Bellingham Railway Museum is more than a collection of model trains and railroad memorabilia: It's a place where children can play - imagining that they're train engineers or conductors - and parents can browse the displays, marveling at the depth and breadth of local railroad lore in such a small space.
But there's nothing to stop grown-ups from pretending to be an engineer too, because everyone can operate the controls on the museum's train layouts or try their hand at a computer simulator.
"We're just trying to give people the idea of what it was like 50 years back," said Fred Dodds, a longtime volunteer who was among the railroad buffs who formed the museum 10 years ago. "Nothing says you can't have fun while learning."
Volunteers still mostly staff the museum, but it recently hired its first full-time employee, Claire McNally, as executive director. It saw a record 7,000 visitors last year, with some 100 annual family memberships.
"We've grown in popularity and we've gotten more publicity in recent years," McNally said. "This is probably the busiest year we've had."
McNally said the museum is frequented in summer by railroad buffs, tourists and people who are visiting relatives locally. Weekdays are slow in winter, except when it's raining and parents are looking for an indoor activity. Saturdays usually are busy, she said.
The museum's biggest layout is a G gauge or "garden railroad" setup that illustrates Whatcom County's early logging and mining industries. Various style engines chug along the track, complete with authentic puffing and clacking sounds. Its realistic diorama setting includes hand-crafted trees, buildings and model people.
"We try to show everything from where the trees would get chopped ... and the train would bring them down," Dodds said.
There's also an HO scale layout resembling a New York-style subway system and a wooden Brio layout with cars that are pushed by hand. It's on a small table, perfect for young children.
Museum exhibits include archival photos of trains, including one of Bellingham firefighters having a hose fight that engulfed a passenger car. There are displays of old railroad signals, examples of dishware from a dining car, brass buttons from a uniform, and the sign from the old Cherry Point station.
Historical exhibits include information about the old Great Northern line that ran through Bellingham and the Northern Pacific line through the South Forth Valley, crossing into British Columbia.
Dodds says he loves seeing an expression of joy light up a museum visitor's face.
"There's something about a train -- it moves like it's alive. Kids like things that are big, noisy and can move," he said.
"There are a lot of adults nowadays who don't have knowledge of trains," Dodds said. "They were a force that shaped our nation."
Bellingham Railway Museum is at 1320 Commercial St., along the Parkade structure between Holly and Magnolia streets. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 2 to 17. Birthday parties and tours for groups are available.
For more information, call 360-393-7540 or go online to BellinghamRailwayMuseum.org. Search "Bellingham Railway Museum" at You Tube and you'll find several amateur videos.
Robert Mittendorf is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Suggest your ideas for local family-friendly events, hikes or day trips at 360-756-2805 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.