No. 151: John Moenius’ Preston, Minnesota

My friend and fellow former-USAF navigator John Moenius is planning to model the Milwaukee Road in Preston, Minnesota. John was kind enough to send some words on his layout plan. Here’s John:

For the model railroader moving can be an emotional time.  The old layout you have spent hours planning and building comes down.  But at the same time new opportunities arise.  That was the situation I found myself in January, 2020.   At that time my wife and I decided to retire to a warmer climate and move from Kansas City to South Carolina.  I had a nice 26 foot by 13 foot shelf switching layout based on the FEC in Miami that was about 50% finished.  I had held a couple of operating sessions and had favorable comments.  But, down it came.  

FEC Final Run

We finally sold our house and made the move to South Carolina in October.  In South Carolina basements are a rarity, but I did have a FROG (finished room over garage) that had a 19 foot wall and the ability to add two eight foot wings on each end.  So what would be the next chapter in my modeling journey?   

Here’s a view of my new layout room, below:

New Train Room-Flipped

Some of the best advice I have received was from track planning/builder Lance Mindheim.  A good place to start is what does an operating session look like? I have operated on some big layouts in Kansas City.  I found I am more a builder than operator.  Operating a layout with eight people for four hours is not for me.  Bang a couple of boxcars together of 15 to 30 minutes, I’m good.  With all that in mind, what do I model?  

I envy those who had a railroad of their youth and know exactly what line they want to model.  When I was very young and living in Baltimore the Pennsy ran behind our house and I would watch trains for hours from my bedroom window.  So I do have a soft spot there, but it just seemed so big and I know of no interesting branch lines.  So many railroads, so little time.   As a start for some unknown reason I like railroads of the upper Midwest; CNW, MILW, M&SL, RI, CGW.   I also like Southeast railroads, seldom modeled and colorful.  And the Lehigh Valley too—I can’t figure that one out.

Below. Here’s my house on the far left (photo from Google maps).

View of Pennsy

My first thought was modeling the Seaboard, a railroad I really liked and central to my new home in South Carolina.  The main line was out; I do not want to model a bunch of passenger trains.  At first, I looked at modeling operations around the still standing Seaboard freight house in Savannah.  But others convinced me it would be operationally boring. 

Some fellow modelers online got me looking at the line between Savannah and Montgomery, a more rural line with no passenger service after early 1950s.  I just could not find a location that would work in my space and being a prototype modeler (sort of) I just did not want a generic town.

Below. Bellville, Georgia on the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery line–with a large lumber mill, some warehouses and a few other industries–was a consideration for a short time.


Then I started looking at end-of-line branch towns using Sanborn Maps and historic aerial photographs.  Some of my favorites were Rock Island at Guthrie Center and CGW at Tripoli/Bremer.  I was getting close.

On Proto-Modelers on Group.IO John Golden posted this picture of Preston, Minn. on the Milwaukee Road.  Looking at that picture, Sanborn Maps and aerial photographs I found what I was looking for. 


Preston was on a former narrow gauge line that ran from a junction called Isinours to Caledonia, Minn.  Preston was kind of unique in that it was the first town south of Isinours and also a stub end terminal.  Because of the light track the Milwaukee Road only ran SW-1s on the line, which the Milwaukee Road referred to as “donkeys”.  There are some great photos from the John Bjorkland Collection (Milwaukee Road East) at John F. Bjorklund Collection Highlights | Flickr showing a string of donkeys working the line in the early 1970s.  


Brian Shumaker supplied the operational scheme for the layout.  In the early 1970s a string on donkeys would work the line once a week.   A decade earlier, in the 1960s, a lone SW1 was stationed in Preston.  In the morning it would go up to Isinours, pick up/deliver cars and return to Preston.  After turning the locomotive the crew would work the line south to Caledonia.  Arriving back in Preston, local industries would be worked and the train blocked for the next morning’s run back to Isinours.  So, although the string of donkeys circa 1970s were cool, the early 1960s operation with a single SW1 would be the operational focus.

Here is a Sanborn map, circa 1926, of the downtown area. The three-stall roundhouse was reduced to one stall in the 1960s.

Preston MN Sanborn 4

Below. A closeup of a track map from the online map repository on the Minnesota DOT site (

Capture 3

From the same site, here is a track map of the junction near Preston with the line to Isinours. There’s no room to include the junction in the layout plan, but the detail included in the map is very interesting:

Capture 44

I still needed a track plan.  I led a lot of discussion on the Proto-Layouts Group online for about a week.  Clark Propst and a couple of others mentioned the defining scene was the Preston depot and engine house.  I had a hard time developing a plan to fit my space.  Then Rich Gibson sent a track plan online, based almost exactly on the prototype, using Peco 83.  I had my track plan.  

Preston with Structures

Above. The track plan sketched up by Rich Gibson. The line on the shelf on the right would act as a fiddle yard to change out cars to/from Preston.

So I have started my new project by working on the depot. I want to thank all those for guidance and help; Clark Propst, Brain Shumaker, Rich Gibson and many others on Proto-Modelers on Group-IO.  Also, my modeling friends in Kansas City who helped me to improve my skills and knowledge over the years so I could take on this new project.


My thanks to John Moenius for his article. I hope to present more on his layout in the future. 2021 is shaping up to be a great year for new layouts! – John G

One thought on “No. 151: John Moenius’ Preston, Minnesota

  1. Need to give credit to right people. Just below the track diagram it says it was developed by Brian Shumaker. Actually it was Rich Gibson as stated above using SCARM software. Brian was a key resource it developing the operational scheme during 1960’s and 1970’s.

    John Moenius


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