World War II Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient Dean Corsa started building the room-sized train layout that would become his life’s hobby in 1946 in Alton, Ill., with an HO engine that he and his new wife, Lee, purchased in Vienna, Austria, before coming to the United States to start their family.
Today that same layout is now the last display that visitors to Iron Spike Interactive Model Train Museum in Washington see when they come for tours. Lee Corsa and her children donated it to the museum last fall in memory of Dean, who passed away in 2003.
Lee, 92, was moving to Missouri to be closer to family, and rather than see Dean’s beloved train layout torn apart and thrown away, they donated it to Iron Spike, where thousands of people each year can enjoy it as much as the family did their whole lives.
The Corsas visited Washington Dec. 26 to see the layout reassembled at Iron Spike, and couldn’t have been more pleased with the results, which include a mountain mural backdrop painted by Don Burhans, Iron Spike president.
“It’s impressive,” said Lee, who wore her Austrian jacket for the occasion. “I was on the verge of fainting . . . I haven’t seen it all lit up like this in years.”
“They did such a good job,” the Corsas’ daughter, Hazel, said. “We thought they repainted it because they cleaned it so well.”
It was Dean’s daughter, Deana, of California, who found Iron Spike through a Google search. Then her sister Hazel, who lives in Ballwin, visited the museum to inquire about donating their father’s layout. They were hopeful that the museum would be able to take maybe 10 percent of it to keep on display.
But last August when Burhans and two other volunteers visited the Corsa home, now in Wood River, Ill., and saw the layout for themselves, they knew they had to find a way to accept it all. Burhans and his wife, Claire Saucier, were set to leave on vacation the week after they agreed to accept the layout, so a team of four volunteers began the project while they were gone.
“They would go over on a Wednesday, bring back a section, and spend the week putting it back together in the room, and then they’d go back the following week and pick up some more,” said Claire Saucier. “By the end of September, they had moved it all.”
That is easier said than done.
“To move a completed train layout, you have to reverse engineer it,” Saucier explained. “You find the places that were added on and work from the outside in.”
Knowing how to build train layouts helped the volunteers in deciding the best way to take it apart. They took photographs (enough to fill seven albums) to document the original layout and use as a guide in reassembling it.
“Our guys tried to preserve it as best they could as they took it apart,” said Saucier. “Once they got the first piece, they had a vision for how it would go back together in our room, so then they knew what piece to take next and so on.”
Burhans is proud to say they used 100 percent of Corsa’s layout. In fact, they built on to it, incorporating pieces from another donation.
“I feel really good that we can do something like this,” said Burhans. “We’ve had so many people come in from around the United States and from nine countries — some people from Sweden have come back three times.
“They can’t believe what we are doing here,” he said. “We are caretakers.”
The Corsa layout is still somewhat a work in progress, as the volunteers have plans to refine it and add even more details.
“We are going to have water skiiers in here, a dam, a submarine . . . all the mountains are going to be lit up with fiber optics,” said Burhans, who had tears in his eyes as he talked with the family about the rebuilding process.
“When people come to the museum to see the trains, they are amazed by your father’s layout,” Burhans said. “They are amazed at what he did for 40 years in his basement and the only people who ever saw it then was his family. That’s what this museum is about.”
Burhans noted that the Corsa train layout doesn’t showcase typical railroads of the United States, but has a more European flair to it, a tribute to Lee’s heritage as a native of Austria.
The Corsa children aren’t sure what aspect of the layout was their father’s favorite. They imagine it would have been too hard for him to choose.
Hazel’s favorite part, however, was the original old town section that included a merry-go-round and swing set. As a little girl, her favorite part was the castle.
“There were two buttons, and when you touched these two pieces of metal, your body electrically connected the circuit, and there was a ghost in there that would make a noise and the castle would flicker like it was haunted,” she said.
She smiled as she saw the castle’s features on display today.
The Corsa layout represents many long hours and late nights put in by its volunteers, but they were all happy to do it, said Burhans.
“Our volunteers put their hearts and souls into this project,” he remarked.
‘Showing the History of Railroads’
Opened in April 2016 as a nonprofit organization, Iron Spike was designed “to honor and preserve the railroad heritage of the Midwest” and “to provide hands-on and facilitated educational opportunities for children and adults through the museum’s collections.”
In its early days, the museum was thin on completed layouts with its 10,000-square-foot showroom filled more with dreams and visions than actual running trains. Today that is no longer the case.
The main showroom features 15,000 feet of N scale trains running on a top tier and O scale trains running on a bottom tier. On the other side of the room is the start of 22,000 feet of HO scale train track and layouts. In the front lobby area, there are G scale trains.
“We have taken on eight complete collections that have been donated to us from St. Louis, Overland Park, Lake of the Ozarks, Wood River, Ill., and Arkansas,” said Claire Saucier. There also are several displays and sections of train layout from the old Augusta Station museum.
Visitors have come from 44 states and nine countries, said Saucier. People find the museum mostly by way of visiting relatives who live in the area, but then they take the message home, said Burhans.
The first year the museum averaged 60 people a week. In 2017, it averaged 100 people a week.
“That exceeded our expectations,” said Saucier.
Families have driven across Missouri just to come to Iron Spike to see the train displays. The museum also has welcomed school groups and bus tours from out of town, as well as many visitors who arrive in Washington via Amtrak.
Made Possible By Volunteers
The Iron Spike museum is made possible because of its volunteers. It has around 60 volunteers, 30 of whom are active. They come from all over Franklin County, and one from Wildwood. Many are retired.
There are a handful of high school volunteers who help when they can, especially during the summer months.
Once a month, a volunteer from Burlington Northern comes in dressed as a conductor to teach Operation Lifesaver classes, which is the railroad’s safety program.
“We have volunteers here every day — painting, doing track work, making scenery . . . custom, hand-built stuff,” said Burhans, noting one volunteer recently made 150 trees at home and brought them in to “plant” them.
“They believe in what the railroads have done . . . We’ve seen things around the world, what the railroads have done and what industries have done, but they also want people to know through modeling, how the houses were being built, how the factories looked, how things looked in true life, but in miniature. So we are trying to show history.”
One layout that came from the Augusta Station museum looks like a model of the Missouri River bluffs. Another, toward the back of the main showroom, is modeled after Monument Valley, the red sand desert region of the Arizona-Utah border, which was created using photos from one of the volunteer’s trips to that part of the country.
“These are typical cities, factories, industrial areas, farms, grain industries . . . You’re going to see all parts of America,” said Burhans.
Looking closely at the displays, visitors will see a lot of humor that has been purposely added, like a subway, complete with crime scenes, and a neighborhood that has that one unkept home and yard that every neighborhood seems to have.
As much progress as the volunteers have made, they still have lots of work ahead of them. They also have grander ideas of how to make the displays even more interactive, said Burhans.
The volunteers run the trains for tour groups, manning each control station, but Burhans envisions a day when visitors will be able to push a button to see some components of the layouts move.
“It all is done according to the finances and the money that comes in,” he said. “We are a public charity, we work on grants and donations and sponsorships.”
Iron Spike also sells memberships, which include a certain number of visits per year and a discount at the gift shop.
Future plans include having two full-size cabooses set up on the property. One will be fully restored and available for viewing, and one (which has already been gutted) will be made into a gift shop.
The museum also plans to start teaching classes on wiring and model building, and Burhans wants to offer a 3-D art and mural class for students and adults.
In addition to tours, Iron Spike also has some trains and accessories for resale. These include items that were donated to the museum but cannot be used for various reasons.
Prices are kept reasonable to encouage more people to get into the hobby and to foster that interest, said Saucier.
If You Go . . .
People who come for tours, should plan for at least an hour to see everything. A good tour takes about an hour and a half, but volunteers can speed it up to an hour, if necessary, said Saucier.
The museum is open Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Fridays, 1 to 6 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.
Admission is $5 per person or $15 for a family of four.
For more information, people can visit www. ironspike.org or call 636-283-5166.
Iron Spike is located at 1498 High St. at the intersection with Highway 100.