"No way!" exclaimed Mike Helde as a train engine exited a long tunnel and headed for the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis.

The reason for his surprise: "It went through with no sparks," said Peter Southard.

That's a good thing when it comes to reassembling the tracks for a 16- by 30-foot model-train layout. Everything has to fit back together just so for the train to run smoothly. And, "there's something about tunnels that makes it harder to work on it," Southard said.

After all, the tunnels are only a few inches tall and wide, along with sundry buildings and landscaping on the large model-train diorama that re-creates a vintage Minneapolis scene. But while the devil is in the details, as the old bromide goes, the truly hellish work on the large layout already had been done:

It began with a cross-country trip from California that required cutting a 10-foot-square segment out of a house, guiding the layout's pieces through it and then down 15 feet onto the ground, and toting them onto a 53-foot truck for the long trek to Minnesota.

That's what the Twin City Model Railroad Club just accomplished, bringing a slice of Minneapolis life to St. Paul from Santa Barbara, Calif. -- even if in miniature form.

"That was the hardest part by far, just getting it out of the house, dealing with the scaffolding and the scissors lift and then a narrow walkway," said Chad Kono, who journeyed to California last month for the project. "Two or three of those sections were really heavy."

He added, "We also had to take a lot of pictures so we could remember where everything went."

Now the club is reassembling the depiction of Minneapolis' Mill District, circa 1950, at the Twin City Model Railroad Museum. After a few weeks' work -- during which visitors can observe the rebuilding process -- the layout will join 13 others on permanent display.

But the new addition will be the facility's prize, with its gorgeous reproduction of Ceresota and other mills, the Milwaukee Road Depot and several bridges (the Stone Arch was a railroad bridge until 1982), framed by vertical panels showing the Leamington Hotel and other iconic buildings of the era. The Foshay Tower, however, was nowhere to be seen on a recent visit.

"It's on the middle panel, which needs repair work," Kono explained, "and we need that opening to get some bugs worked out."

Reliving childhood

The panels serve as a backdrop to the downtown area that model-train enthusiast Michael Corrigan hired Broadway stage designer Clarke Dunham ("Candide") to build. As a child growing up in the Twin Cities, Corrigan was enraptured watching Milwaukee Road, Great Northern and other trains pass by his window during a lengthy stay at Methodist Hospital.

Dunham handcrafted the depot and other Minneapolis structures; the rest of the layout is a generic 1940s and '50s scene: Mel's Drive-In, Coca-Cola bottling plant, Esso gas station, playground (with moving merry-go-round and teeter-totter), Palace Theater (marquee a-blazin') and other buildings bearing the owner's name.

"It's Corrigan-ville, literally," Southard said. "He put $130,000 into the construction of this layout, and it shows."

More recently, the club spent about $8,000 -- derived from proceeds at the museum -- on the Milwaukee Road layout's move. Corrigan covered the cost of cutting and replacing the hole in his house.

Corrigan, who moved to the West Coast as a teenager, is selling the house, so he decided that the best home for the model-train layout was his hometown.

"I feel really good about sending this many-year labor of love back to the source of the inspiration, where I hope it brings pleasure to many more people than were ever able to enjoy it when it was in my home," he said.

Club's collection growing

He found a ready and willing recipient in a local coterie of baby boomers reliving their youth, when model-train sets were a coveted Christmas gift.

When the railroad-themed Bandana Square opened in 1984, the developer provided a large room to the local club for a layout of downtown Minneapolis (well before Corrigan's was built). That setup -- "one of the best O-scale layouts in the world," Kono said -- still is housed in the main building.

Three years ago, Medtronics executive John Ross donated his layout to the club. After storing it for a year, the club opened a Toy Train Division in the Chimneys Building, between Bandana Square and, appropriately, some busy railroad tracks. That space now contains Ross' five-train diorama, several tiny N-scale tracks and trains, and a couple of displays that kids can operate: a carnival and a Thomas the Tank Engine setup.

Soon they will be joined by Corrigan's massive Minneapolis layout, but not before Southard, Kono, Helde and other club members work out all of the pesky bugs. But amid all of their exclamations and exhortations -- "Don't run anything on the top track; it's got a tree on it"; "This freaking telephone pole keeps falling down" -- the guys clearly are enjoying themselves.

Especially Helde, whose "real job," fittingly enough, is operating the Lake Harriet streetcar.

"Over there, I get to do the real thing," he said. "But that's work; here I get to play."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643