When Peggy Keyes lost her husband to pancreatic cancer, she came up with a unique way to honor his memory.

She bought a building, and she created a model railway. 

Not just any model railway. She built a museum. And she now runs that museum with the support of a team of volunteers and friends, donating 100 percent of proceeds to the fight against the disease that took her husband’s life. And she’s doing so while undergoing chemotherapy as part of her own battle against cancer.

“My husband never had room for a layout when he was alive, and yet he had hundreds of trains that I didn’t know what to do with. After he passed, this old shop came on the market and I thought, 'Why not buy it?' I didn’t really know a thing about model railways, but I’ve learned.”

Right Track Toy Train MuseumThe museum, called The Right Track To a Cure For Pancreatic Cancer (it's called The Right Track Toy Train Museum on its Facebook page) serves tourists and local train nuts alike in the resort town of Lake Lure, N.C., located at the southern end of the Hickory Nut Gorge in the Great Smoky Mountains. It boasts a sizeable, fully functioning layout, complete with a flying airplane, a replica of nearby Chimney Rock, and a drive-in diner featuring motorized, roller skating waitresses.

The museum also boasts displays of particularly collectible trains, including some beautiful pre-war models; a dedicated space for younger railway buffs to get “hands on” with toy trains (without destroying anything too valuable); and a gift shop selling collectibles and toys for rail enthusiasts of all ages.

Serendipity on rails

My family came across the museum quite by chance.

Right Track Toy Train Museum signDriving through the mountains to the lakeside beach, we spotted a sign for The Right Track Train Museum “Finding the Right Track to Curing Pancreatic Cancer.” As the son of a model train enthusiast who is currently dying of pancreatic cancer, I felt compelled to stop.

We were not disappointed.

The museum is not large (its exhibits span two rooms), and its layout is not exactly a stickler for historical authenticity. (The Loch Ness monster lurking in the harbor is a giveaway that a sense of humor was at work in the creative process.) But it is a joyous, impressive celebration of trains and toys. My kids spent a good half an hour pressing buttons and marveling at all the little surprises that appeared. In a touching moment, my 18-month-old kept shouting my father's name each time a particular signalman appeared out of his shed. 

A supportive community

For Keyes, the project has been a labor of love. She has also received some remarkable help along the way from her community:

“When we started out, the plan was for my son-in-law and myself to build a layout by ourselves. The train club in Asheville got wind of what we were up to, they came and took a look, and told us 'this won't do at all.' A group of them made the hourlong round trip every weekend for about three months, helping us put together a layout worthy of public attention.”

Right Track Toy Train Museum Peggy Keyes

The creators (from left): Fred Coleman, Sam Hopkins, Peggy Keyes, Ed Rhynning and Harold Clackett.

Raising awareness

Donating 100 percent of proceeds from entrance sales and the gift shop to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Keyes sees the museum as an opportunity to refocus attention on a disease that she argues has been somewhat ignored compared to other cancers. That viewpoint was only strengthened by Keyes' recent diagnosis with breast cancer, which led her to undergo a mastectomy and ongoing chemotherapy: 

“Look at where I am now. Ten years ago I would have been dead. Now hear I am clearing out my basement after some water damage, running a model railway museum, and generally getting on with my life. We need to make the same kind of progress for pancreatic cancer as we have with breast cancer. Yet things really haven’t progressed with our treatment of the disease in nearly 30 years. It’s awful.”

Advocacy and activism

There are, of course, glimmers of hope. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network holds an annual Advocacy Day in Washington, where Keyes recently met teen inventor Jack Andraka, whose invention of a cheap, effective early detection device for pancreatic cancer was featured previously on MNN. But the way forward, as with most challenges, lies not with any one silver bullet — but rather a collective reorganization of our priorities that leads to increased research, awareness and funding for the fight.

Model railways might seem like an odd medium for conducting that fight, but Keyes seems intent on deploying the sensible old maxim — use what you’ve got:

“Anything I can do to get the word out about this disease, and the need for stepping up our efforts, I’m going to do it. Too many people have died from this already.”

The museum is located on Route 64/74 just East of downtown Lake Lure. It is currently open for limited hours, Friday and Saturday 1-5 p.m. and Sunday 2-5 p.m., while Keyes undergoes treatment.

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Photos: The Right Track To a Cure For Pancreatic Cancer