No. 98: New Scenery for Ackley’s South Side

I came home from St. Louis RPM full of motivation to finish up some important things on the layout.

The primary area of concern was the south side of my 16 x 2-foot layout.  I was unhappy with the photo backdrops I was using so while I was in St. Louis I took a couple of hundred pictures out east of the city in the farm country around Litchfield, hoping that some of those photos would work for backdrops. 

Below.  Here’s what I started with when I came back home.  I removed all the trees, buildings and detail parts from the layout and got to work.


Below.  With everything out of the way, I decided to install new concrete blocks that held the control rods for the mechanical interlocking system.  The mechanical interlocking was gone in 1940–I model 1950–but I thought it would be interesting to add the blocks.  I used Evergreen styrene strip for the job, measuring six inches by 12 inches, and then cut a whole bunch of them using a NWSL Chopper.


Then I made a little jog to install them at the right height and distance from the rail.  It would’ve been much easier to do this before applying any scenery.


Below.  Nevertheless, I was still able to install them all at relatively the same height and distance from the rail.  I continued installing the pads on all the tracks within about 200 scale feet of the interlocking.  I painted them with Tru Color Concrete.

You can also see the photo backdrops I was using originally.  That was my first-ever try at using photo backdrops.  They were an improvement, but I wasn’t happy with them.


Next I re-ballasted the IC mainline track per the 1940-era photo below.  The ballast profile on my layout as seen above just wasn’t prototypical.  The steam-era ballast profile is very prominent in the prototype photo:

  • Ballast up to the top of the ties in the middle
  • Exposed tie ends 
  • Shallow ballast profile out to six feet

Isn’t this a great shot?  You’re looking down the IC towards Chicago.  The IC – M&StL transfer (interchange) track is just to your right.  This photo was provided by Doug Harding, courtesy the Ackley Historical Society.ackley tower looking east 047

The ballast used on the IC line on my layout is Woodland Scenics N scale light gray ballast.  I don’t know if it is prototypical but I wanted to create some contrast between the IC and M&StL lines.  

I simply added more ballast where I wanted, wetted it down by spraying it with a fine mist of rubbing alcohol, and then applying ballast glue.  My ballast glue formula is about 25% Elmers Glue All, 25% rubbing alcohol, a few drops of dishwashing soap, and the rest water.  This formula works good and doesn’t leave behind any white residue.


I also touched up the scenery a little bit here and there, and added a little more ground foam and static grass in a few places, and in general cleaned up a lot of minor problem spots in this area. 

New Backdrop Photos


The photo above shows some of the new backdrops photos I’m using after some of the IC line details and a few trees were reinstalled.  Here are three of the photos I used in this area, all of which were taken around Staunton, Illinois (near Litchfield).




When I was shooting the “backdrop photos”, I tried to follow a simple set of guidelines that I learned from the first round using backdrop photos:

  • Take photos of an entire scene from end-to-end.
  • When possible, include in photos an area that include a transition, such as foreground trees with a corn field in the background.
  • If taking pictures of trees or other tall features, include the whole tree–don’t chop the top of it out of your photo. 
  • Take some pictures that have diagonal land features.  We railfans tend to take pictures that are always nicely boxed in, or 3/4 views.  Note the photo above–see how there’s a diagonal transition at the bottom right?   Those features break up vertically-stacked scenes, and come in handy for creating backdrop transitions, so “think outside the box”.

To use the photos, I simply printed them out on an 11 x 17-inch sheet of legal printer paper, in landscape model, and that was it.  Then I cut out all the sky around the trees, test-fitted them, and then glued them on the backdrop using Elmer’s Glue-All.

Because I took series of photos I was able to easily match up different photo prints end-to-end.  The photo below is much improved!


I worked my way around the entire south end of the layout, slowly adding the photocopied backdrops. 

Below.  This is one of the three road crossings in downtown Ackley, Iowa.  This picture was taken in downtown Litchfield, Illinois.  It worked out nicely.  The large black line in the left center is a separation in the Masonite backdrop; this is where the two major benchwork sections separate (for moving and transport).  I needed to cut the backdrop photo several times to lay it over that break in the backdrop.  I also need to match the road color to the photo. 


Below is another photo of the new backdrops.  Behind the cement dealer there is a transition from foreground trees to a background soybean field, hidden by a couple of 3-D puffball trees. 

I added the dead tree to attract the eye away from the backdrop.  That tree was cut from an ornamental bush I found alongside a highway in Switzerland.  I got a giant handful of them before the family knew what was going on.  I dried it and painted it gray and that was it.


I’m happy with the new backdrops so far.  They are not very “Iowa Cornfield” but this area did have quite a few trees in the 40s and 50s, so the backdrops are prototypical although not quite representative. 

I continued to touch up grass, ballast, plant trees and add details as I worked my way down the layout.  I don’t want to install too many trees, but rather use a few trees here and there to provide a 3-D effect. 

Speaking of trees, Jim DuFour explained how he made trees in one of our many conversations at St. Louis RPM.  I finally got a new box of Super Trees shipped so I’m going to give his methods a try soon.  Jim told me he wasn’t happy with puffball trees.  I’m not either, although there are a couple still on the layout as you can see in the photos. 

By the way, if you ever need motivation to do better scenery work, look no further than Jim DuFour.  The photo below on Jim’s layout is an example of how Jim mixes model trees, photo backdrops and ground cover into a perfectly natural scene.   It was photos like this from Jim’s layout–and meeting the master himself at St. Louis–that got me motivated to get to work.


A few additional details and trees later, everything was back to better-than-normal.  There’s more work to be done but I really wanted to get some trains running again.  The work can wait.


One last photo–down by the depot–just for fun. 


I hope you guys have a blessed week!  – John G


3 thoughts on “No. 98: New Scenery for Ackley’s South Side

  1. Wonderful work with the additions/improvements, they really add a lot to your railroad. Sometimes that “little” motivation can work wonders for your attitude and pleasure in the hobby. Looking forward to future pictures of the railroad. Thanks!


  2. Well done. Looking at the prototype picture of the track, I can’t believe how rough the ends of the ties are. They look all twisted and gnarly and not even close to be aligned at the ends. Would make for some interesting handlaying of track.


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