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.

The GP&C Remembered - VI



It’s 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.


Rainetown was in a corner of the lower level of Dan’s layout, at the bottom of the helix that connected the lower track to the upper level.


Various hidden bypass, connecting, and cutoff tracks all emerged at Rainetown, resulting in a long line of tunnel portals. Dan filled the scene with a concentration of visual decoys to divert attention away from the unrealistic series of tunnel entrances.


Some of his diversionary tactics were rather crude, but most were amazing scratchbuilt structures bristling with detail and activity.


All this eye candy had the effect of inviting close attention to Rainetown, rather than diverting attention away.


Experiencing scenes like Rainetown on Dan’s layout was very disruptive to my notions of model railroading at the time. I first started visiting Dan and operating on his layout in the late 1990s. At the time I had just finished a detached shop building that had a studio space to be dedicated to a model railroad layout. I had enjoyed countless hours of designing the layout, and more countless hours of visualizing how the layout would operate and the traffic flow. But the actual construction of the layout was not something I spent a lot of time day dreaming about. I thought of layout construction as an awkward gestation period that could not be avoided.


Dan’s layout was a sprawling testament to a different set of priorities for building a model railroad. It illustrated how a model railroad could be an excellent vehicle for displaying craft and an interest in industrial history if the construction phase of the project was approached with the same creative and innovative thought that I was only willing to apply to design.


Still smarting from the expense of building my shop, I felt obligated to build the best layout I could, and saw Dan’s layout as the definitive reference point. It came as a huge disappointment when trying to adopt a new priority for layout construction caused me to freeze like a deer in the headlights. On a superficial level, I had bought into a new approach to the hobby, buy I still had deep preconceived notions that were telling me that this new approach was not appropriate. Much hand wringing and journaling ensued. I searched for an approach to the problem that would help me make progress on my East Blue Ridge layout. Eventually I realized that this new approach I was struggling to come up with was already a well-worn path called
design thinking, with many helpful resources available on the Internet.

On30 in Virginia

I had a great time visiting a few On30 modelers and their layouts this month.

Tom Sullivan


Tom has gotten a lot done on his new layout. This one has a Maine two foot theme.


The layout has numerous operational focal points, with plenty to keep operators busy.


I was impressed by how much historical information Tom is incorporating into the operation of this layout. As we discussed possibilities for managing operations, I learned a great deal about the two foot railroads.


Train time in Albion. The local crew has a few sidings to work, and will have to turn the locomotive and combine for the return trip.

Ashe Rawls


I am lucky to have Ashe as a neighbor. His new layout is a source of inspiration for me and everyone who visited during the Module Meet last March.


Ashe has a real knack for building structures. His layout is an excellent vehicle for displaying his talents.


A great source of tricks and tips, Ashe is always trying new techniques and materials.


His layout is covered with highly detailed craftsman kits, and he is finishing up a big scratchbuilt sawmill with a complete interior.

Mike Nataluk


Mike is well along in building a large layout that has modular benchwork


Mike has brought his considerable modeling experience and vast collection of shop tools to bear on my kitbash conundrums.


Mike and I both like to run smaller locomotives and rolling stock on our layouts. He has collected and built a wide range of smaller equipment.


Very impressive little geared steam locomotive models populate his engine facilities.


Mike also has an eye for creating little narrative scenes on his layout.


I enjoyed looking through Mike’s collection of unpublished information about Maine two foot narrow gauge railroads.