Those who have explored small towns around Arizona may have noticed distinct themes among them. Benson, in Southern Arizona, is no exception, Bob Nilson says.
“Each town has something they’re noted for," says Nilson, a tourism supervisor for the town. "Tombstone is 'The Town Too Tough to Die.' Willcox is famous for its wine. Well, Benson, we’re famous for our railroad." He adds: "We’re only here because Southern Pacific built a town in 1888 when they put the tracks through."
That heritage is reflected at the Benson Visitor Center, where Nilson, described by one visitor as “the most delightful character," put together a G-scale locomotive setup that welcomes guests. "Benson has been a railroad hub for 155 years. I figured we needed to let people know we’re a railroad town,” he says. So Nilson wrote applied for a grant from the Union Pacific Railroad and proceeded to hang 96 feet of track inside the visitors center.
Nilson said he “kind of winged it” when it came to making his idea a reality. After the tracks were set, he wanted to add a control stand so visitors could feel like they were operating real train controls, but options online were expensive. Once the stand was complete — the build took about four months, using components donated by railroad companies — Nilson added a drone camera to the front of the train and added a receiver with a video screen to the control stand.
From there, his co-workers created displays in the corners of the tracks for added interest.
"The ladies I work with made little displays up in the corners, so when the train is coming around the corner, you’re watching it," he says. "They have a fairyland up in one of the corners now, there’s Tinkerbell and little gnomes and houses. The kids will actually slow the train down. Normally they like to go as fast as they can, but when they see all the little items in the corner, they slow down to see what’s up there.”
The team effort resulted in a fun experience for visitors of all ages. "I found there’s a lot of people that love trains," Nilson says. "I had a 91-year-old woman who came in on her birthday and we let her operate our train. We give everyone a certificate — it’s all free — and it says they’re a Benson train engineer.
The variety of visitors is one of the things Nilson says he loves most about his job. He gets to meet people and share Benson’s railroad history. He says the crowds at the visitors center used to be mostly older, but once the train was put in, more families started to visit with their kids. "They smile from ear to ear,” he says.
Nilson has always been a history buff but started researching the history of trains more so he could answer questions from visitors and local groups. "After [I did one panel], I had several of the historical groups have me come talk," he says. "Now they think I’m an expert, but not really. I’m just an enthusiast."
Nilson’s enthusiasm for Benson attractions doesn’t stop at trains. He is also known for his homemade Batmobile, which he built in honor of nearby Kartchner Caverns State Park, a haven for bats. He drives it for special occasions, such as parades, and to work a couple times a month. "I like my toys, the Batmobile, trains … whatever,” he says.
Nilson moved to Benson from San Diego nearly 30 years ago, and while it was a cultural shock, he says he's enjoyed the opportunities the town has offered.
"I really love my job," he says. "I’ve been here 15 years, and I get to meet people from all over the world. We have fun here."
To learn more about the Benson Visitor Center train and other town attractions, visit the town’s website.
— Kirsten Kraklio