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Come For the Trains, Stay For the Geology at HMNS' Trains Over Texas

Trains Over Texas is a seasonal exhibit at The Houston Museum of Natural Science. Sixteen trains travel through eight major cities, as well as along the Gulf Coast and past state and national monuments.
Trains Over Texas is a seasonal exhibit at The Houston Museum of Natural Science. Sixteen trains travel through eight major cities, as well as along the Gulf Coast and past state and national monuments.
Photo courtesy of The Houston Museum of Natural Science

Visitors needn't be railway enthusiasts to appreciate Trains Over Texas, an indoor “O” scale model railroad exhibit at The Houston Museum of Natural Science that's as large as a tennis court. Built and designed by the traingineers over at TW TrainWorx, the tabletop islands are separated by region, allowing for better viewing as the trains pass through major cities and state and national monuments.

"First and foremost it is called Trains Over Texas. It focuses on the trains but what we want to show people is the geology of Texas. Very few people know what’s under our feet. We can travel all over Texas: It goes through eight different cities, Houston included, plus Galveston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio," says Alex Ruff, HMNS concierge lead.

"Starting from our local geology here, 30 minutes south of Houston we have Damon Mound; it’s a salt dome. Salt domes are highly prized by petroleum geologists and also oilfield geologists because that’s where they drill for a lot of reservoirs," says Ruff. "That’s something really cool near home in Houston."

In addition to the oil country salt domes, the trains pass through prairies and wetlands along the Gulf Coast, plus Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, The Balcones Escarpment and Big Bend National Park.

"We can go as far back as a couple of billion years old with Enchanted Rock; that’s the oldest rock basically in Texas. We also have, for example, the Guadalupe Mountains, El Capitan, some of the tallest peaks in Texas — we do have mountains in Texas. Basically Guadalupe Peak is the tallest peak in Texas, about 8750 feet," says Ruff.

Text panels go into more detail about these major geological sites. "We also have a cross section of basically Texas. Taking Texas and cutting it in half and you get to see what kind of rock layers are underneath our feet," says Ruff, who says there's a legend that shows the types of rock.

"About 120 million years ago we had a giant seaway that went from Canada down to the Gulf; most of Texas was predominantly underwater," says Ruff, about the Western Interior Seaway that split North America into two landmasses, Laramidia and Appalachia.

"During the Jurassic time when we had large dinosaurs roaming the earth, Texas had huge marine reptiles swimming above us. Because it was underwater you see a lot of limestone, which is why north Texas, Austin, Dallas, they have lots of limestone. The big rock formation is called the Austin Chalk; it has lots of fossils from that time," says Ruff.

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The exhibit has 16 trains running continuously, except for brief breaks to keep from overheating. The trains are "O" scale, which means a quarter inch is equal to one foot. "The geology covers almost ten different major geologic features all throughout Texas. Basically you’re traveling hundreds of miles in just a few feet, to see very cool, well displayed geology," says Ruff. Insider tips: Look for a hidden train within a cave near the Houston side of the exhibit, and be sure to pop your head into the gopher hole for an "inside the exhibit" view of the trains.

While visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science this holiday season, be sure to stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center for their White Christmas event. "We decorate the trees with white lights and they release rice paper butterflies; they come from Asia. They're bright white with black speckles; look like dalmations. Everything looks all white and snowy," says Ruff.

Trains Over Texas runs through January 6, 2019, open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, The Houston Museum of Natural Science, 5555 Hermann Park Drive, 713-639-4629, hmns.org/exhibits/special-exhibitions/trains-over-texas, free to $25 (admission to the Butterfly Center requires a separate ticket).

Upgrade your experience by purchasing a custom boxcar that will travel along the tracks. For more information, visit hmns.org/boxcars.

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