East of the Blue Ridge

Chronicles of an On30 quarry railroad


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.

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