The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum collection began in the 1950s when the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society (TRPS) was formed to take over and operate the Talyllyn Railway. At a time when railway preservation was in its infancy, the TRPS was the first voluntary society in the world to take over and run a public passenger carrying railway.
Narrow gauge railways, that is to say any railway in which the distance between the rails is less than 4 feet 8½ inches (1435 millimetres), were at that time becoming redundant and their equipment was being scrapped. Immediately, items from other narrow gauge lines began to be offered to the TRPS, and a committee was formed with the objective of acquiring examples of locomotives, rolling stock and other equipment to place them on public display.
In 1964 a charitable trust was formed to manage and develop the museum. This role was later taken on by the present Narrow Gauge Railway Museum Trust on 11 July 1994.
The main activity of the Trust takes place at Wharf Station of the Talyllyn Railway. The two organisations complement each other perfectly; a historic narrow gauge railway with all its original passenger rolling stock intact and a display of static exhibits illustrating the diversity, individuality, technical ingenuity and charm of over seventy British narrow gauge railways.
The original Museum building dating from the 1950's was a walled yard used for the storage of coal, which was roofed over to provide cover for the items in the collection. An extension was added in 1964. Even as extended, the building had no insulation so was damp and cold, and it was difficult to conserve the collection.
By the 1990's the collection included eight locomotives and twenty wagons, plus many smaller exhibits, and it had long since outgrown the space available for display and interpretation. What was needed was a new museum building with adequate space, accessibility and environment, and professionally designed displays.
At the same time the Talyllyn Railway was seeking to improve its station facilities to better meet the needs of its passengers and the operation of the railway. When the TRPS took over, there was a single small building which served as a booking office, weigh house, and general office for the railway. Like the museum, this had been augmented by various extensions and portable buildings: a radical solution was needed.
With the approach of the golden jubilee of the TRPS in 2000, an appeal was launched with to raise funds to build a new station and museum on the Wharf site. Eventually, the dream became a reality when funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund plus other government and charitable sources was obtained to match money raised by friends of the Railway and Museum. A design was approved for a new two storey building to house the museum, a refreshment room, and railway offices, to be combined with a shop and booking office in an extended version of the original building. Work began in stages in 2001, and the new station and museum complex was opened by the Prince of Wales on 13 July 2005.
Now visitors can discover the role played in the development of the communities of Tywyn and the Fathew Valley by the quarrying of slate, and its transportation to market by the Talyllyn Railway. They can compare this with the way other narrow gauge railways opened up remote areas of countryside and supported industries such as mining, manufacturing, forestry, agriculture and tourism in the more industrialised parts of the country as well, in military establishments and in the support of armies in the field.
On the ground floor the story takes in the historical development of narrow gauge, permanent way, industrial, military and Welsh slate railways. The displays include a 3ft 6in gauge (1067 mm) wooden wagon from the Forest of Dean, which was horse-drawn and dates from about 1800. Other important exhibits are George Henry, Rough Pup and Jubilee 1897, all typical Welsh slate quarry locomotives but all completely different in their design for the job. The long low Dundee Gasworks locomotive and the Guinness Brewery locomotive with its motion on top of the boiler illustrate the diversity of narrow gauge in industry and the wide range of work they carried out.
Narrow gauge railways as "public carriers" in Great Britain and Ireland are featured on the first floor, along with a section on signalling. Many railways in England, Ireland and Wales are represented by a wide variety of relics. A balcony allows visitors to look out over the Wharf station site, and the Cambrian Coast line passing by.