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Rocklin man’s model train travels through California’s gold rush past

After a brief pause for sightseeing at the Roseville station, Ed Kornegay’s vintage tourist train continues on its way, belching steam into the air as it circles Donner Lake — “Koi not to scale,” Kornegay said.

His Rocklin backyard is home to a massive battery-powered 1-to-20.3 scale model railroad, which replicates key Northern California landmarks as they may have looked 100 years ago.

Well over 300 feet of track winds around Kornegay’s large central koi pond — which represents Donner Lake — forming a big twisted loop, crossing behind the pond on a miniature trestle bridge that his neighbor, Bill Iwan, helped custom build for him.

Kornegay’s railroad — which was featured on the cover of Garden Railways magazine in August — begins in Roseville, runs past Kennedy Gold Mine, Sutter’s Mill and the old Rocklin quarry, heads up the foothills and across Donner Lake to Empire Mine in the Sierra Nevada, where it turns and loops back around.

When Kornegay moved about 15 years ago from Sonoma County to his home in Rocklin, he said he had no plans for the railroad, but he took an interest in the geography and history of the area, with a particular emphasis on the gold rush era.

Five years after installing the koi pond when he moved in, Kornegay set up a modest indoor railroad to lukewarm results.

“I sat and watched it for about an hour go around in a circle and I said, ‘this is no fun,’ ” he said.

Inspired by a friend’s backyard railroad in Arizona, Kornegay built the first iteration of the model track in his yard shortly afterward, which he said was mostly unnoticeable unless a train was operating on it.

He slowly began to enlarge the track and incorporate historic sites piece by piece, partly for the challenge the endeavor presented, Kornegay said, reaching completion in 2016.

Iwan, a longtime model train hobbyist himself, said Kornegay’s railroad is unique not only in terms of size, but also dedication to a theme.

“The first time I met him and came down here, I was kind of blown away,” Iwan said, adding that his first visit was before the trestle work had even begun.

Suzy Namba, the newsletter editor for the Sacramento Valley Garden Railway Society, said Kornegay’s attention to detail is what sets his railroad apart. The society is a group of about 100 people in Northern California with which Kornegay is involved

Namba pointed out one spot in the railroad where onlookers can climb up into the track and have three trains buzz past on all sides, while Iwan highlighted weathering on the trains intended to give a rustic feel, some of which he worked on for Kornegay.

Many hobbyists are somewhat restricted in terms of size, Iwan said, but Kornegay’s expansive yard has allowed him to expand his railroad past ordinary bounds. Kornegay estimates the railroad spans about 70 by 45 feet all told.

“And now, the railroad is, unfortunately, in your face,” Kornegay said, mostly joking.

He’s not sure he would build the railroad all over again if he had the chance, given it’s been an estimated investment of more than $30,000 over the course of a decade — and he certainly doesn’t have plans to continue adding onto the track, he said.

“It’s one of those numbers where you go, ‘well, if I knew then what I know now maybe I wouldn’t have got so carried away,’ so to speak,” Kornegay said.

Some people wonder how he would ever sell his house with the monster train model in his backyard, Kornegay said. But he estimates it would only take him a good weekend to dismantle the track — which he said will probably happen eventually.

“I think on some level (model trains) are like temporary works of art,” Kornegay said. “They’re here and then they’re gone and that’s just the way it is.”