East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad

The GP&C Remembered - V

Lessons Learned from Tarpaper Shacks


It is April again, and that means it is time to dig out some more photos of Dan George’s HO scale Spring Creek Lumber Company layout.

The Greenbrier & Pocahontas Central was abandoned and dismantled in April of 2005.


Ten years ago I was making frequent trips up to West Virginia to visit Dan George and participate in op sessions on his G&PC layout. Being able to visit his layout and talk model railroading with Dan was well worth the long trip. I would often make the trip even longer by taking the scenic route to investigate old sawmill townsites or railfan the C&O in the Alleghanies.


Visiting Dan’s layout had a strong cumulative effect on my modeling. I was immediately impressed with his work, but my journal entries from my early visits record my amazement at Dan’s inordinate commitment of time and other resources to his layout.

Over time, the aggregate visits to Renick created a growing discontent with my own modeling. I began to wonder if tearing out my layout and starting over would be worth it if it meant my layout would be more like Dan’s. There was no guarantee that any layout I built would bring Dan’s modeling to mind. I found it hard to even articulate what set Dan’s modeling apart.

Dan taught a scratchbuilding workshop that I was able to attend. All participants in the workshop built a tarpaper shack.


The shack I built exhibited many characteristics of Dan’s modeling. I daresay my shack could have been placed on Dan’s layout without drawing any particular notice. This project provided a lot of insight for a beginning modeler.

Dan applied his skills as a scratchbuilder toward creating these simple structures out of respect for the history of the region and the lumber industry. These ephemeral sheds were an indication that the lumber operation being modeled was still in business. Within five years after the mill shut down these sheds would have been rotted and collapsing, in 15 years there would be little sign that they had even existed.


These simple structures were a way of establishing and animating the scene, much in the same way as the trains themselves. They leant credibility and authenticity, looking so much at home on Dan’s layout that it was difficult to identify how important they were to the overall scene.


Rather than apply scratchbuilding skills toward creating elaborate, ornate displays of craftmanship, Dan put a priority on observation and accuracy. Simple structures that were easy to overlook were important to include, and important to do well.


My initial attraction to Dan’s layout was running trains, and we certainly did plenty of that. But over time I began to believe in the real value of a model railroad as a way to present what I have learned about a time and place. Skillful presentation reinforces the railroad operation and more fully exploits the potential of a layout. Any “finished” layout has scenery and structures, but Dan showed me the potential of stretching my skills in order to more clearly communicate a vision and help justify the entire pursuit.