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Bringing Model Trains To Life

Devoted to the development, promotion and enjoyment of the hobby of model railroading, Earl Symonds of Sandy Lake, Manitoba shares his enthusiasm.

Symonds’ exquisitely detailed model panorama – known as the Manitoba & North-Western Railroad – roars over 3,000 feet of 1/87th HO scale track. There are eight subdivisions and three divisions – the 1880 Division, the South Division and the North Division on the 28×38-foot custom layout. Each division has its own unique characteristics which create some interesting train operations. There are yards with turntables… hamlets, villages and towns… buildings with lights… little people everywhere… and special sound effects.

To operate the massive model railroad, four control boards are used, which up to eight people can run the trains in lifelike scenarios.

“I’ve had as many as 18 trains going at once,” said Symonds, who received his first electric train set when he was 15. “Made up entirely of hopper grain cars and a couple of engines, the longest train running along the rails located in the basement of my home featured 100 units.”

From the era of the steam locomotive to the modern-day diesel unit, the 76-year-old hobbyist has a staggering 600+ prototypically accurate engines, 2,000 freight cars and 500 passenger cars. His collection has become a railroad museum with over 2,000 items including pictures, railroad artifacts, books, magazines and memorabilia.

Since opening to the public in the late 1990s, thousands have dropped by 412 Railway Avenue in the community of 250, which expands in the summer thanks to the lake and cottage country. Visitors’ comments have been favour-able – awesome, fascinating, very interesting and amazing.

“It’s more the older generations that fancy model railroading than youth today,” said Symonds, a retired Canadian National Railway (CNR) employee. “Seventy-five per cent of visitors are over 40 years, perhaps even 50.”

While he never looks at the layout as being 100 per cent complete, (part of the fun of model railroading, according to the self-proclaimed addict, is adding and subtracting), Symonds enjoys sharing his passion with others. To view the scenes, Symonds charges an admission of $4 per person, and tour or school groups are welcome with special rates available. Appointments are required by phone: (204) 585-2419 or email: [email protected]


Although Symonds has enjoyed model railroading from an electric format for the past 60 years, he can remember using marbles as trains as a youngster when his father, W. C. Symonds, was station agent at Sandy Lake.

“My first layout was on a 4×8-foot area in the freight shed, second was in the attic and third in the basement, where it has been expanded to what you see today,” said Symonds.

His collection includes a model of every engine that passed through the south Parkland community at one time. Prior to retirement in 1987, his position with CNR was to close a number of stations. His first was Sandy Lake, and upon that fateful day he remembers solemnly standing on the platform and shedding tears.

By opening his own railroad or at least a scale-model version, it was a means of keeping a personal dream alive of seeing a railway operating in Sandy Lake.

And while Symonds has enjoyed showing his collection, the senior citizen feels the time has come to scale back. “I’m looking for a community interested in a great tourist attraction, as my layout is for sale,” said Symonds. “Model railroads are extremely popular tourist draws down in the United States, and could be more so in Manitoba, if they were located on major thoroughfares such as Highway 1 or 16.”

Symonds feels the hobby of model railroading can enrich a community in other ways, by incorporating skills such as carpentry, electronics and art into the mix.

“Model railroading is a great teacher,” Symonds said. “Learning as you go, it’s amazing what can be created through your own hands with enthusiasm and some scrap material.”


For the Sandy Lake model train enthusiast, who has been told he has more stock than a hobby store, knowledge is a vital tool in creating a well-designed layout. He stressed that to be a great model railroader one has to have interest in all aspects, or there will be flaws in the design. By sharing his enthusiasm for small-scale train operations countless friendships have been formed over the years. He has also helped a number get started in the wonderful world of toy trains by selling equipment and track for a basic layout.

Symonds has built nine railroads including “Roadside Canada” that toured Manitoba in 1967. Constructed in the inside of a school bus, Symonds teamed up with local clubs such as 4-H and Girl Guides to bring the attraction to a community. Among the many towns visited were Rossburn, Russell and Shoal Lake.

“I have had the privilege of sharing my hobby with some pretty special people – Jean Chrétien, Inky Mark, among others,” said Symonds. “Far too often communities overlook how personal interests can bring dividends.”

Symonds takes great pride that the Manitoba & North-Western Railroad has lent itself as a community attraction. Combined with a number of other attractions in town, he feels people can spend a friendly, enjoyable day in Sandy Lake, where the past meets the present on and off the rails. – Darrell Nesbitt writes from

Shoal Lake, Manitoba.

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