As our boys have grown, so have their trains. Our extensive (expensive!) set of Thomas and Friends sits forlornly now in a storage box, outclassed by the painstakingly restored HO-scale model trains lovingly passed down to us from Granddad. These ran through the miniature winter villages established in our living room during the holiday season, and despite heavy lobbying from our Our Kids interns to leave it up as a permanent exhibit, this stationmaster put her foot down and packed it away until next year. Which led to us “riding the rails”just a few weeks later on a recent rainy Sunday to visit the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in order to get our temporary fix of our new hobby.
We could only figuratively ride the rails to the Station, however, since trains no longer run to the former depot. We drove instead, through the tiny but charmingly quaint Fairfax Station Village, and were shocked to find the small parking lot in front of the restored and partially rebuilt station overflowing on a football playoff Sunday afternoon. We were lucky to find parking in a dirt lot across the street. It turns out that this petite, off-the-beaten-track Civil War and railroad museum is very popular with Scout groups, as the friendly Friends of the Fairfax Station volunteer shared with us while we squeezed our way into the main display room.
The Fairfax Station Railroad Museum is open only on Sunday afternoons. Every 3rd Sunday features a special model train display by a local club. We timed our visit to coincide with the January display of G-scale (or garden) trains by the Washington, Virginia and Maryland Garden Railway Club. Garden trains are large (some close to 3 feet) and can run indoors or out. The display we viewed ran around the perimeter of the main room and featured 3 separate tracks with at least 5 trains in motion, including a Thomas train to appeal to younger visitors. Tunnels, ponds, buildings and bridges helped to set the scene. The WVM Garden Club also takes part in the Museum’s very popular Annual Holiday Train Show in December, when they set up their displays on 500 feet of track outside the Museum. Volunteers with the Railway Club and the Railroad Museum were very helpful and eager to answer questions from kids and adults; a few lucky children even got to hold the remote and run the trains.
The museum’s focus encompasses more than just railroads. A stop on the Virginia Civil War Trails system, it displays Civil War-era memorabilia and artifacts found on land surrounding the old station. A historical marker in front of the museum denotes Clara Barton’s efforts to treat wounded soldiers who were brought to the railroad station and historic St. Mary’s Church, just up the rural, winding road, after the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862. She earned her nickname the “Angel of the Battlefield”because of her efforts here. Older children and adults may enjoy perusing the Civil War-era photographs on display in the main room. Our 7-year-old OK intern was fascinated with the framed, handwritten Muster Roll from 1862 which included all the names and enlistment dates of soldiers in one unit, along with notes detailing hospital stays and money each soldier owed to the government for extra uniforms.
Additional displays of railroad and Civil War memorabilia are located in the back rooms of the Museum. A train “dispatcher”sits at his “ticket office”desk with old telephones, typewriters and a display of lanterns. Train travel mementos from the Southern Rail line are set out in cases and include playing cards and dinner menus. Artifacts from the seedier side of rail travel are shown too. Our OK interns marveled at the “Litter from Hobos Riding the Rails”case which included flasks and shoes.
A permanent HO-scale model train is set up behind plexiglass in the back room. This is a popular stop for families with younger children. Unlike in the main room, where parents might have to lift little ones up to see the display, there are stepstools in front of this case so children can take their time watching the train run across the bridges, through mountain passes and next to the towns, lumberyards and forests. This also gives their parents a little time to look at the historical objects in the room.
The small gift shop is located in the back of the Museum and offers railroad and Civil War-related items including t-shirts, hats, whistles, books, posters, toy trains and a few Thomas items at a range of prices.
On the Museum grounds, your children probably will not let you leave without first exploring the bright-red Norfolk & Southern caboose that sits on the track out front, where they can live their dreams of being the train conductor, flagman or fireman. An N-scale topographic model of the region, from Manassas to Fairfax Station, sits in the front of the caboose (although the train must have been in the roundhouse for repairs). Those with a sense of youthful adventure may dare to climb up the steep stairs to sit in the seats in the cupola, where they can pretend to be the conductor keeping a close watch on the imaginary cars in the train.
Our OK interns found the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum to be just the ticket for deepening their interest in trains. The model train exhibit by the WVM Garden Railway Society and the model railroading facts they shared with us, the permanent display of HO-gauge trains in the back room, the Civil War memorabilia (for our second-grade intern) and the caboose were highlights of our hour-long visit.
Families with younger children might find that they reach the end of the line quickly, however. There is a small Thomas train table in one corner of the main room, but it would be a challenge to keep small hands away from the model train displays, and younger children’s interest in the artifacts on display will be limited. It is also quite cramped, and strollers (and even backpacks) would not fit on days that the museum plays host to visiting groups. The B & O Railroad Museum this is not, but the charm and the dedication of the all-volunteer groups that keep the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum chugging along should put it on the inside track among railroad enthusiasts and Civil War buffs in the area.
- The Fairfax Station Railroad Museum is open on Sundays from 1-4 p.m.
- Admission is $2 adults, $1 children on regular Sunday openings (special events may have additional fees). Cash or checks only.
- N-scale model trains (by the Northern Virginia NTRAK Club) are displayed on the 3rd Sunday of each month. Exceptions are January, when the Washington, Virginia & Maryland Garden Railway Society runs its G-scale trains; and December, when the Annual Holiday Train Show occurs during the first weekend.
- Other popular events include Annual Model Train Shows during the first weekend of May and Labor Day weekend. Monty’s Lego Trains, HO Potomac Module Crew, and the Northern Virginia NTRAK Club are featured during these weekends, when the Museum is open for an additional day.
- Special tours for groups may be pre-arranged.
- Civil War tours and Fairfax Station Forum lectures are also offered. See the website’s Events page for more information.
- The large community room may be rented for special occasions.