East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad


Show and Tell

Last Saturday, I attended a meeting of narrow gauge modelers for the first time since November 2017.

The primary activity of the day was to participate in an operating session on Tom Sullivan's Sheepscot & Sandy River. But everyone was supposed to bring a modeling project to show the group.

Bryan Brown's Sierra West diorama

I brought a rendering of the track plan for my revised Piedmont - Standard layout.


I assumed I had preconceived notions about what I was planning to do that were blinding me to possibilities that didn't fit those preconceptions. Someone else might bring those possibilities to my attention. The layout should be visually and operationally recognizable as being based on a real place, but objective verification of whether I was on the right track has to come from someone else. Having started this layout long ago, it is difficult to see beyond old conclusions I have drawn regarding what will work and how things have to be.

Prototype information is the best basis for discussing preliminary layout plans with someone else because it puts everyone on the same page. We discussed the prototype workflow involved in quarrying soapstone for dimensional stone and for talc production. All the production elements represented to scale would not fit on this or even a much larger layout. Opinions of informed peers help determine what really needs to be included.

Tom Sullivan's On30 Sheepscot & Sandy River

Running trains on Tom's layout was a great way to end a long dry spell. I came away from the experience with renewed friendships and some good ideas for my layout design.

Layout Revisions

As illustrated in my recent Construction posts, I am removing the Piedmont and the Winwood sections of my layout.

Doing something like that never occurred to me until I was spending hours in my shop working on the Railroad Display for the Quarry Gardens at Schuyler. During that time, my attitude toward my shop in general and home layout in particular started to shift, and I became less interested in operating the layout and more interested in building a series of detailed scenes connected by a railroad. I started thinking that operating dioramas - a series of linked scenes built as if they were static displays - was really the most respectable approach to building the layout and was the way I would be happiest with it.

The revised plan shows the main mill with standard gauge sidings is to the left as you come in the door. These standard gauge sidings are the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge Railroad. They run off stage from the Mill up Cobblers Creek to the connection with the Outside Railroad. In reality they stop under an overhead traveling crane at the layout room wall in a narrow alley between two buildings. There will be a mirror under the crane.

Testing the idea of standard gauge in the Shops area

The balance of the layout is the narrow gauge tram that the Piedmont - Standard Stone Company uses to move stone and talc. Unlike before, the narrow gauge handles almost no “front end,” or finished product traffic. Now it is primarily “back end,” or raw material hauling. The only exception being a few narrow gauge boxcars routinely get loaded with bags of talc at the Dust Mill to be transferred to the standard gauge.

Before, my layout was like a narrow gauge version of the Nelson & Albemarle Railroad. Now, it is a more “typical” quarry operation. The layout used to run into the shop and office for operational reasons. As my interest in operation cooled, I considered how I could remove those two sections and still have a nice layout in a nice space. Fortunately, I only have to make a few track revisions and no benchwork revisions in the layout room in order to pursue this new idea.

The talc operation

This section of the layout is shaping to be nothing like what I originally planned.
Backing away from initial assumptions has been a source of both anxiety and excitement. In many ways the section of the layout I call Ariel Church has become the "newest" section of the layout in my mind. The town scene initially planned would not fit, which caused me to question my ability to pre-visualize scenes. But learning from Jim Farrar about talc mineral deposits in Nelson County opened up a very interesting possibility for Ariel Church.


This is the part of the layout in question. I have been using blocks, boxes, and anything else at hand to help lay out the scene.


This concept sketch shows my ideas for the scene from about the same angle as the photograph. The fascia follows the profile of a high ridge that forms an effective view block separating the developed scene to the left from the remote, rugged scene to the right. An 18 inch gauge tram enters the scene high above the creek, crosses over the 30 inch gauge railroad, then curves hard to the left to enter a crusher and tipple scene. The tipple is over a siding that runs into a deep cut.

Working out the angle and various levels of this scene made it seem complicated, but it actually is simpler than the town scene that I assumed would go here when I planned the layout.

Guide to Narrow Gauge

The mailman recently delivered my copy of a new model railroading book


The book contains a few photos I took, as well as some information about my layout. I am delighted that Tony considered my material and that I was able to contribute to this project.

The general consensus among my fellow modelers is that
Guide to Narrow Gauge Modeling is geared toward someone who is interested in building a layout and is considering narrow gauge. Those of us who have already made the commitment to narrow gauge modeling may find the book a little too broad in scope and too thin in depth. Much like the “Wonderful World of Model Railroading” books I used to get for Christmas growing up, the subject matter is too complex to be effectively covered in an overview.

Indeed, when Tony Koester and I were emailing back and forth back in April, I was wondering if a book with resources pulled from here, there, and everywhere would lack overall coherance. But that was the editor’s problem, not mine. I was happy to help any way I could.

As a relatively recent convert to narrow gauge modeling, I well remember being a member of this publication’s target audience. Ten years ago, I had an HO standard gauge layout that was generally not succeeding. The aspect of that layout I enjoyed the most was the stone handling industrial shortline that I called Greenbrier Lime & Stone.

This tight industrial scene was my favorite part of the Dry Fork layout

This realization was somewhat conflicting. All the tedious, overthought, deep consideration I had given the design of my layout had been guided by the teachings of Tony Koester and John Armstrong. Being an inexperienced modeler, my Dry Fork & Greenbrier layout suffered under the weight of trying to be as interesting to operate as possible. Apprehending a world “beyond the basement” through the use of hidden staging only works if the mechanical operation of the system is flawless and control is devoid of any distracting issues. I learned the hard way how important reliable operation is, and how little interest I had in extending my railroad “beyond the basement.”

A local passes through the gaudy West Virginia mountains on my old DF&G layout

Discovering that the simple, straightforward operation of the GL&S was my favorite part of the Dry Fork layout sent me down a different path. Instead of trying to design in the most operation possible, I tried to determine the least operation my layout could have and still be interesting for the long term. The simple, spare trackplans I emailed my modeling friends during that time “looked narrow gauge” to them. I changed my guidance from the standard gauge “timetable/train order” group to the narrow gauge group. At that point, if
Guide to Narrow Gauge Modeling had been available, I would have purchased a copy. And the single part of it that would have impressed me the most would have been the illustration of the prototype Manns Creek coal loader at Clifftop, West Virginia paired with the excellent modeling of Jeff Kraker.

Campus of Alberene Stone in the mid ’80s.

I began to consider modeling the soapstone operations of Nelson County, which were just the type of interesting, obscure, industrial subject that could make for a successful narrow gauge layout.

Mike works a local on Brian’s On3 layout

As it happened, I was lucky enough to fall into the company of narrow gauge modelers who were interested in operation. Tom Sullivan, Brian Bond, and Steve Sherrill have become great friends who have been very patient and generous with their time and talents. Operating on their layouts convinced me that simple industrial railroads represent an excellent modeling opportunity. Since then, my narrow gauge operating crew has grown considerably. Research, construction, and operation are an ongoing source of enjoyment for all of us. The operation may be simplistic, but increased emphasis on the craft of portraying the character of the prototype more than makes up the difference in project interest.

What a Surprise

I began the construction of scenery on my layout confident that the far corner would be the best place to start. There was no need to fit anything in particular in the space. The Masonite profile for the back of the scenery dictated that a high, steep hill would fill the coved corner. That would give me a chance to learn how I would build hills and cast rock outcroppings, try various ground covers, tree building techniques, and determine how I would model water.

As the steep hillside in the corner transitioned into the adjoining scenes on either side, I assumed certain elements were going to fit in certain configurations. In my mind’s eye it was obvious.

But, as I went about actually measuring and plotting the positions of these elements, the only thing that was obvious was that my ability to previsualise in three dimensional space is terrible.

For years I had looked at the benchwork upon which this series of scenes would rest, and pictured a progression of elevations above and below track level. In my not-to-scale sketches, it all fit nicely together. But when I got serious about taking measurements, figuring slopes, fitting structures and roads, it became clear that there was not room to do what I had assumed could be done. As this realization settled in, I found it somewhat frightening. How could I have been so blind? Would any of the scenery and structures on the layout actually work out the way I thought they would?

I felt like I was under some pressure to have well designed scenery for several reasons. First, the area I am modeling has beautiful scenery and I want to do it justice. Secondly, up to this point I feel the construction of the layout has been quite successful, and I don’t want to blow it now. I don’t think scenery has the power to “save” a layout that has suffered poor design and construction up to that point. But I know poorly designed and executed scenery can bring down the perceived quality of the layout a great deal.

Besides these reasons, I have enjoyed visiting web sites and saved published articles featuring layouts with excellent scenery design and execution ever since I switched scales. The majority of these layouts are European. I have found British and Dutch narrow gauge modeling in particular to be inspirational and the scenery standards very high. I want my layout to bring to mind the modeling of
Rudy Heise or John and Jenny Mason.

But now I wonder if I am even capable of working at that level. My initial attempts at revising the impossible scenes were not any more possible. Revising became a slow process of rethinking and sticking strictly to scale.

Three separate scenes became two, with fewer elements but a little more drama and depth. I am hoping I pick up the skill of accurate previsualisation very quickly.

Searching for the Words

The experience of working long hours at my job has given me the ability to reflect on what I want my model railroad to be.

When I am at work, it becomes clear that my layout’s primary reason for being is to provide an effective form of recreation.

Fun to operate ... but what’s missing?

For me personally, in order for the layout to be fun it must run. Operating it needs to be reliable and interesting. My layout succeeds at this point, almost to a fault.

But there is still a lot left to do on the layout. The experience of running it suffers from a lack of scenery and structures. As I consider how to proceed with construction of scenery and structures, I again keep in mind how those aspects of the project need to increase the layout’s effectiveness as a form of recreation.

Scenery and structures require visualizing and planning in three dimensions. I am terrible at pre-visualizing three dimensional objects. I have to actually observe something that already exists in order to determine whether it “works” or not. In trying to define the aspects of scenery that works, I recall the many miles of backroads I have driven in West Virginia. Of all the beautiful scenery I have seen, a few places stand out as being somehow above and beyond the others. Dolly Sods, the West Fork of the Greenbrier, Gandy Creek in the Seneca backcountry, are different in a way I struggle to define.

In my limited vocabulary for describing a landscape, I can only say that these areas remind me of a park, or have a garden quality to them. They have a variety of form, texture, line, and color that are laid out in a way to maximize visual impact. They look “planned” to me, and the difference between these areas and the vast monolithic ridges of uniform tree cover is a distinction I can make even before I could articulate the difference.

My layout will not be strictly scenery. It will also depict industrial sites strung together by the thin, rusty path of the railroad. When thinking about the interaction between scenery and structures, I thought of particular industrial sites that I have visited regularly over the years.

Interesting industrial sites are full of strong graphic lines and bold contrasts bordering on abstraction. The same compositional elements as landscape in a different arrangement. I personally do not make a strong distinction between the two. Visiting either is a lot of fun.

I approached friends in the Richmond area who are excellent gardeners for assistance in designing the landscape for my layout. I soon realized that a model of a garden is definitely not a garden. The long term planning priorities of constant change and maintenance that are critical to planning a real garden do not apply to my model railroad.

I began a relentless internet search, revising my terminology and reading endless information about planting, building paths, installing lighting, none of which was what I was really searching for. Finally I came across a reference to the book Timeless Landscape Design by Mary Palmer Dargan and Hugh Graham Dargan. The reader reviews of the book included repeated complaints that the book contained very little practical information about specific plants. This complaint convinced me that Timeless Landscape Design was what I needed.

The book is about terminology used to describe the nebulous distinctions that make a landscape “work”. I find myself looking at the photos of landscape and garden elements, trying to determine what aspect of design the picture is illustrating before reading the caption. The planning process is laid out in a logical progression, breaking landscape design into four main parts. I find it easy to transpose almost every aspect of landscape design covered in the book to scenery and structure design for my model railroad.

Searching for a resource like Timeless Landscape Design in the genre of model railroad reference material was pointless. While American modelers don’t seem to see the point, British modelers are building layouts that exhibit a lot of attention being given to landscape design. I find myself snooping around on their blogs and websites more and more, and have enjoyed my subscription to Narrow Gauge & Industrial Railway Modelling.

Scenes: The Crossings

Interpreting an idealized reality

Soapstone railroad grade at Schuyler

The scenes I want to portray on my layout no longer exist in Nelson County. There are only ruins, flooded quarries, and trails through the woods indicating where railroads once ran. Quite a bit of imagination is required to draw some conclusions about what was once there, but imagination alone will not put all the pieces together and provide a complete picture of the past.

I have been fortunate to find some excellent historical sources for information about soapstone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Learning about the industry is fascinating, but I still prefer to go out to the abandoned quarries and investigate the surroundings for any signs of what once went on there. My imagination takes off running at the sight of an old stone foundation, a section of rail, a length of wire rope or chain.

I would like my model railroad to be a reasonably accurate representation of the process of soapstone quarrying and manufacturing. But I would also like it to impart some of the impressions and romanticized interpretations of what it is like to be there. Some based on fact, and some purely conjecture.

To begin the process of developing the layout into scenes that each feature some particular aspect of the foothills and small towns where the soapstone railroads once ran, I decided to start with the “easiest” section.

The climb from Cove to Ariel Church is a simple stretch of single track. There is no hidden track, no track running through the backdrop, no mill, odd angles, or any of a number of elements that will make building other scenes on the layout more complex.

I want to define this scene by having the track pass through deep cuts at either end. The scene itself will be primarily wooded hillsides. The railroad crosses a creek and rural road near the bottom of the grade. The road and railroad bridges over the creek are immediately adjacent to each other. This brings to mind Boiling Spring on Ballinger Creek.

The grade crossing is immediately beside the creek.

Nearby will be a small farmhouse on the steep hillside. The farmhouse is very close to the tracks, so close in fact that the outhouse is on the other side, with a well worn path crossing the railroad.

P&EBR Operation: Legitimacy

How can I operate trains on my layout in a way that reflects the prototype?

A train of finished products arrives at Winwood to be transferred to the C&O Railroad

On my Piedmont & East Blue Ridge, I have adopted an operation scheme that I don’t believe is particularly “legitimate.” I have not seriously researched the traffic patterns of the prototype soapstone railroads, and am not making the accurate representation of those traffic patterns a priority. This might be considered a major shortcoming by some historically minded modelers. I consider it a shortcoming myself, but not a particularly serious one.

Delivering dump cars of soapstone to the Dust Mill

I fell upon the remains of the old soapstone railroads while out railfanning about 30 years ago. I immediately considered them as a prototype to model, but felt that operation of a quarry and stone hauling railroad would be too restrictive and could prevent me from being able to have an acceptable range of possibilities for traffic generation. I assumed a soapstone railroad would be too finite and tightly defined in its operation to be interesting.

After the demise of my HO scale DF&G layout, I tried to design a new trackplan for my space that incorporated lessons learned and addressed some of that layout’s shortcomings. Experience taught me that a simple layout could both be practical to build and operationally interesting. The main design question changed from “how much can I include” to “how little can I include and still have an interesting layout.”

The overall impression of a simple layout reflects the rural shortline “look and feel” that I was after. Modeling friends who saw my evolving trackplan ideas replied that they looked “narrow gauge” ... and that got me thinking about switching to On30. I could see narrow gauge modeling as a way to further simplify the trackplan by doing away with the need for staging yards. The entire narrow gauge railroad would be modeled from end to end, with only the standard gauge connection extending into the unmodeled world beyond.

What I eventually came up with was a trackplan that supported several local “Job” trains out of a central Yard. The Yard is the common point for all Jobs, and becomes their “interchange” point. The Jobs themselves are very different from one another in the situation they present to the crew. Interesting enough to require mental focus, but not overly contrived or complex, each Job takes a reasonable amount of time to complete; from 20 minutes to an hour.

The Jobs can be worked in rotation by one or two crews. In this way, at any given time some Jobs will be “vacant”. Vacant jobs are staged up for the next crew during the course of the op session, so it is possible for every crew to work every Job. After which all involved parties should be ready for a well deserved trip to Virginia Barbeque in Lakeside.

This operating scheme has proven to be very interesting, but honestly has no basis in the historical operation of the soapstone railroads in Virginia. It could be applied to a wide range of industrial settings, none of which would be faithfully represented from a prototype perspective. But the layout would be fun to operate, and therefore remain an effective recreational activity for the long term.

Hindsight 20/20

Good friend and fellow member of the James River Division On30 Module Group Jeff Patelski has built a beautiful shop building for a model railroad. Jeff has modeled in N, HO, and O scales. For his home layout, he has decided to go with HO scale. He is now collecting track plans and mocking up possibilities with flex track and turnouts.

I once had an HO scale home layout myself. The Dry Fork and Greenbrier was set in the Allegheny Mountains of east central West Virginia.

I wanted the layout itself to bring to mind Smokehole, the Canaan Valley, and the Cheat Highlands. I wanted the operation of the layout to reflect the Western Maryland’s GC&E Sub with its long, remote branchlines into the far corners of the Mountain State wilderness.

As track was laid and operations began, it became clear that the DF&G trains did not bring the Western Maryland to mind. Trains on the DF&G were short, the distances between focal points was short, and most of the time spent operating was shifting single cars around on short sidings. This layout was also my first attempt at hand laying track, and I had created a daunting challenge for myself that was frankly beyond my ability to build.

The search for a resolution to these operational issues led to my switching to On30 and building the Piedmont & East Blue Ridge Railroad. But if I had not been so infatuated with West Virginia and had more objectively looked at the situation the Dry Fork presented, I may have been able to quite happily stay in HO scale.

What is obvious now may not have been an acceptable alternative at the time, but looking back I see that the Dry Fork & Greenbrier had a lot in common with the Yancey County Railroad in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Model Railroader and Trains magazines ran a pair of articles on the YCRR in August of 1974, and I was determined I would go and see it for myself one day. By the time I actually made the trip to Micaville, the Yancey County was no longer running.

But when it was still running, the day to day operation of the line was very similar to how operations appeared on my DF&G layout. And the basic configuration of the YCRR could be interpreted to fit nicely on the DF&G’s benchwork.

In transforming the DF&G into a Carolina Blue Ridge style shortline, the outside railroad would change from the Western Maryland to the Clinchfield. A small fiddle yard would be the means for getting cars into and out of operation on the layout. From the interchange, trains would appear on the layout at the town of Micaville. From there a branch wanders up to a furniture factory at Bowditch.

The mainline winds along the wall to Cane Junction where another branch leads to a feldspar loader. The feldspar operation at Cane Fork is the biggest customer of the railroad. Its short siding can only hold two cars for loading at a time, so a locomotive is stationed close by to provide frequent switching service. The lack of sidings in this part of the layout makes switching a challenge, so the Cane Fork crew will have to think ahead.

After passing Cane Junction, the mainline continues to the town of Burnsville, which is the end of the line. The depot in town serves as the railroad’s office, and there is another engine house there. Online industries at Burnsville are a Purina Feed mill and a fuel oil dealership.

A pair of Bachmann’s new
GE 45 ton switchers would be the perfect power for this simple layout. The trackwork would have been more in line with my hand laying skills, but could probably all be store bought. And the layout would have been a much better match to the operation on it.

Making Contact

Steve Sherrill's Shady Grove & Sherrill On30 layout | January 2006

August 7, 2004

Finally making contact with Garth Groff, author of book on Virginia soapstone and its railroads:

Subject: FW: Virginia Soapstone Railroads

Mark Chase wrote:

I am a model railroader who is interested in learning more about the
railroads that served the soapstone industry in Nelson and Albermarle
counties. I have the Alberene Soapstone and its Railroads book and the
August Thieme video of the Nelson and Albermarle. Over the years I have
committed serious trespass to photograph the inside of the mill buildings at
Schuyler, and many of the quarries at Damon, Alberene, and Piedmont. I have
hiked just about the entire grade of the old N&A railroad, and have spoken
with folks who worked for Alberene Soapstone.

I am most interested in the later history of the N&A railroad, which would
be the transition from steam to diesel. I am designing an On30 layout, and
am considering a freelanced soapstone industrial tram/narrow gauge
operations scenario.

I would appreciate any information you might be able to offer. It would be
great to get together with someone who knows something about this very
interesting industry and its rail operations.

Mark Chase

Why Change?

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

July 17, 2004

Tom called today. Only because he blew out his back working on his house can he sit still long enough to talk. I come away from the conversation with the kernel of a distinction - why change scales and model in On30?

• I have no experience modeling in O scale, but it is 1:48, and that is easy to "think in." Figuring how big something would be in O scale is like making change. O scale lends itself to model building.

• On30 is narrow gauge, without being a gauge that was ever popular in the United States. It is not exactly 2 foot or 3 foot gauge. And so, from a prototypical standpoint, it lends itself to freelancing. "Not exactly" is what On30 is all about.

As soon as thought is given to representing a rail system in an enclosed, reasonably sized space, huge compromises have to be made. How much "imagination" am I comfortable with?

When I look at my trackplan with On30 in mind, it is difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that the plan can stay basically the same while the layout essentially represents an area one fourth the size. Does it become necessary to change themes due to the fact that it is so obvious that the area being modeled is small?

What Almost Happened

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

July 10, 2004

I have started construction on the revised Dry Fork & Greenbrier by extending the staging yard shelf to accommodate a new yard.

The look of operations on the new plan is meant to appear very similar to the Buffalo Creek & Gauley. Consolidation steam locomotives would pull trains back and forth between the interchange at Hendricks and the coal mine at Blackfork. The trackage around the sawmill at Three Forks will be worked by Shays. The Consolidations can be turned at either end of the line, and the Shays would always run "good side" toward the aisle.

Trackplan "6D" is emailed out to several model railroading friends. Tom Sullivan responds that no (?) revisions would have to be made to the plan in order for it to be an On30 layout that would represent a West Virginia prototype like the Manns Creek Railroad.

I quickly review some On30 websites, and frankly like what I see, because On30 is often modeled in a way that is very close to my ideal that has driven this layout revision: short trains running on simple layouts. On30 appears to be where I am headed, and some of me is already there.

From "6D" to "7A"?

A Week at the Ocean

June 6, 2004

Room 512, One Virginia Avenue

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Layout plan 6c

Initial thoughts:

Best kept simple. Three operational scenarios:
- Out and back from staging, as a branchline, shortline, or local.
– Point to Point mainline
– Continuous run

Main characteristics:
– Staging/Fiddle yard
– Hidden Track (don't like this)
– (2) secondary industries
– Primary/Focal industry

Considering the setting and the arrangement of the main characteristics of the plan, I see how the layout could be based on the Bergoo & Western Railroad, which is a shortline operating the old West Virginia Midland track in Webster County. The Western Maryland enters from staging, swaps cars at the passing track, and returns to staging. The local railroad would then work the coal loader, the sawmill, and the smaller coal loader in the office area of the layout. This is very similar to the way things are on the old West Virginia Midland in Webster County from Bergoo on down to Curtin and into Webster Springs.

Now I've got the Bergoo & Western operational scenario stuck in my head:

Good - It is prototypical, and suits the region and era.
Bad - exploring other operational possibilities becomes less of a priority. And the Ideal shifts from simplicity to representation.

The inspiration and reference can be there, but it is best to not suggest that the layout is duplicating a specific place.

Entrance to layout from staging could be tunnel based on French Creek, Glady, or Winding Gulf

Room on peninsula for high, curved bridge based on Cheat Junction.

Secondary Industry - possibly a small coal loader based on the one I photographed at Quinwood.

Long curving siding could be based on Spruce.

The primary industry could be a sawmill, based on sawmills at Swandale or Schulls Mills.

Secondary Industry in office - small town, possibly based on Lansing, Webster Springs, Dilwyn, or Robertsdale.

Almost Heaven

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

May 30, 2004

Back from West Virginia by way of Bemis, Osceola, Spruce Knob, Snowy Mountain, Monterey, North River, and Reddish Knob. A homecoming of sorts ... years since I had been to these places, and to see them again without the surety of a layout. With no deeply ingrained assumptions, I could look at the places anew, as if for the first time.

And what I saw, seeing these places without the filter of preconceived notions of a layout to look through:

The Cheat Highlands are incredible. High, striking scenery, raging whitewater streams, and old railroad grades. On some grades the rails are still there, and on some rails geared steam locomotives are still there, and throughout the region are remains of an interesting industrial history.

Why would a model railroader look any further than right here for a prototype to model?

There was a time when the close fit between my Ideal and Cheat Mountain was revealed to me ridge by ridge, hike by hike. A time when I saw all this for the first time and had not yet felt compelled to translate it into the tight parameters of a model railroad. I could see it for what it is. Over time I interpreted it over and over in model railroad track plans and layout designs, and began to tire of repeatedly failing at conveying the idea of what it feels like to actually be there. The restrictions of model railroading forced the motif to be less than what it really is. The frustration caused me to stop reminding myself of how poorly my layout was representing this place. I stopped going.

I go again - this time not trusting my interpretational skills. Straining to see it for what it is, and seeing it is still what I am looking for.

Old railroad branchlines wind interminably through the region, seemingly from nowhere to nowhere, passing abandoned sawmill and coal mine sites. Small towns scattered thinly through high, rocky terrain.

When I arrived in Bemis, the Shavers Fork was raging, roaring. The sky broke clear briefly so I hiked a short distance both up and down the old Western Maryland grade. There is no way to model torn clouds racing overhead, dark mountainsides suddenly flashing into full sun, and crashing floodwaters tumbling past.

A model railroad requires thought in the planning, but I tend to think about it the wrong way. Thinking about it too hard, thinking about it too much ... the subject just does not bear that much thought being given to it.

Plan Number Six

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

May 9, 2004

Coming up with effective revisions for the Dry Fork layout, or coming up with a new trackplan altogether has become a search for simplicity. To try to connect the Simple Ideal:

with the space I have to build a layout.

Plan Six appears to do that:

It would have just a few operational points, separated by a long stretch of winding, single track mainline. This plan seems to bring together Ideal and Practicality reasonably well, so I am considering it very seriously. It differs significantly from my present layout in that it contains significantly fewer operational elements.

Plan 6 is more about the layout and less about what is modeled. By that I mean that it reflects an Ideal that is not defined by modeling any particular industry, location, or era. It reflects a priority on simplicity, ease of construction, and reliability of operation.

It is difficult to keep the initial premise in mind
and give the project enough thought to develop it. Thought leads to trying to tie a prototype operation to the plan in order to answer questions regarding design, construction, operation. But there are other ways to answer those questions ... to keep revisiting the Ideal.

The Ideal seems to be a layout with low track density, and not much industrial development. The hidden trackage is an attempt to open up a wider scope of operational possibilities, but it is the part of the plan I like the least.

Trying to Save the Dry Fork

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

May 3, 2004

Thinking about a revised Dry Fork layout without a hidden and inaccessible staging yard, without a twisting 4% grade, and with far fewer turnouts. It seemed that sticking with the basic layout might be the way to go.

Hendricks is a staging track in the adjacent room. It represents the unmodeled interchange with the Thomas Sub of the Western Maryland Railroad. Dry Fork trains would be staged here, and then enter the layout near Red Creek Junction. There is a small yard serving the junction with a branch up Red Creek to a sawmill in Lanesville. Harmon is the next point on the line, and the only town of any size served by the Dry Fork. There would be a station siding and a team track there.

The mainline continues around the room to Osceola, where there is a junction with another branchline to Laurel Bridge. The track in Laurel Bridge belongs to the Greenbrier Lime & Stone Corporation, which has a few small switch engines for working the kiln and crusher tracks.

The Dry Fork continues past Osceola and winds out onto the peninsula, eventually reaching Winterburn, which is the end of the line. At Winterburn there would be a small coal loader and a run-around so trains could work the mine and start back toward Hendricks.

This layout revision would be a major rebuild in all areas except Lanesville, which has not been built yet. The resulting layout would be simpler, and a more realistic portrayal of an Appalachian short line operation. All well and good, except the overall concept still does not ring true as a West Virginia coal hauler to me. The varied mix of relatively low volume traffic brings short lines like the Virginia Blue Ridge or the Yancey County more strongly to mind. Rather than the mix of online industries being lumber, lime, and coal, it may be fun to consider gypsum, manganese/iron, paper, soapstone, mica, or sand as a primary industry.

I frankly still feel more comfortable with the idea of modeling coal and lumber. It seems more accessible to me. The Dry Fork allows reasonable development of a range of operation. With the revisions it could be a successful layout. But the nature of the revisions are in themselves a clue as to what I consider the Ideal Layout, and following where they lead might take me away from the Dry Fork altogether.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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

Tom Sullivan came by today to see the state of the Dry Fork & Greenbrier, bring some models off his dismantled Williams River layout, and to say goodbye as a Richmond resident, planning on moving back to Va Beach on June 25, 2004.

Telling him I had pretty much decided to tear out the Dry Fork brought out some candid comments:
– I was trying to cram too much operation into the Dry Fork, especially in the Osceola area.
– The track and turnouts had proven marginal at best.

We discussed how, without the steady input of ideas from others, and separated from the layout by extra hours at work for long periods of time, I had begun to sense a new ideal for a layout. An ideal that was very simple. Simpler than the Dry Fork. Asked to summarize my biggest gripes about the Dry Fork, I listed:
– Tight radius curves
– Steep grades
– Narrow aisles

Lurking just below the surface was an additional, BIG reason why I was losing my enchantment with the Dry Fork:
– It did not run well.

At first Tom was open to discussing new trackplans and the ideas that went into them. He thought my space too small for a multi level layout, and that the rail height of the Dry Fork was fine, even though I thought it was too low. We talked about using the soapstone shortlines of Virginia as a theme for a layout. He wondered if I had enough space to do the operation justice. He also wondered if I was really willing to focus on such a specialized subject. Would I be serious enough about depicting the soapstone railroads to limit equipment to what they actually ran? Would the theme provide enough operational interest?

Osceola on the Dry Fork & Greenbrier layout | April 2004

Interesting conclusions drawn out by the discussion:
– I was not so concerned with fidelity to the prototype that I would restrict myself in the manor of Jack Burgess' Yosemite Valley layout to only what actually was used on the soapstone railroads.
– I had not been so interested in the soapstone theme for a layout that I had even tried to contact Garth Groth, or contact someone to get permission to photograph the remaining soapstone properties
– My approach would be to use the soapstone industry as a prop, with decisions regarding motive power and rolling stock being based on what was commercially available and ran well.

Building track in Winterburn | January 2003

To this Tom suggested that a common characteristic of all "next layouts" is that they run well. That almost everything else is justifiable, negotiable, flexible ... but it
has to run reliably. The same loose attitude I had toward possibly modeling a soapstone railroad was most likely what I would adopt modeling any theme. Compromises and trade-offs may be necessary in order to have a high priority on reliable running.

Tom's priorities:
– Must accommodate DCC
– Must accommodate a sound unit
– Must run reliably

If models are available that fit these criteria, Tom will use them, whether they fit strictly into his operational theme or not. A lot of small, industrial locomotives would be eliminated from consideration by sticking strictly to these priorities, but Tom thinks they deserve to be eliminated. Avoiding them will increase the enjoyment of the layout.

All this talk about reliable operation was prompted by a fact Tom and I both knew. The Dry Fork did not run reliably. Taking this into account, and seeing my progress on construction and how close the trackwork was to completion, Tom thought that right now would be a particularly
bad time to stop work on the Dry Fork. He estimated the layout could serve well for another 3 years or so.

DF&G local crossing Gandy Creek | April 2004

His reasoning went along these lines:
– If I had not figured out how lay track and build turnouts, this ignorance would hurt the next layout. These issues need to be rectified, or the worst of the Dry Fork could get transferred to the new layout.
– Considering the plans I showed him for a new layout, Tom did not think there was much to be gained by having that layout rather than this one. There was nothing great about the new plans. Mostly they were just different track configurations in the same space.
– None of the gripes either he or I had about the Dry Fork were insurmountable. Nothing about the curves, grades, or aisle widths was totally outlandish. Since the layout suffered operationally from including too much, then some track and turnouts could be removed, and those areas rebuilt to run better.
– Moving forward into scenery and structure building on the Dry Fork will benefit the next layout even more. Bringing the Dry Fork closer to completion would help me define what the theme of the next layout really should be.

G&PC - High Tide on the Dry Fork

April 24, 2004

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

I stopped working on my HO scale Dry Fork & Greenbrier layout in April of 2004. I had become aware of many problems with the completed portions of the layout, and was aware of problems in the sections what were still being built. I decided there was no point in continuing.

The Dry Fork came after 15 years of waiting for a space to build a layout. I built a finished shop building behind my house with a 12 by 14 foot room specifically for a model railroad. The trackplan for my Dry Fork layout was meant to get the most out of the space.

The design process had started 15 years earlier with sketches of layouts to fit in a "spare bedroom" sized area. Initially, the priority was to fit as much operational interest into the space as possible. Construction was to be basic and quick. Trains would be all "A&W" (typical Athearn and Walthers brand) inexpensive plastic kits and ready to run locomotives and rolling stock.

But 15 years is a long time to think about something, and I thought about the plan for my future layout a great deal during those years. Part of the thought process went into choosing a setting to be portrayed by the layout. I settled on the coal and lumber regions in eastern West Virginia as the location to be modeled, and came up with a name for the railroad that reflected where I imagined it would run. I took "research" roadtrips to old mill, mine, and railroad sites in West Virginia.

Western Maryland grade, Blackwater Canyon | October 1986

A consequence of seeing West Virginia and studying its industrial history firsthand was that I became aware of how beautiful and interesting a place it is. My proposed layout had not been designed with West Virginia in mind at all. I knew the layout would benefit by more accurately portraying the prototype. But at that time there was only a plan, and with no actual layout on which to apply my ideas, I thought that most anything would be possible on the Dry Fork & Greenbrier Railroad.

Construction began on the DF&G with a conflicting set of priorities. I wanted the layout to be quick and easy to build, but I was handlaying the track. I wanted to get every bit of possible operational interest out of the space available, but I loved the long, lonely, meandering branchlines of the prototype. I wanted to populate the layout with cheap plastic kits, but I knew enough about the prototype to realize that a proper portrayal would require custom building.

As construction progressed, it became apparent that the layout was so full of track that there was hardly any room for scenery and structures. I build cardboard mockups of structures to place and arrange on the layout, until such time that I could replace them with scratchbuilt models. That time never came.

The small yard at Osceola was a junction with a branchline, AND hosted a truck dump AND a pulpwood yard AND a team track. It was too much for such a compact area.

This tipple at Laurel Bridge was one of the largest industries on the layout. I placed a mirror on the wall behind it to make it look like the track extended further up the creek.

The largest industry on the layout was the lime kiln of the Greenbrier Lime & Stone Corporation. GL&S operated their own industrial railroad in this area. Operating the GL&S was my favorite part of the Dry Fork layout.

Trains on the Dry Fork were short, and long periods of tedious switching were required. The layout was designed for train operations to be that way. But my impressions of West Virginia railroading were really not reflected in operations on the Dry Fork.

This is as far as construction on the DF&G ever got. A long looping grade was to have connected the upper track with the lower yard and the connection to the hidden staging area. Extremely tight radius curves were necessary through the handlaid turnouts in the yard, and I knew they would be a constant source of aggravation.

The 15 years spent feverishly thinking about building a layout did not translate into very much practical experience at building one. The Dry Fork was not a good layout, but it was an excellent learning experience. I hope my present layout will benefit greatly from the failures of the previous one.

G&PC - A trickle to a flood

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

April 17, 2004

Rebuilding the Winterburn Lead turnout for the third time, and for the first time I can say that I have built about as good a turnout as anyone could build. And so, the prospect is upon me to go back and rebuild all the turnouts - but to what end? To fix this layout? Is it worth it?

Not long ago I was pulling Virginia Creeper Trail slides for Chris Jessee. There it was again. The rocks, the water, the trestles, the trees, the twisting and turning grade, Creek Junction. I mention this wave of recollection of what it felt like to be out on the old Abingdon Branch to Dan George in an email, and how my layout did not seem to embody any of that. Dan suggested that my layout is a failure, and I should tear it out immediately.

But whenever I give thought to planning a new layout, I tend to end up swerving back to the same old layout. My process of layout planning yields the layout I have now. The
Simple Ideal of a Producer and a Consumer connected by a meandering mainline does not come to mind easily. It is hard to stay focused on an abstract Ideal while trying to design a layout for a specific space.

I quickly sketch out a layout that is nothing like what I am building. It is loose and somewhat irrational. It doesn't make good use of space. It doesn't take advantage of every opportunity to squeeze something else in. It is just different from what I am doing now; a reaction to what I don't like about my present layout.

GP&C - A new ideal

April 2, 2004

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

Forced Timeout for model railroading due to work getting so busy. The Alleghany Alliance loses Tom Sullivan, so the regular operating sessions have stopped. Time away from the old routine is good. Absence makes the aggravations of layout construction fade away. My fondness grows for an abstract, removed Ideal for a model railroad, and that Ideal is


To develop a plan for a new layout from a starting point of a winding main line connecting two passing sidings.

Just a locomotive,

a few freight cars,

and a caboose.

Why get any more complex than that?

Sustained interest requires a little more than the bare minimum, but care should be taken to stay as close as possible to the Simple Ideal.

Backdrop-Planning Cove Quarry

My trackplan revision has given me a spur in the corner of my layout that I have decided to make a stone loading track. The quarry adjacent to the loading track is called Cove Quarry, because of the coved backdrop in the corner.

Coved corners have some unique characteristics that I keep in mind when I am planning the backdrop. Horizon lines should be long and nearly horizontal through the entire curve in order to minimize the apparent distortion. A soapstone quarry provides an interesting possiblity as a subject to render in a corner because the the way stone is cut and removed from the quarry creates long horizontal lines.

Soapstone is a relatively soft mineral. As the quarries would get deeper and deeper, the danger of the walls collapsing under their own weight increased. Bulkheads of stone were left in place to provide support for the quarry walls. These linear supports provide strong horizontal lines in a soapstone quarry composition.

I sketched a few orientations of a quarry in the cove of the backdrop

Rendering straight quarry walls on a curved surface could pose a problem. But I have learned from working on my backdrop that when I am out in the field observing a panaramic scene, my field of vision is curved, or "coved". Points equidistant from the viewer are on a curve. In fact, a scene on the flat section of the backdrop is in some ways more distorted than the scenes bending through the corners.

One of my goals in rendering Cove Quarry on the backdrop would be to create the illusion of space and distance where there isn't any. A good backdrop can really open up the layout space, but a bad backdrop is distracting. It would be better to just have a well executed line of trees at Cove Quarry than a poorly done, overly complex rendering of a quarry.

Planning the Layout

I used RailModeler software to create the trackplan for the P&EBR. It is designed to be operated point to point, but has continuous running cabability for open houses and whenever I just want to watch the trains go 'round and 'round.

The heavy brown lines in the plan are walls, so you can see that the layout primarily occupies one room, but extends into two adjacent rooms through holes in the walls. The room to the right in the plan is an office, and the room at the top of the plan is an unfinished shop area.

Although none of the early construction of the layout was in this area, the plan for the part of the layout extending into the unfinished shop area looked like this:

Most of the benchwork and roadbed were built using this plan, and I had begun to lay track, when a wave of home improvement projects hit. For an extended period starting Memorial Day weekend, I was not able to work on the layout.

During the long summer, I would occasionally look at the layout as it sat waiting for me to get back to construction. Over time, one particular track began to bother me. On the plan detail above, it is labelled "Apex Quarry." It bothered me that this track would be completely hidden under scenery, and had terrible access. My intention had been to use it as a staging track to represent an unmodeled quarry served by an extension of the branch off the wye. But I could see that in practice it would be very difficult to make use of the track in the regular operation of the layout. The point at which cars would have to be coupled and uncoupled was out of the reach of an operator standing at the wye, and the lefthand curve leading into the Apex Quarry track would prevent cars from coupling automatically.

Near the end of the summer, it occurred to me that the Apex Quarry track needed to be on the other side of the wall. This would solve the access problems, while still allowing the track to serve as a continuous run connection. I began to explore the possibility of moving it from the layout room over into the shop:

This detail shows the basic idea of moving the Apex Quarry track to the other side of the wall. This would require knocking another hole in the wall between the layout room and the shop. In planning the exact location for the new hole, I located a stud in the wall in a very unfortunate location, shown in red.

In fact, there were 2 studs close together in the wall at this location. I think the second stud was added for the convenience of the contractor who hung the sheet rock. These obstructions in the wall initially made it seem that cutting a hole in the wall for the Apex track would be too complicated.

I kept thinking about the new hole in the wall until the possibility of squeezing the roadbed through a small hole between the two studs finally dawned on me. It would require a quick right turn off the end of the wye, then a tight lefthand turn once through the wall. Laying out the track in RailModeler indicated it was possible:

The old Apex Quarry track would become the new mainline leading into a small Transfer Yard from the wye. The other connection between the layout and Transfer Yard would serve as a storage spur on the Transfer Yard end, and a stone loading spur on the layout end. The new quarry in the corner is named Cove Quarry, because it will mainly exist as a painting in the coved corner of the backdrop.

The shelf in the unfinished shop area is eight feet long and 16 inches deep. It was built as the staging area for my previous layout. As a staging area, it was never intended to have scenery. The shop area is chronically dusty, and does not have climate control. The tabletop benchwork of the staging yard is painted gloss black, and can easily be shop vacuumed clean. I have decided that, for the time being, the Transfer Yard for the P&EBR will not have any scenery either. All track will be HO standard gauge flex track. Turnouts will be Peco Electrofrog Medium and Long Radius HO scale turnouts left over from my previous layout.

This "temporary" trackwork with no scenery in the Transfer Yard area will allow time to try out this trackplan and see if it suits me. If all goes well, I will build a valance over the Transfer Yard that will allow installation of panels to keep the dust off the layout. Then I will go back and replace the trackwork with handlaid, and add scenery and structures to this section of the layout.