If you’ve ever seen the TV show “Parks and Recreation,” it should come as no surprise that a real-life group called Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) holds up Amy Poehler’s character on the show, Leslie Knope, as its hero and mascot. Knope is a humorous example of a local government leader tirelessly working to serve and enrich her community.
ELGL’s annual “Knope Award” celebrates the best places in local government nationwide.
This year’s edition was all about parks. The contest started off with 32 parks and people voted by posting a photo of their favorite park to Instagram with the hashtag #ELGLKnope attached.
Scottsdale’s own McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park made it all the way to the final four, then the top two and finally beat Amerson River Park in Macon, Georgia as the Best Park or Open Space in America.
McCormick-Stillman won the competition with more than 3,500 online votes and approximately 2,400 Instagram posts.
The park, which claims to be “the most unique of its kind in the country” is located on 30 acres off Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend. It rests on a plot of land formerly dedicated to the Arabian Horse ranch of John D. Rockefeller’s grandson, Fowler McCormick, who purchased it in the 1940s to serve as a getaway from his life as a tycoon of industry in Chicago.
Before he died, he gifted the land to the city with the expectation that it be used for a public park. His stepson, Guy Stillman, had a passion for trains and an impressive collection of them. These formed the cornerstone of the park’s collection. In 1975, the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park was opened to the public.
The park’s director of activities, Darryl Grimes, thinks the park’s history is among its most endearing qualities. “All those original trains are still working and functioning. People that came to the park as kids bring their kids and their grandkids and they all rode the same train,” Grimes said.
While Stillman’s original large-scale diesel-powered train that winds through the premises remains the park’s centerpiece, it is far from its only notable attraction.
There are three intact historical train depot buildings that now house museums with artifacts from railroads and Arizona history. Attached to one is the “POTUS” car, the “original Air Force One” that several presidents used to travel across the country during their time in office.
A stroll through will reveal dining quarters and the bunk beds that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt shared when they toured the country. The park is also home to Arizona’s Merci Car, a train car full of gifts granted to each state by the French people in thanks for assistance during WWII.
Since the park’s inception, model railroads have been a part of its draw. Recently this element of the park was taken to another level with the construction of its new LEED-certified 10,000 sq. ft. building that houses four model railroad clubs and a variety of additional exhibits.
Each club works on its own scale ranging from 1:48 to 1:220. Some of their extensive layouts are ultra-authentic representations of real-life railroads from various time periods, while others are quirky and fun. There is an interactive Thomas the Tank Engine Track and a recreation of Flagstaff’s 1950s train station and downtown area.
“It’s absolutely fascinating watching parents and grandparents bring their kids in, with their noses pasted on the glass,” said Steve Van Goor, who is a member of the Scottsdale Model Railroad Society.
While there is some concern that interest in modeling is waning in the wake of iPads and the internet, the park’s passionate young fans are proof that kids still love trains. “I see kids kicking and screaming that don’t wanna leave all the time,” park employee Angela Moffat said.
McCormick-Stillman is a public park, but it is unique in that it is primarily supported financially by trust funds Stillman set up when it was established. This has allowed the park to provide its impressive array of attractions at a low cost to visitors.
Admission to the park is free, while tickets to enter the museum, ride the train and ride the vintage 1950s carousel are $2 each.
“It’s fun. When I’m there, I don’t feel like I’m at work,” Grimes said. “It’s good vibes and good atmosphere.”
This summer, the park will continue its free Sunday night concert series, in addition to introducing a few new train-themed offerings designed to beat the heat.
“We’re always looking at ways to evolve and stay with the times and keep people interested in the park,” Grimes said.
It’s just that kind of tireless dedication to the constant evolution of one of Scottsdale’s great assets that has earned McCormick-Stillman its rightful place among the best public parks in America. Leslie Knope would be proud.