Photographs by Carlie Statsky
Locals Are Surprisingly Colorful: 'Well, I'll be,' 'Yup,' 'Hmmmm,' 'Uh-huh.'
It's a Small World After All
Who says you can't create your own reality? Join us for a visit to nearby Riggston, a timeless community where imagination is brought to life.
By Mike Calahan
Few folks in Santa Cruz County are aware of the small, unincorporated town in our midst. It doesn't appear on AAA road maps beside points of interest and members of the local Chamber of Commerce. In fact, unless you are made privy to the exact geography, you would never know a town to be there, at all.
Riggston is a small, picturesque tourist town that, despite its existence being a well-kept secret, attracts a regular number of in-the-know visitors. Home to nearly 100 residents, the town is made up of only two main streets--but these two streets have more character and novelty in their few blocks than the entire island of Manhattan. Maintained as a picture of small town life circa 1900, there still exists in Riggston a general store, a little white schoolhouse (in the playground of which are two sisters in baby-doll dresses and pigtails eerily reminiscent of those two dead girls from The Shining), and St. Thomas--a nondenominational, steepled church that has probably wed more awkwardly shy Jimmys and Becky Sues than you could imagine. Everything you could want is just a few steps away: a warm and reasonably priced meal can be found at Dan's Diner, rock candy can be purchased by the bag at Chris' Candies (Robin D. Jones' Dentistry is located nearby with good reason) and Pepsi can still be purchased for 5 cents. Out of place with the town's overwhelming quaintness, a group of five motorcycles are parked outside the town's only saloon. Thoughts of Hollister and The Wild One immediately come to mind, but the saloon remains quiet and trouble free during my visit.
Alongside its steady tourist trade, Riggston's other economic foundation appears to be Maxwell's Gravel Works--a thriving local mining company. Just walking past the Gravel Works, one gets the immediate sense that the workers are treated fairly by old man Maxwell, that there have been no labor disputes to speak of in its history, no local union workers clashing with strikebreakers hired from a pool of toughs from neighboring towns. Just simple folks making an honest dollar for an honest day's work.
As I stroll along, it's a treat seeing a man painting a portrait of this Mayberry-like little town, a woman being proposed to by a man on one knee (secreted behind a tree for a moment of privacy) and old lady Clanston walked her dog near a work crew of four laborers, who are busy laying down some of the town's first pavement. The nearby railway system attracts a large number of hobos, three of whom have commandeered a pushcart and are riding it out of town to what is quite possibly the only California state park that boasts its own active volcano. Nearby, a band of Native Americans (with traditional headdresses, teepees--the whole works) engage in a peaceful campfire even as one of their own readies his bow and arrow in the direction of an encroaching grizzly.
Hold on. Hobos, Indians, grizzlies--isn't this all starting to get a little surreal?
That may be, oh cynical reader. But, rest assured, Riggston is a real place. Well, sort of.
Riggston is the labor of love of Aptos resident Dan Riggs, who has invested two years and thousands of dollars in the creation of this wonderful little town. Spanning from front yard to back, Riggston is a scale model town that is entirely electric, and claims over 300 feet of track for its railway system. What began as a $50 investment of model train parts and track (made on a whim while at the flea market) has become an investment of passion and imagination that is, according to Dan, nowhere near being finished.
Not unlike Sara Winchester, Dan Riggs sees his project as one that is ongoing, one that is never completed, one that has to be constantly added to and changed. Unlike Mrs. Winchester (who feared that stopping construction would lead to repercussions from evil spirits), Dan Riggs fears that the actual completion of his model train and its corresponding town would have the much simpler--yet equally frightening--repercussion of boredom. "He can't sit still," says his wife. Christina, who, like Dan, works for the county out in the ordinary world. "When he first started this, he would be out in the yard until it got dark."
My State Park: Riggston anticipates Bush's environmental breakthrough, in which state parks will be conveniently located in neighborhood backyards.
Initially upset that her front yard was to become a tourist attraction for scale model day-trippers, Christina was soon thrilled to see the result of her husband's inability to remain idle. When he decided that he wanted to incorporate the backyard, however, Christina returned to the apprehension of having more lawn torn up and replaced with train tracks. Luckily, Dan's final product does not disappoint: a river (complete with its own community of anglers) leads from Riggston toward the sign that affectionately reads: My State Park. Live trees, cut and trimmed to scale, line the tracks--and aid in creating the realistic campgrounds and mountainsides. Custom backdrops decorate the fences of the Riggs' yard, helping to further the illusion of surrounding countryside.
With a collection of eight engines among his 75 train cars, Dan can choose between steam engines (which produce actual smoke via heated oil) and electric engines in an array of colors and styles. Much of Dan's collection was purchased in a bulk lot from a friend, while other pieces have been purchased along the way from LGB, a renowned German company that produced some of the highest-quality trains and hand-painted people in this collection.
Garden scale (or G-scale) trains require more space than a common Toys "R" Us train, whose scale town could exist in the back part of someone's garage. G-scale trains not only require the yard space but also the devotion (and the support of a willing spouse) to commit one's time, money and property to see the project to its satisfying fruition. Having recently joined the Bay Area Garden Railway Society (www.bagrs.org), the Riggs are nowhere near the end in their love for model trains, or their pride in Riggston. They are so proud, in fact, that they are entering themselves into this year's contest for home renovation sponsored by Better Homes and Gardens. "I don't know if it counts as renovation," Christina laughs, "but at least it'll be different."
In most cases, you would expect that the creator of such an intricate, scale model town, rail system and state park would be satisfied letting his guests just stand back and admire his creation. Then again, in most cases, the creator in question is not Dan Riggs. After Christina's father passed away, leaving behind an idea that he had always hoped to see fulfilled, Dan decided to help make that come true. So, running through My State Park and surrounding the nameless volcano, there is laid out a four-hole miniature golf course--complete with balls and putters that visitors are encouraged to employ. It would take a Scrooge-Grinch hybrid to even try to be bored at Riggston.
Train of Thought: Dan Riggs contemplates whether or not to allow the tiny engineers inside his Santa Fe engine to live.
When asked what was next in his plans for the future of his train yard, Dan shows us a miniature camera that he plans to hook to the front of the engine. "I'll have it feed to a monitor inside the house, and then I can just watch everything pass as I sit back and enjoy an iced tea."
"Well, I want to build some tents for the campsite, lay some miniature brick down near the train depot. See, I already got a crew working on it," he says with a grin, pointing toward the plastic construction workers. Then, motioning his hand across the small landscape, he adds, "I want to have it laid all over." That's an ambitious plan, considering how labor-intensive the town already is. The all-brass track requires a cleaning regimen of a half-hour per day using a small brush, the trees and plants require trimming and watering, the cobwebs need to be kept at bay--and looming over all of that is the threat of an active volcano (also handmade and operated by Dan). With all of this and what it yet to come, Dan is never in danger of falling prey to boredom--and he maintains that Riggston is worth all the work.
"I think it's important for people to know that you don't need a lot of space to create something interesting," Dan adds matter of factly, looking back over his shoulder at his work. "All you need is a little imagination."
For information regarding G-scale trains or a personal tour, you can contact Dan and Christina at [email protected]
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