and I still remember one lady who insisted on buying two sections and was very pleased when we squeezed it all into her son's bedroom. If I remember correctly, the layout pieces were fourteen feet long and the bedroom twelve!

The Alberta Pioneer Railroad Association (APRA) came to our aid, allowing us to store all the valuable junk that modelers tend to accumulate and it was a sad day when we finally vacated the Gardens on November 22, 1981 - it had been our home for eighteen years. With nowhere to go, one of our members found space in the basement of the Lions Senior Citizens Center while we searched for new premises.

We soon appreciated how lucky we were in the Gardens, for trying to find new quarters proved to be an impossible task. As most clubs can appreciate, what we were looking for was essentially heated storage space. During the year, most people we talked to who had ideal space told us they were about to replace the building, those with new buildings were concerned with security. City property came available; however other perhaps more worthy groups contested and won. We wrote to MLA's, MPs and City Hall, the list seems endless. We followed up on leads given to us by Spikes and citizens who attended our open houses.

Finally, as year end was approaching Steve Sutphen and myself, who were the elected committee, were chatting over coffee and doughnuts wondering what our next move would be (we did this often). Having exhausted all hope of finding cheap rental accommodation, we started thinking of owning our own premises. This, too, now seemed an impossible task. When we were in the Gardens, we were considering two Atco trailers to be located on the Gardens property as part of a fun fair scheme Northlands were planning. This was eventually kiboshed by the local residents who were concerned with the noise that would be generated all year round.

We needed somewhere where there would be security, utilities and preferably donated land. One spot that was suggested was at the APRA; however, we felt the distance would be a deterrent in obtaining new members. On our third cup of coffee, we started discussing city property and the parks, thinking of Lethbridge, when Fort Edmonton came to mind again. We had contacted the Park earlier, looking for rental accommodation.

We met with the Park Director, who gave us lots of encouragement. He liked the idea, which fitted in with his policy he was trying to promote to the City, that the Park should be open all year and more groups like us should use the facilities. As a positive idea, he left us to prepare a proposal for consideration.

At the club's annual meeting, it was not long before the discussion turned to new quarters and it was with some reluctance we had to accept the fact we would never again be able to find rental accommodation for one dollar a year with utilities thrown in. Our suggestion regarding the Fort was greeted with reluctant enthusiam. Reminding the members of our motion to consider buying, it was agreed the committee investigate and report back to the club.

Meetings were held with the Park Director and finally a presentation was made that included a diorama of a freight shed. It was agreed that the Club would sponsor the building of a 1920 style freight shed that existed in Edmonton; in return, the club would have exclusive use of the building.

Finding a freight shed in Edmonton that fitted our needs as well as the Parks requirements was no easy task. The city museum gave us some information; however, it was an employee of CP that found us the ideal building that existed on the Southside near the station. CN and CP provided drawings of various freight sheds that were given to Parks and Recreation, who drew up plans for the freight shed suitable for the Park.

The first set of drawings showed a raised floor built up on posts, with very few windows for security reasons. With drawings finalized, we approached the Edmonton Historical Foundation, who agreed to apply for a matching grant from the Province and suggested we obtain an estimate for construction. Our estimate came in at $95,000 and was discussed at a club meeting. It was agreed we could raise $45,000, since the club did have funds and a raffle should raise the remainder.

The club voted to proceed with the project on July 5, 1983

In March 1984, an application to raffle three Macintosh computers was turned down by the gaming commission due to our non-profit status; however, when we met and discussed our purpose in detail it was suggested we should approach the Edmonton Historical Foundation to apply on our behalf. This we did and received approval, so the next nine months was spent transporting a 5 x 32 ft layout to twenty-four locations, mostly the malls (Edmonton has plenty). One spike adapted a large truck which he obtained from a friend so that the four pieces of the layout would fit in like a jigsaw. I should point out the layout was designed to keep everyone busy at the Lions Centre and not meant to be portable. Fortunately, no one sustained any injuries and I believe the public were just as fascinated watching us assemble the layout as they were watching the trains run. We had removing the layout from the mall down to 30 minutes. It was like watching them change tires at the Indy 500. A model of the Freight Shed (Version 1) accompanied the layout and a young member prepared a tape that was run and run and run, ask a Spike about AJ's tape and watch his hair rise on end (if he has any). While of interest to the public, listening to it rerun every five minutes was torture to Spike. The layout was manned every hour the malls were open and that was a feat in itself. The organizing and dedication by Spike some who took days off from work was fantastic. It was estimated consists traveled about 500 miles while on display. Competition for the public's dollar was fierce; many groups who had been more ambitious raffling cars had to apply for extensions. We decided to stick to the original draw and while we did not make a killing, it gave us a good start towards our goal.

Meanwhile at the Fort, a new director took over and negotiations started again. We had spent two months of summer with the layout at the Fort and it exposed to the Park staff the interest shown by the public in the layout. They changed their mind to allow us exclusive use of the building and they wanted our displays on view. This was fine with us, except they wanted input on what was being displayed keeping it in the Edmonton era of 1920.

A new study was started to determine the direction the Fort would take into the year 2000. This put our project on hold. Problems arose in the Park with some of the buildings. The policy to maintain authenticity was leading to expensive repairs, so a more practical approach was adopted. As a result we removed the posts and went for a concrete floor and we further reduced the number of windows. We now found our drawings were not acceptable (a change in regulations), we now had to get them done by an architect. By a stroke of luck we chose the same architect who was preparing the new direction for the Fort (Master Plan). As a result of the study, transportation plays a large part in the new proposal. Our site in the Park has moved several times since conception, however in our final location we fit in with the transportation theme, which allows us to relax some of the layout requirements as requested by the Fort.

Finally with site selected, drawings made and approved we went to bid...

$165,000 to $203,000!!! - you know that sinking feeling??

At the rate we were saving money, we would just keep up with inflation. Disappointment and despair, after all the time and effort, we were no closer to our goal.

By chance, our architect mentioned another contractor and when I called them, they were in my office within the hour. Fortunately I had a set of drawings in the car and after a review they offered to prepare a contract stating what they could do for $95,000 and suggested perhaps club members could take on tasks to complete the project.

Spike saw this as a glimmer of hope; perhaps all the work done so far was not to be lost. Some got carried away with what we could do to save money, however in the end on August 20, 1989, we signed a contract with the contractor permitting the immediate start of construction.

The contractor would complete the external shell (which had been reduced in length by twenty-five feet), concrete work, heating pad, windows, doors, and partially complete the freight office area. The club was responsible for shingling the roof, painting, electrical, heating and plumbing, insulation, wallboard and finishing. Before we could proceed, we had to prepare a financial document for the Park. They were concerned with being left with a partially built building. It took some convincing that the Club could handle the project, however they could see the problem with inflation and raising funds, I believe they were relieved to get us off their backs as it had been a long drawn out affair (eight years).

As part of the authentic theme, the trusses in the freight office area had to look like the real thing. Five 6 x 8 inch beam trusses were called for and they were secured with bolted gusset plates. The contractor offered us sixteen hundred dollars to make the gusset plates using one-quarter inch plate. "Our first building project assignment" Thanks to the Radial Society who restores the streetcars used in the Park, we were able to use their facilities. The contractor's main concern was having the plates ready when the beams arrived. Besides being ready, they fitted like a charm. Over the years our ability to scrounge had not diminished, we had acquired light fixtures for inside and outside the building that would have been scrapped. We found a boiler that was donated by the Provincial Government and the wall mounted heating radiators came from the Journal Building.

Our next project was getting the boiler in the basement before the floor joists got in the way. This was followed by our first "big" project, cedar shingling the roof. Fortunately the novelty was new and we had Spikes who had done it before. However, with a twelve to one pitch and sixteen feet high walls, several Spikes queasy about heights were a little apprehensive. Knowing the Club needed every available hand, they pressed on for which we are all grateful. We had to make our own scaffolding, and spent nearly a day preparing before we nailed our first shingle. As you can imagine, we were on view for all to see - including the doubters. It was therefore with some satisfaction when the project was complete, that the window installers asked our site rep who installed the shingles as they were impressed and wanted to use them.

Another deadline approached as the chimney was growing from the boiler room. We had to prepare the roof opening and fascia so as not to hold the brickie up. This resulted in two of our members working under floodlight until two in the morning, freezing their butts off so as to be ready at daybreak for the mason, thus avoiding a penalty. With the contractor finished and paid off, our next problem were utilities.

The Park was providing temporary power. In the following months, hundreds of feet of conduit were installed and the circuits in the model room were customized to our requirements. Attic walkways were installed with adequate lighting and while this was going on insulation was being installed. Problems occurred with the drain elevations. When we went to hook up the building drains to the line installed by the Park, we were nine inches too low. (Engineers sure have a problem understanding sanitary fluids will not flow uphill). Fortunately, construction in the Park must now meet current regulations, so it was necessary to place the drainpipe in a sleeve where it goes under the railway track. We were able to dig back to the sleeve, lower the pipe in the sleeve aligning the pipes and still provide the necessary slope in the drainpipe.

Work progressed in walling the boiler room so that we could start with the boiler assembly. We had elected to go for pad heating, primarily on cost. The boiler cost one dollar and we could install it ourselves as we had members with the necessary skills. The alternate, hot air heating, would have required ducting in the floor, which produces unstable floors. Take note of some of the floors in old schools should you have the occasion to visit them. To run the duct to the ceiling would have provided an unsightly view and, finally, to install it would of cost the princely sum of seventeen thousand dollars.

It was necessary to rent a propane heater while the drywall was being installed. Water and natural gas was turned on January 20 1990. Taping the walls, which we contracted out, was completed allowing the painting to begin. The electrical fixtures were cleaned and sorted out. During the summer, we painted the outside trim, having painted the siding before installing. This was done to eliminate the bare spots that would show as the wood shrank.

To raise capital, we undertook the installation of five hundred feet of track (twelve inches to the foot) that would service the freight shed and also provides a storage track for a business car the Park intends to rent out.

In March of 1989, we found and had donated to the Park a 60lb rail turnout. The catch being, we had to visit the site near Demay, disassemble the turnout and deliver it to the Park.

During 1990, we held an open house at the Lions Centre, took part in a meet at the convention centre in Edmonton and painted a community centre ice skating arena fence - all to raise funds for the project.

Presently, we are building the coal shed for the north end of the building, which will also provide shade for visitors to view the layout. The usual time consuming finishing tasks are underway, but now we are half out of the tunnel and are setting our sight on some serious construction - "The building of our layout".

In February 1992 we handed the keys over to the Park, having completed the project a year ahead of schedule.

Looking back at what we have done, I would be very cautious in doing it again or recommending the idea to other groups. Over the years, what kept us going was just when we thought all was lost - something would happen to give us a boost.

It is so easy to raise your hand and vote and it hurts no one but the members if it is a internal decision, but when you step outside into the real world, look out as that vote must be followed up with dedication.

The EMRA was blessed in having Spikes with the dedication and skills to pull it off. Others helped as best they could. Over the years wives, girlfriends, friends, old Spikes, ex-Spikes and several young Spiklings have all contributed to the project.

In total, Spikes and friends have consumed twenty four hundred hours running the raffle, and three thousand hours in building the Freight Shed. Not included are the countless hours put in by the building committee.

Club night is still on Tuesdays, so if you happen to be in our part of the neighborhood drop in or you can contact Ian at 434-4909


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