East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad

November 2008


Dan George's Spring Creek Lumber Company HO scale layout | April 2005

August 6, 2004

Having never seriously considered modeling a narrow gauge railroad before, I do not have a clearly defined picture in my head of what one would look like in my train room. My preconceived notions about narrow gauge fall into three main areas, which I identify by the time frame that I think best accommodates each of the operational styles:

1890-1915: The narrow gauge as common carrier. In this time frame, the narrow gauge operates just as a standard gauge railroad would, since the idea of there being a "standard gauge" for railroads was new at that time. During this timeframe, a considerable percentage of the total amount of business the railroad does is passenger, parcel, and general merchandise. I think of this as "the Iron Age" in Virginia, when several furnaces were in blast along the Alleghany Mountains. The narrow gauge of this time frame might have iron mines and/or a furnace on line to reinforce the era.

1915-1945: The narrow gauge in transition/decline. In this time frame, the narrow gauge operates primarily to support a single on line industry. Its role as a common carrier is losing priority, and is being handled by the most economical means possible. Rail busses and rail trucks are being used to handle as much of the business of the railroad as possible beyond the focal freight of a primary industry. This time frame included technological developments that increased demand for wood. Wood was used to make paper, and the demand for paper was increasing. Wood was also used for making rayon, which was in high demand during the war years. The narrow gauge of this time frame might have been hauling lumber and pulpwood, with iron traffic on the decline.

1945-1960: The narrow gauge as conveyor belt. In this time frame, the narrow gauge operates solely as an integrated part of an on line industry's production process. The only responsibility of this narrow gauge railroad is to move raw material, equipment, and finished products around for the parent company. From mine to prep plant or quarry to kiln, the narrow gauge exists entirely within the confines of one particular corporate entity. Equipment is specialized for dealing with a narrow range of transportation needs. The narrow gauge of this time frame is owned and operated by a company that is not in the transportation business, and probably is not inclined to spend a lot of money on improvements and upkeep for the rail operation. The shop forces would be charged with creatively extending the usefulness of the railroad and its equipment. This time frame included the rise of internal combustion engines, so the narrow gauge of this time frame is Dieselized in whole or part, The relatively short distances involved in train hauling would mean equipment could be small, and the odd set of circumstances which led to this railroad existing at all would also lead to the railroad being very unique to this particular operation.

To consider modeling in 1:48 scale in the space I have available keeps me concerned over just how small an area I am able to represent. In HO scale, I had the capability of modeling big trains in small scenes ... the big locomotives pulled big freight cars past small farm houses and sheds, making the windows rattle and drawing the attention of everyone around. But in On30, the situation would be somewhat reversed. The tiny locomotive would pull a short cut of small freight cars through the shadows of barns and sheds along the fringe of the field, rattling along without attracting much attention. The elements of the scene double in size from HO to O scale, but the trains themselves stay about the same size, feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland.

illustration by Sir John Tenniel