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Pioneer Day just around the bend

Newport's annual festival will chug into town this year.

Trains are the theme of 2010's Pioneer Day, planned at Pioneer Park Aug. 7.

Because Newport has been part of the railroading community for so long, "it's just a natural thing to do," said Steven Lanz Jr., event organizer.

With planning underway for a commuter train stop in Newport, Lanz thought it was a good time to bring some publicity to railroading, he said.

A variety of railroad-themed events will take place at the festival, including an open house at the Newport Model Railroad Club and old switching tower, storytelling led by "Choo Choo Bob" and a display by the Minnesota Garden Railroad Society.

Newport club, tower

Visitors can take a trip back to a time when railroading played an even bigger role in Newport by visiting the old dispatcher's tower, built in 1906, during Pioneer day.

"It can provide a glimpse into what railroading was like during its use," said David Blume, a member of the Newport Model Railroad Club. "The levers and switches were all hand-operated."

The tower -- in use until 1983 -- allowed dispatchers to manage the confluence of traffic from the Milwaukee Road, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Rock Island railroads running into St. Paul.

In 1984, the tower was moved to city-owned land next to city hall and the Newport Model Railroad Club building, and the city asked the club to manage and restore it, Blume said.

Since then, the club has replaced the building's roof, windows, siding, outside trim, and doors with funds from member dues, profits from the club's flea markets and donations, he said.

The tower is typically only open for events like Pioneer Day, historical society tours and by appointment.

Railroading still plays a role in Newport, Blume said.

"Although significantly diminished in recent years, railroading continues to be an important asset to the city of Newport and some of the local businesses," Blume said. "Unfortunately today, most trains just pass through Newport on their way to points across the North American continent."

Those who visit, can also stop into the Newport Model Railroad Club building, to watch tiny trains whiz by.

The club's 30 members have invested hundreds of hours over the years in the display, Blume said, which will have around four trains running on about 1,750 feet of track.

Railroad garden association

This year, Pioneer Day's railroad theme will be evident down to the tiniest detail, with a garden railroad display. Located in the Pioneer Park Pavilion, the miniature train display will showcase a little-known hobby in the Twin Cities.

Railroad gardens are model train sets that are built outside. Set up in back yards or parks, the displays can simply be a railroad track with some plants around or as extensive as a miniature city, with handcrafted buildings and garden scenery.

Richard Mullen of Cottage Grove has been making garden railroads for 11 years and enjoys the hobby.

"It's a neat way to provide some additional motion and excitement to your back yard," he said.

The Minnesota Garden Railroad Society has about 100 members and celebrated its 20-year anniversary this year.

"It's an ever-growing society and hobby," Mullen said. " Many people even get their families involved. It's good for all ages."

The members of the Minnesota Garden Railroad Society set up the gardens in their back yards. The group comes together every summer through open houses, in which members display their back yards to the other members.

"The society is really laid back. It's a social club about bringing people together to have fun and learn," Mullen says.

The Minnesota Garden Railroad Society will have a table set up at Pioneer Day with brochures, different types of railroads and information about the hobby.

"Our intent is to expose people," Mullen said. "It's a family type program that people should definitely try!"

-- Patricia Drey Busse contributed to this article.