No 180: Rebuilding Hermitage Road, Pt. 1

I went to Paducah, Kentucky last weekend–about a two-and-a-half-hour drive–to attend my daughter’s swim meet. Between the morning and afternoon races I took an hour to drive around the old Illinois Central locomotive shops, now run by NRE, and I also railfanned some old factories downtown. Downtown by the Ohio River is a nice display of railroad equipment, including this IC 2-8-2 and a rebuilt caboose.

The last time I was at Paducah was in 1988 when I stopped for an evening on a family trip–35 years ago. I wasn’t able to get into the NRE facility last weekend but back in ‘August of ’88 I waltzed right through the gate and was able to touch and photograph all kinds of cool things, including this guy:

And this guy:

I didn’t have time to stop by Mt. Vernon, home of the once-huge Mt. Vernon carbuilding shops. Mt. Vernon lies about halfway between my home and Paducah but in all the years I’ve lived here I never bothered to go there.

Or so I thought. When I was looking through my old Paducah slides I found that I had indeed been in Mt. Vernon and just forgot. This is from 1990, back when the shops were rebuilding locomotives for Precision National. It’s not the best photo but there was a lot going on back then.

Layout Work

Meanwhile, in the basement, work commenced this weekend on O’Fallon’s only active railroad–a new and improved Hermitage Road layout.

I mentioned a few months ago that my layout got bashed up during the move from Germany. A few weeks ago I took a day off of work to meet my buddy Lonnie Bathurst at his house, and there we cut new wood for my new layout and also wood for a demonstration layout for our friend Tom Mann.

The new layout will be very similar to the original Hermitage Road only this one will be slightly longer and include a little more track and a few more industries. It will still be a small, sit-down style layout that I can move easily. The track plan will be a little different. I will include a few “dummy turnouts” to hint at more industries off-layout in the aisle. Here’s what I’m thinking so far:

The mock-up above includes a lot of rebuilt turnouts I’ve been slowly preparing for the layout int he last month or two. The wye is a rebuilt Shinohara Code 70 and the others are various rebuilds of Micro Engineering and Shinohara turnouts, plus a few made from Central Valley tie strip.

The photo below shows some industry planning. The pieces of paper help me make sure I’m leaving enough room for all the industries I’d like to model.

The material I’m using for the benchwork top is similar to what I used on the original layout. The original Hermitage Road was built in Germany, and I used a German product called Styrodur, which is a BASF product and is similar to American blue styrofoam. Styrodur is much more rigid. I can’t find Styrodur here but I found something at Lowes that’s similar; LG Project Panel. Project Panel is a multi-purpose insulation product and is both light and sturdy, and I can even carve a few features like a ditch or two if I want.

Freight Car Builds

Work continues slowly on 12 new freight car models, like this one below, that I built this fall. This one is a B&O M-58 that is the result of a lot of work by a lot of different modelers. Fenton Wells was the major instigator here; he had Chad Boas build a parts kit and Mike at K4 Decals make a decal set.

Four or five of the new models are O scale (Proto48) cars, which take a little more time to weather and finish. I’ll get everything done in the coming months. My Proto48 USRA hopper, below, is coming along nicely. Decals are by Resin Car Works. Heavy weathering next!

Other Work

Last Thursday evening I gave a Zoom presentation on rebuilding RTR turnouts to a group led by Ron Christiansen and Greg Bueltmann. I’ve known Ron for 20 years through RPM events–he’s a great guy. Greg is also first-class guy, and he’s currently serving as the Superintendent of the NMRA Michiana Division.

When the government shut down the country for covid, Ron and Greg set up an online group to keep people in touch and encourage more talking about trains and modeling. Eventually they began hosting weekly presentations on Zoom. Greg manages a huge database of all our Zoom presentations which can be found here: My turnout presentation can be found here:

My talk was about three ways to rebuild RTR turnouts. An example can be seen below; this is a Code 70 Shinohara wye that has been mostly rebuilt using all the original rail, a new throwbar, home-cut wood ties, and a Proto87 Stores #4 frog. More details are on YouTube.

Here’s another one I rebuilt using the same techniques using a Micro Engineering Code 70 turnout. In this closeup, below, I’ve replaced the cheap ME frog and replaced it with the beautiful casting made by Details West. Ties are scale 6 x 8-inch wood strip which I cut myself.

Also included in the presentation was a short talk on modernizing older Tortoise switch machines.

I’m considering using a Barrett Hill electronics package on the new Hermitage Road layout, but Barrett Hill equipment only works with late-production Tortoise machines with the green circuit board. I was able to buy replacement green circuit boards online for $2.50 each and rebuilt seven machines for under twenty bucks. Here’s what they look like disassembled, above. The machine is simple and replacing the board takes about ten minutes.

That’s it for now. If you have time to watch the presentation let me know what you think. – John

No. 178: Freight Car Modeling, November 2022

Above. This former PRR Express X29 greets you at the gate of the Age of Steam Museum in Sugarcreek, Ohio. Unfortunately for me, this was as far as I got into the museum, as they were closed the day I got there.

In September I flew to Baltimore to pick up a car at the port and drive it to St. Louis.  I flew to Baltimore the morning of Sept 20th, picked up the car, and drove all the way to Sugarcreek, Ohio.  On the way I stopped in Blue Ridge Summit, PA to visit Mainline Hobby Supply—that was cool—and finally I stopped for the night in Sugarcreek, Ohio so I could visit the Age of Steam Museum the following morning.  The “AOS” Museum closed unexpectedly that day—they told me they had to move locomotives around.  Instead I spent an enjoyable morning railfanning the brickyards in Sugarcreek before getting back on I-70 and heading “home” to O’Fallon.

The active rail line through Sugarcreek is former PRR, later famously taken over by the Ohio Central and now operated by Genesee & Wyoming.   The Belden Brick Co. is the major shipper here, with warehouses in several places in town and a few dozen active beehive ovens at their facility on Highway 39 in town. 

Several long, open warehouses like the one below were built for box car loading. There are four or five of them around town.

The railroad property in town includes a short branchline into town to serve the original Belden plant. The branch still has a grain elevator on it, and in the old days it probably had a few more customers. Check it out on Google aerial view.

Below. As I get older I geek out on the little stuff, like track–particularly older track. This branch to one of the brickyards has rail from 1913, and a neat mix of new and old ties. Some of the ties appear to have been hand-made. In this photo, look how somebody drove a spike into the end of this tie to apparently keep the tie plate in place, but over time it split the tie.

I spent the morning exploring and photographing the area, and the rest of the day dreaming how to model the branch with the grain elevator, team track and brickyards.  There’s nothing like a day railfanning to spur one’s imagination.  

Latest Modeling Efforts

I was able to get a whole lot of model building done in September and October.  I completely built up 12 new freight car models and am currently working on another three models—a 21-year-old Bachmann 2-10-0, a Branchline 40-foot box car, and an O scale Intermountain USRA hopper. 

Below. Here’s the 2-10-0 with the prototype–SAL 501. This model has a long way to go!

Below. This model under construction is one of the awesome Intermountain O scale USRA hoppers. This is a beautiful model. I’ve been working on this model here and there for two weeks. Two processes which have taken a lot more time are bending all those grab irons by hand and installing all the piping on the brake gear. It’s coming along though. This model will become a New York Central car, circa 1949.

I’ll wrote more about this model when it is finished and painted. The photo below shows the hand-bend grab irons being installed. This wasn’t easy and contributed to long time needed just to construct the model. The end of the model is an entirely separate piece, and I used the tape to hold it in place while the glue set.

Makes me sad to think that this kit has been in the box for probably 35 years, waiting for somebody to build it. Every model deserves to be built.

Back in HO scale land, here are two of the new Rapido USRA single-sheathed box cars. Back on October 13th I sent this to the Steam Freight Cars group on

I received my two cars this week–one Milwaukee Road and one C&NW. First Impression: Very nice models, good paint color, good lettering, nice weight, very well built, nice detail all around. A welcome addition to the fleet.

Second Impression: I really don’t like the spaces between the boards but I understand why the manufacturer did that. The wood sheathing on the Tichy model is much better rendered. Both my cars came with K brakes (with AB brake parts in a separate baggie–a nice touch). However, I think both K and AB brake renderings are poor, and paint on the underframe is very heavy (obscuring what little detail is on the brake parts). I’m replacing the brakes with Cal Scale. The trucks: No. Replacing with TMW Andrews. Running board is alright but both of mine came a little bent out of shape. Running board detail is poor. Nothing a modeler can’t fix.

I received my two cars this week–one Milwaukee Road and one C&NW. My First Impression: Very nice models, good paint color, good lettering, nice weight, very well built, nice detail all around. A welcome addition to the fleet.

My Second Impression: I really don’t like the spaces between the boards but I understand why the manufacturer did that. The wood sheathing on the Tichy model is much better rendered. Both my cars came with K brakes (with AB brake parts in a separate baggie–a nice touch). However, I think both K and AB brake renderings are poor, and paint on the underframe is very heavy (obscuring what little detail is on the brake parts). I’m replacing the brakes with Cal Scale. The trucks: No. Replacing with TMW Andrews. Running board is alright but both of mine came a little bent out of shape. Running board detail is poor. Nothing a modeler can’t fix.

Below. Here is the new Rapido car, pretty much right out of the box, next to a Sunshine Milwaukee 714000-series single-sheathed box car. The Rapido car looks great up against the Sunshine models, but it’s got a lot of weathering ahead of it. I’ll need to replace the trucks on the Rapido car with Tahoe Model Works Andrews trucks.

Below. I’ve removed the factory-installed K brakes and am halfway done installing a Cal Scale AB brake set. I retained the brake lever hangars and that was about it. I also replaced the Rapido #5-size couplers with Kadee #58s. I’ve drilled out the turnbuckles and added Tichy bronze .0125-inch wire for the brake rigging.

Below. This photo shows AB brakes installed on my Milwaukee Road car, at top, and my C&NW car at bottom. Once painted and weathered the cars will fit more into my 1949-1950 modeling era.

My Bottom Line: These are great models and I’ll keep them, but a carefully-built Gould/Tichy car with TMW trucks beats this model hands down.

Plans for Modeling Season

Last week I made my modeling plan for this winter. If I can stick to it, in three months I’ll have completed a bunch of models and be on my way to rebuilding the Hermitage Road layout.

  • The plan for November is to continue building new models and finishing unfinished projects.  A lot can be done in 30 days assuming that I have an average of one hour a day to work. 
  • The plan for December is to build a new Hermitage Road layout “box”.  My current layout, seen below, took quite a beating during the move, and—with a lot more space for modeling—I plan to rebuild the layout to be a little bit longer and also incorporate some new tech to the layout.  The track plan will be adjusted somewhat, and I will incorporate the traversing table of course.

Above. The layout took some damage during the move.  Several of the switch machines were broken off, and some of the switches (the ones that control the switch machines) got crushed.  The front fascia was broken in two places, and the Masonite backdrop is warped and needs replacement.

  • Then, in January, I’ll begin laying track on the new layout.  I’ve got a lot of turnouts to build.  Lucky for me I love that work and have slowly been collecting track and parts “in case I needed them”…

Time to get to the basement! – John G

No. 132: Ackley Layout – Last M&StL Ops Session

In October I moved from our big, old house in Albersbach to a smaller, newer, more efficient house in Ramstein-Miesenbach. I took an entire week off from work, rented a large moving van and moved almost everything myself.  I hired a moving company to move the big stuff.  Then I had to completely clean the old house, to include patching holes, painting, and doing other routine maintenance I had put off over the years  The process took 12-14 hours a day for nine straight days, but I got it done.  Whew!
Here’s the crew from the moving company, having a break while moving some of my train room stuff.  They were good guys.
Before disassembling the Ackley layout I ran one more ops session.  That session was on September 29th. To be honest, I didn’t prepare for the ops very well and the session kinda broke down about halfway through.  I kept moving cars around and enjoyed it, and took a lot of photos.  Here’s a run-down.
Below.  The layout prior to the final session. Everything looks good—the layout is clean and ready to go.  There are a few cars left from another train that we will have to clean up as we go.
This was an all M&StL session, with two Atlas RS-1s leading the way.  Below.  Here I’m setting up the consist, which is a super-simple process using NCE.
Here is the train coming into town.  I didn’t notice it until later, but someone has positioned a dried-out insect on top of the tank car at right…
First I cut off the train and set the two meat reefers into the passing siding to get them out of the way.
Then I pulled two box cars out of the Carsten’s track and put them in the siding too.
Here are the engines passing the dirt road next to the depot.  I used my son’s iPhone 10 for most of these photos, by the way.  The close-up capability of that device is outstanding.
Next, I sorted a few cars in the train, then pulled three loaded cars from Marshall canning…
…and then spotted four empties in their place.  The car next to the engine is the mini-kit from Cocoa Beach RPM, around 2006 or so—a KCS rebuilt box car.
I got distracted a few minutes and took some freight car photos.  The ATSF high-side gon is an Intermountain kit that I finished in 2008 while I was living in Little Rock for a month.  The Staley and UTLX cars are recent Tangent releases.  The Mobil tank car is an old Proto 2000 model from the early 2000s.
I re-sorted the cars again and then pulled the reefers and hoppers left on the city track, and put them in the passing siding with the rest of our pick-ups.
Last time on the City Track.
I didn’t take a photo of the train reassembled and leaving town. But I hope you enjoyed a few more photos of the layout in operation.
And one final photo, of the layout being taken apart in its component pieces for the move.
Below.  Here’s a photo of the new room.  It is 19 x 12 and has a sloped ceiling on one side, with a window on one side and a skylight just off to the left.  It is a bedroom, and we had it set aside for my son, but he decided he wanted the attic room instead so I took this one.  It’s not a bad room—it is small so that’ll keep me from building anything too ridiculous.  And it’s got floor heat!
In the photo shows the computer desk along the short wall on the right.  My modeling workbench is behind me on the right.  You can see the Ackley layout at the extreme left.  This configuration leaves me a clear 5 x 19 space for a new layout.
I’ll share some more thoughts on layout planning in a future post.  – John G

No. 130: Moving from Albersbach, and Maybe to a New Layout

Labor Day

In my last post I whined about how hard my summer has been.  It was, but today I’m happy to report I’ve still got all my fingers and toes, and the rebuilt shoulder is better than ever.  I played soccer the other day for the first time in 5-6 months and came away unscathed.  The family is doing great.  What is there to complain about!

Trip to Dwingeloo

To accelerate some relaxing, last month, over Labor Day weekend, I got away with my kids to the northwest corner of the Netherlands near a place called Dwingeloo National Park.  This is a lovely, quiet area, with clean forests, hiking, and plenty to do, and the locals are very friendly and speak excellent English.  This isn’t the kind of place where “Ami’s” (Americans) tend to vacation.

One afternoon we visited a small town called Giethoorn.  Giethoorn is near the coast and naturally, there are canals everywhere.  The main attraction here is an intricate system of small canals that run right through the center of town.  You park your auto outside of town and walk into the town center, and if you want to get anywhere you can walk—or—take a boat.


Naturally, we took a boat.  The kids and I rented a ship with an electric motor and boated around town for a couple of hours.  The little canals go all over the place; the locals even have private canals up to their houses, like driveways, with little boat-houses.  No cars or garages.  I had to resurrect old boating skills but managed to navigate the canals without causing any accidents.  The whole experience was too cool for words.


Meanwhile I am under more stress these days with the move from our old, very large, very overwhelming rental house in Albersbach to another place closer to work.


In my current house I have a big upstairs den, roughly 22 x 22, for all my modeling stuff. The new rental home will have a much smaller modeling area—just half of a 13 x 13-foot room.  I will take only two 13-foot walls, maybe less.  My workbench will have to go in a closet in another room—that’s not a big deal—but the Ackley layout at 21 feet will definitely not fit.

The great thing about the new room is it’s on the main floor near the family room.  Half will be “the train room” and the other half will be an office/study/computer room.  I like playing trains in the same room where the kids are studying and internetting, so this works out perfectly.  No hunkering down alone in the basement.  I’ll be right there with the family where I should be.

Thoughts on the Next Layout

I have been considering a new layout for about 18 months.  Ackley was 95% complete and I was running trains a few times a month, but it had some problems.  Chief among them:

  • I’m tired of point-to-point; I’m a fan of continuous running and want a loop
  • The layout was too wide, requiring a whole lot of extra scenery work.  I did not heed Bill Darnaby’s advice to make the layout as absolutely narrow as possible
  • The layout was still too heavy and unwieldy to be moved reliably
  • I was unhappy with the scenery; I really wanted the scenery to be “cleaner”, like what I see built by Chris Nevard, the famous British modeler (as seen below)

If you haven’t spent any time looking at Chris Nevard’s work, check out his site at  Go to his Flickr site–there are folders for each of his layouts there.   Be sure to allocate plenty of time for this–you will be impressed and inspired.  Photo below used courtesy Chris Nevard.


I also considered a city switching layout, like this—the Terminal Railroad Association’s West Belt Line in central St. Louis.  Look at all those tracks and industries!  This is a 1958 photo.

RI Belt Line Large

I’ve also put some thinking into building a small British layout, and even something smaller, but bigger–like something in 1/35th scale.  My 1/35th scale inspiration comes from seeing the German Feldbahn layouts here, and also those seen on Claus Nielsen’s Flickr site.  Look at and go to the Nystrup Gravel folder.

I’d like to build them all someday, but for now I’m considering replacing the Ackley layout with a similar layout that offers more in less space.  Ackley was close; I’d like a similar layout but one with turnback tracks on each end going to a loop of track behind the layout. Much like the show layouts you see here in Europe.  Here’s a drawing…

New Layout Map

This kind of design isn’t anything new or innovative, but it allows continuous running.  The scenicked layout at around 16 x 1-1/2-feet would be smaller than the Ackley layout but the whole layout itself would take up a lot more space than that.


Before we found the new rental home my thinking had focused on repalcing the Ackley layout using about the same footprint, hence the drawing above.  I was looking at Farmington, Minnesota; it was close to our summer home and I had a family connection there growing up.

Farmington is about 25 miles south of the Twin Cities on Milwaukee’s single-track, north-south Iowa & Minnesota (I&M) Division, and was sort of a grand junction of Milwaukee Road lines.  The Milwaukee’s east-west Hastings & Dakota (H&D) line crossed there, and a branch to Mankato originated there too.  I liked the notion of a crossing and also a branch line connection, as that can drive a lot of interchange and connecting traffic.  Rock Island used the I&M to reach Minneapolis so the line also hosted many RI freight and passenger trains too.  Who doesn’t like the Rock Island!

Here’s a postcard view below of Farmington circa the late 1930s.  Love that WP single-sheathed car on the left!


Farmington would make a pretty attractive small-town layout.  Mainline Milwaukee Road passenger and freight trains, Rock Island passenger and freight run-throughs, Mankato branch mixed trains, and lots of local traffic.  Yet, despite my best planning efforts, I wasn’t able to get all the major features of Farmington into the old Ackley layouts space, which was 16 x 2.  It just won’t fit.  And it definitely won’t fit in the new 13 x 2 space.

Still Thinking

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, as I’m still a month away from being in the new house.  This photo of the Milwaukee Road in Minnesota, from the Milwaukee Road Archives site on Flickr, is giving me something to think about.

Minnesota Lake Town

Maybe something like this would work.  A station on the left, an interchange on the right, 18-inch radius curves on each end to behind-the-backdrop-staging and loop tracks.  The whole layout could be kept around 38-inches max, with the scenicked layout no more than 16-18-inches deep.  And a 48-inch radius mainline curve on the scenicked area, of course:


I know you’ve got ideas for two walls, each about 13 feet long, so send ’em!  As always I will learn a lot from your advice.  – John G

No. 127: Ackley Layout Ops Session (Seaboard Air Line)

Hi Friends!  I hope you’re all doing well and are enjoying a nice back-to-school weekend.

In April or May I ran an ops session on my Ackley, Iowa layout using New York Central equipment.  I joked to one of my friends online that I should run a Seaboard session, and then thought “Hey, that’d be a cool idea!”  So a few weeks ago I pulled out all the Seaboard equipment I had left, and all my southeastern freight cars, and ran a “Montgomery Line” ops session.  It was a lot of fun.

SAL Pitts, GA - Salter

The SAL Montgomery Line—sometimes called The SAM (the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery)—ran from Savannah, Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama.  It was a low-density branch line and by the 1950s typified rural Georgia railroading.  The prototype photos above and below are all from the late 1940s, taken by master photographer Hugh Comer.


Light rail, little engines, short trains, and country depots–that’s what the Montgomery Line was all about.


In honour of the photo above, I thought I would use something special for this ops session.  And here it is—“the big engine”—Baldwin Centipede 4512.  This is a BLI model of one of SAL’s 12 1949-built Baldwins.  The versio I bought has sound and DCC installed and it runs pretty well.  The paint is excellent.  The model is actually a PRR prototype but it is definitely close enough for what I want it to do.

Below, here is 4512 leading a short train into town.


Below.  Here’s another view of the short train on the main.  In the consist are a couple of FGE reefers, a tank car, and an ACL ventilated box car.


Running a Seaboard scenario gave me the opportunity to take out the SAL Standard No. 2 depot I built back in 2004, along with all the section and tool houses I built for an SCL Modeler article in 2008.


I made up this session as I went along.  The first thing I did was cut off the train on the main track and then pick up two empties on the Carsten’s lead.  Yes indeed, the Centipede will get around the 24-inch radius curve, but it looks pretty silly doing so.


Here, below, I’m pulling those two empties back to the main track.  I’ll put them on the head end, and then work the back end and spot a couple of cars at the cannery.


Now I’m back on the other end of the 16-foot layout.  First I’ll pull these loads from the cannery and then spot empties in their place.


Whoops!  As I was pulling the cars, and trying to take photos at the same time, one of the cars split a switch and turned over.  That’s an ACL car, so I’m sure my Seaboard crew could care less…


Speaking of oddballs, here’s an oddball car getting a workout.  This is a model of one of C&O’s rebuilt cement hoppers.  I built this model using an Intermountain hopper as my starting point and used Microscale decals for all the lettering.  It was a lot of fun to build.  Apologies for the poor lighting.


Here I have already dropped the loads and am spotting the empties.


Man, that is a big engine!


Now I’m on the City Track, pushing the loads and empties out so I can spot new cars.  I enjoyed getting all these southeastern cars out on the layout for a run.  This Central car (Central of Georgia, not New York Central) is an old Intermountain model that I rebuilt and painted.  The SAL AF-1 at far left is a Sunshine Models kit.


After pulling the Central car and that SAL auto car, I’m spotting that ACL vent on the City Track.


Finally I sorted a few cars on the sidings for the next train to pick up, then reassembled my train on the main track.  My train has now swelled to a whopping 12 cars.  The big Baldwin can easily handle them…if it doesn’t break down, which I understand the prototypes were prone to do.


After checking with the agent-operator, we can pull out and continue down the line.


SAL 5227 is bringing up the markers.  This is an Overland brass model that I bought when I was in college in 1986.  I have repainted it three times!


This session was a lot of fun.  I need to do an M&StL session next.

Here’s a parting shot.  Back in 2008 I was able to take a full day to photograph virtually the whole line from Savannah to Montgomery.  Back then, there were a lot of remnants of SAL heritage left.  Here’s a photo of one of my favorite depots, this one at Milan, Georgia.


Have a wonderful weekend!  – John G


And a postscript.  My buddy Tom Holley, recently retired from 30+ years of engine service with NS, wrote the day after I published this article to tell me:

Hello, John.
I really enjoyed the Seaboard operating session you featured on your blog. Great photographs of great models, on a great layout. Made me want to fly over there and switch cars with you.
As an addendum, the SAL engine was referred to as a “Thousand-legger” down here.
Your information about the SAM line reminded me of a story my dad told that happened when he was running to Montgomery from Columbus on 71 and 40. The Central crossed the SAL at Hurtsboro at grade. The crossing was not interlocked, and both railroads rules required trains to stop, and, if no opposing traffic was approaching, cross the other carrier.
Back then, Central’s train 40 out of Montgomery (the flip side of 71) was always heavy. My dad developed the technique of, when it was dark, approaching the crossing at a slow speed, cutting out his headlight, and looking for a headlight on the SAL. If he didn’t see a headlight on the SAL, he’d just drag across without stopping, and save trying to start the train again.
That worked fine, until one night the SAL engineer turned his headlight out, too. My dad had just started on the crossing when the Seaboard engineer cut his light on. My dad was already on the crossing, so, technically, he was in the right. The brakeman jumped…the fireman stayed, and SAL train stopped very, very close to my dad’s train. My dad kept on pulling, the brakeman caught back up, and on they went.
After that, though, my dad started stopping at the SAL crossing…
Warmest regards,
Tom Holley

No. 124: Ackley Layout Ops Session (New York Central)

Last week I got the layout plugged in and running again, and after cleaning track and polishing up a few wheelsets, and testing operation of all the switch machines and points, I ran a little ops session.   While I was at it I took a few photos with my son’s iPhone 10.  

I ran this session with New York Central equipment.  Power was provided by a single Kato RS-2 with Loksound and DCC installed by my friend Mike Christianson in Albert Lea.  And old Alco Models NYC caboose was on the back end carrying the markers.  The engine model is still under construction—you can see there’s no window glass or details or weathering, but it sounds great and runs beautifully and I enjoy using it, finished or not.

Below.  Here is our train, Extra 6219 South, heading into town.  I’ve already made a plan to work the town and have left about half the train and the waycar out on the mainline so I can switch the cannery first.


Below.  You can see the rest of the train on the mainline (see the tank car in the background, in the “tunnel”?).   First, I’ve pulled three empty 40-foot box cars consigned to the cannery into the passing track.  I’m going to pull the four loaded cars from the cannery first, then shove these three empties into position.


Below.  The iPhone 10 does a great job with close-up photography.   This is my favorite picture in the whole set.  The cattle pen is a new addition to the layout.  I kitbashed it using the Walthers kit.


Below.  We’re pulling the loads…


…and now shoving them back to the rest of the train, and out of the way.


With the cannery track clear we can shove our three empties into position.  The crossover switches here are handlaid Code 55 using Proto87 Stores components.  These are the first Code 55 turnouts I’ve ever built and they work well.


I’ve pulled the loads ahead so I can bring the rest of the train into town.  The train wasn’t blocked so now I have to do a little work and sort some of the cars at the back end.  This is a perfect spot to do it.


Below.  Now I am running around to bring up the rest of the cars.  The rest of the train can be seen in the distance.


Below.  I’ve brought the rest of the train and left it next to the station on the main track.  After switching a few cars to get them in the right order I pulled a Burlington gon loaded with coal and a GATX tank car loaded with gasoline for delivery on the City Track.  Here’s our engine crossing the IC, which is required to allow us to reach the switch.

I’m still working on scenery here.  I’ve made a mess of the ballast work in the foreground.  The foundation for the interlocking tower is on the right.


Below.  This photo shows me running the engine up the City Track to pick up a loaded box car at the grain elevator.  To save a few moves I’m taking the tank and gon with me.  When the box car is out of the way I’ll be able to spot the gon and tank.  The main track and siding are temporarily full of cars.   


The box is picked up and we’re pulling it south across the dirt road.  The box, by the way, is an old NYC USRA single-sheathed car.  It’s 1950, and that old car’s days are numbered…


I’ve kicked the NYC box car back to the train, and now I’ve gone back up the City Track to drop off the tank car at City Oil.


Below.  Next, we cut off the CB&Q car at the Roosevelt Brothers coal house.  That car doesn’t look very full…I think the Roosevelt Brothers might be losing a lot of money.


The last car we need to deliver is CMO 31248, a box car with a load of bagged feed consigned to the old city elevator.  I don’t want to waste time switching out that reefer so we’ll take it along for the ride.


Here we are, shoving the box into position at the old elevator.  This is some of my favorite trackwork on the whole layout.  It is Micro Engineering Code 55 flex track.


We’re carefully putting it into position…


…and now pulling away.


Below.  After that last drop, I brought the engine and reefer back to the main track and reaassembled our train for the next station south.  


Once the train has been reassembled, and the air tested, and everybody is aboard, we’ll give five short blasts on the horn to request signals from the tower operator.

The staging yard on the south side of the layout hasn’t been connected yet, so we have to end our ops session here.  Once it’s connected we’ll be able to actually run the train off the layout and into staging, simulating the run to the next station south of Ackley.  For today, this is as far as we can go.


Maybe a Seaboard Air Line scenario next time???  – John G




No. 121: John Barry Visit…and Rebuilding the Marshall Canning Co.

Last week my friend John Barry was visiting Europe and he spent a couple of nights at nearby Ramstein Air Base.  John is a well-known Santa Fe modeler and historian, and he maintains an interesting blog.  We met a few years ago at the Virginia RPM meet and have kept in touch ever since.

John and I had dinner last Friday evening at one of my favorite local restaurants, Berndt’s Blockhouse–up on the hill in Weilerbach–where we enjoyed a couple hours of dinner, beers and conversation.  John is a former C-130 pilot and instead of talking about trains we spent most of the night talking about work and aviation and Air Force stuff.  Here’s John about to plow through a plate-full of schnitzel.


Rebuilding the Cannery

About nine months ago my friend Doug Harding sent me a couple dozen photos of rail-served customers he found at the Ackley Heritage Society.  I wrote about the photos back in an earlier post, The Marshal Canning Company of Ackley, Iowa, Part 5, which can be found at

Marshall Canning plant 1952 edit

Included in the package Doug sent were a few photos of Marshall Canning in Ackley that “changed everything”.

One of those photos is shown above.  This is a circa 1952 photo according to the information from the Ackley Heritage Society.  In the process of moving the layout from one side of the room to the other, I’ve been refreshing the scenery and fixing all the little problems on the layout—including rebuilding the cannery buildings to a more prototypical appearance.

The photos, especially this one shown above, reveal some details about the cannery that I hadn’t been aware of.  Apparently, there was a power plant at the cannery into the mid to late 1950s.  Doug, Clark Propst and I talked it over online and we agreed that the photos seem to indicate that the plant burned coal for power and/or heat.  Doug told us the plant was converted to gas in the 60s or 70s.  The photos didn’t reveal everything needed to make a credible scale model but they did show enough to warrant rebuilding the model on my layout.

I finished the major rebuilding work three weeks ago.  Below, here’s how the cannery looks today.  It still ain’t perfect, but it’s a lot closer.


I rebuilt the model in several stages.  First I refreshed the main cannery by stripping everything off of it, including the windows, and then rebuilding it with all-new windows and new details.  Second I scrapped the “annex”—the long warehouse formerly to the right of the main building—and built in it’s place a facsimile of the power plant.   Finally, I rebuilt a portion of the annex into a smaller building that can accept a single car.

The model of the cannery on my old Ackley layout in Illinois, shown below, included a large “annex” building that could accommodate three cars.  To be more prototypically accurate, there should’a been a power plant between the main building and the annex.


I rebuilt the main cannery building by replacing the windows and refreshing the rest of the details.  I also painted the windows, doors and a few other details red.  Why red? Well, I wanted the building to “pop” a little more and the brown windows just “wasn’t doing it” for me.  The prototype appearead to have white windows around 1950, but I thought white would be ugly against the beautiful brick finish.  Red is not prototypical but I can live with it.


The inspiration for red trim comes from this Eugene Van Dusen postcard of a New York Central train on the South Bend Branch in northern Indiana, circa 1952.  I really like the look of the factory building on the left.

IMG_5968 (2).JPG

The windows are from Tichy and I also installed a new door on the front of the building using a part from a Walthers Cornerstone set.  Replacing the parts and repainting everything was easy but very time-consuming. I haven’t finished the roof yet, but that job will involve painting the roof black and adding a few details.

Another unprototypical thing I want to do is add a large sign that says “Marshall Canning Company” on top of the building.  The idea is to change the sign when I want to run a scenario featuring another railroad.  I can just change the sign that way and it can become another factory or something that would better fit a different scenario.

Including a Power Plant


I had zero information or photos of the power plant.   I made something as simple as possible—just a brick facade with a covered conveyor belt connected to it.  I added two smoke stacks on top of the power plant per the prototype photos.  Those stacks need some work still but we’re getting closer.  I need to paint everything and add a few more details and then re-scenery the whole area.

I had a leftover fuel tank from the old Grandt Line set that I decided to use too, just in case the plant needs oil for heat or anything else.  The prototypically-based idea is that the plant receives a drop-bottom carload of coal which is conveyed into the building where the boilers and heating plant is located.  I wanted to keep it simple.  Simple is good.

The annex, on the far right of the building shown above, is simply a cut-down version of the original annex I built.  I used Walthers brick sheet for the job.  That stuff is great.  I tried to splice half-used pieces together–hence the multi-color appearance.

Once again, here is the original version built for this layout:


And here is today’s rebuilt version:


I like the rebuilt version a whole lot better!

Here’s a closeup of the conveyor.  I’ll add details and supports once new ground cover is installed.


Another view of the “annex”, below.


And finally, a view with a car spotted.  The power plant adds a nice dimension to the facotry model.


The Cattle Pen

I am also getting around to installing the cattle pen.  I’m using the Walthers Stock Yard set and just using what I want to make a simple square pen.

Here’s the Sanborn view below.  The pen is on the left side of the track just below Herman Avenue.

Ackley 1930 96007 (2)

Below.  I’ve laid out some pieces from the Walthers kit to check the size and fit in the available space.  I think it’ll work out nicely.  The large pieces on top are parts from the covered feed troughs, which I won’t be using.


Below.  Construction has begun!  More to follow in a later post.  In case I didn’t mention it earlier, the cattle pen on my layout wasn’t used after 1950 so I’m modeling it abandoned and overgrown.


I pray you all have a great week!  – John G


No. 120: The Ackley Layout – Coal Bins on Carstens Siding

It’s been over a month since my last post.  I’ve been very, very busy with work and family stuff, and whatever time I had left went to planning St. Louis RPM. 

We also, during that time, took an eight day trip to the Canary Islands.  We visited Lanzerote and Fuertaventura and we had a wonderful time.  We went for the sun, seafood and beaches and it didn’t disappoint.


Below. Here’s a pano of the area around one of our favorite towns, El Golfo, in the Timanfayo National Park.  Spectacular black sand beaches are a favorite spot on this side of the island.


It was pretty cheap living, and at least once a day we got a big meal that looked a lot like this:


There were no railroads ever on either Lanzerote or Fuerteventura, so after seven days I was eager to get home to the layout and get back to work.

Back in Albersbach…


The re-working of the north end section of the layout is just about complete.  The only things left to be completed are building the stock pen and rebuilding the cannery.  The cannery, seen below, needs a whole lot of work.  New windows are being installed and it will need a new roof too.


Before leaving for the Canaries I did a lot of work on the coal bins adjacent to the elevator on Carsten’s siding.  Sanborn maps indicate there were coal bins on the siding but I have not found any pictures of them.  I decided to freelance a little and built bins I saw in an aerial photo at another M&StL site.  Here’s that photo again below.  Apologies for the graininess…

Coal Bins

I was also inspired by a photo I found online of a British OO scale (1:76) scene.  I like the open bins and thought that modeling an open bin would be more interesting than building a typical closed bin. 


Here are a couple poorly-lit photos of the bins I built.  I used whatever I had on hand–mostly leftover styrene strip and wood from other projects.  I saw another photo of bins that were supported by logs, so I trimmed down a few sticks and used them in the prototype manner.  I deliberately tried to make my bins look old and beaten up.


Another photo showing how I built them around the curve.


And finally, a longer shot to show how they’re built next to the elevator.


The bins need to be loaded at least halfway, so I cut down a few pieces of German “Styrodur”, and shaped them a little bit…


…and then glued them into place.


I painted the faux coal piles with Tamiya Flat Black and then put real coal on top.  I used scale “lump” coal on the nearest and farthest bins, and fine-sifted coal in the center bin. 

When the paint was dry I saturated the coal pile with matte medium, with plenty of rubbing alcohol added to break up the surface tension, to fix ithe loose coal in place.  Then I sprinkled on another light coat of coal on the top.  The result is a nice coal pile with a slightly shiny, glossy coal sheen.


Below.  Here’s a closer view.


While I was fixing up the south end the layout I touched up a few places on the fascia, and found to my surprise that the green paint I have always used seems to have shifted.  So I had to repaint all the fascia on the south end for a third time.   Check out the photo below.  The south end of the layout is on the right.  The paint color shifted and now I’m going to have to repaint everything.


I also repainted all the telephone poles on the layout.  I used Rix poles for the railroad lines and a combination of Rix poles and Walthers crossarms–from the 933-3101 Electric Utility Pole Set–for the city lines.


I must admit that I’ve had a lot of difficulty motivating myself to work on the layout since I moved it across the room.  Work has really been getting me down, my schedule has been relentless–even on the weekends–and St. Louis RPM planning has been more than frustrating.  It was nice to take a week away and I felt refreshed and motivated to get back to it when I got home.

Sometimes you just need a break, right?  – John G


No. 118: The Ackley Layout – North Side Scenery Refresh

Last time I explained that I took apart the layout and moved it to the other side of the room.  While the layout is still in pieces, I’m refreshing scenery and backdrops and fixing other problems so when the layout is reassembled it’ll be better than ever.


Above.  I started with what I call the “north side” of the layout–which, when viewing the layout–is the right half of the 16-foot layout.  To begin the refresh I removed the backdrop and then removed all the buildings, trees and details, and then made a plan to remove scenery.

Below, here’s the north side with everything removed, ready for a face-lift.


The first thing I did was sand down a lot of problem areas.  I sanded down all the parking lots and structure lots, removed some static grass, and also sanded down the new highway crossing that I just finished decaling last month.  

I didn’t mess with the track and the bean fields, or anything otherwise important.  I focused instead on the areas that had poor paint or finish.  


Here’s another view of some of the cleared areas.  The front of the layout is on the right.  Being able to access the layout from all directions was a big plus.


Next I vacuumed the layout and got it all cleaned up, and then mixed a batch of plaster with some water-based paint added.  I applied thin coats of plaster on all the problem areas.


I applied the plaster to the parking lots, roads, and structure foundations, and other areas that needed attention.

For example, here is one of the dirt road crossings, which I felt needed a little leveling.



Above.  Here’s the north side, after the plaster was applied, ready for sanding, repainting, and a static grass refresh.

Below.  After the work was done, here’s the view after a new coat of paint and some more static grass.  Yes, I know–it kinda looks like a golf course.  When the buildings are re-installed and trees are up, and some areas are tweaked, I think it’ll look great.


Here’s another view of the completed work.  I ran out of my preferred static grass–Silflor Late Summer blend–so I made my own blend using Silflor Summer and Burnt Grass.  I think the new color is a little more rich.


Here’s a closeup of the mix I used.  I’ve got lots of different lengths all mixed up. 


While things were drying I refreshed the backdrop.  I added a little paint here and there, and added some houses to the backdrop where they exist in the real world.  I took a bunch of photos of houses in Litchfield, Illinois last summer and added them near the roads.  Ideally these areas will be obscured by trees so getting the backdrop perfect isn’t too important.


I also moved the cannery to make room for an addition.  The addition is the cannery’s heating and/or power plant, which I discovered existed with the help of photos from the Ackley Heritage Center.  Doug Harding found the photos and sent them to me last year.  I cut into the plaster parking lot and moved the building “forward” about ten scale feet.  Building the plant will be a lot of work.  For now I’m just making space for it.  The whole building will get a face-lift as part of the refresh.


This weekend I completed re-decaling the road, and adding details.  I want to add external piping at the Standard Oil place below, but I just can’t seem to find the time to get it done. 


Below.  The Highway 20 scene is looking good without the backdrop.  More details are going in every night.  Hopefully the backdrop will make everything look complete.  

I ordered one of the Walthers stock yard kits and am going to put that in the empty area behind the NYC auto car.  It was out of service by my 1950 modeling date, so I’m going to model it abandoned.


Meanwhile…across the pond, my buddy Jim DuFour is doing some heavy duty work on his B&M Cheshire Branch layout.  He sent a long e-mail with a bunch of photos.  He has removed the backdrop from a portion of this layout and is replacing track, roadbed and a bridge scene.  Jim is an inspiration, and if he can do it, we can too.


Here’s hoping you guys have a great week!  – John G







No. 117: Moving Ackley

We went to the Netherlands last weekend for our kids’ last swim meet of the year, and on the way we took a short side-trip through Belgium to make a beer run.  We stopped at a Delhaize grocery store in Houthalen on the way to Eindhoven and stocked up.  Here’s my son Jacob, below, with a cart-full of the good stuff plus a whole lot of stroop waffles. 

If you’ve never had Belgian beer and stroop waffles, you need to come and visit.  They’re life-changers.


Unbeknownst to me, Houthalen is in a mining area.  On the way to the grocery store we drove by this thing on display near the center of town.   My son and I walked over and had a look around and took a few photos.  It is obviously an underground engine that runs on gas or compressed air (minimum emissions for underground service, right?), but I wasn’t able to find anything about it on the interwebs.


Here are a couple more photos.  I estimated the gauge at 2-1/2 feet.  I don’t see any provision for a headlamp. 


I got in one of the photos to provide a size reference.  I’m 5′ 8″.  The engine is small, but the cool factor is huge.


I’ve never seen an engine like this and I need to do more research.  If you know anything about it please send me a note.

Moving Day

I’ve been bragging on the Proto Layouts list on Yahoo for a couple years that I built my layout to be modular, and that “I can take it apart and move it in an hour or two!”   

Well, this weekend I did it–I disassembled the whole thing and moved it to the other side of the room.  And yeah, it took me a whole lot longer than an hour or two.  I’ll get to the “why” in a minute.

Here’s what the layout looked like before I took it apart and moved it.  Nice and clean, about 95% complete, and about 90% operational (except for signals).


The layout occupies half of a large, 20 x 40 foot upstairs den in our home in Germany.   The layout is set up on one side of the room.  The other side of the room is set up as a family den and computer/homework/study area. 

If you look closely at the photo above you’ll see the chimney (there’s a photo hung on it) and that has always been a problem because there was only about 12 inches of clearance between the chimney and the layout.  The photo below is from December, 2016, and shows my son (in the red shirt) and his cousin running trains.  You can see how tight it was behind the chimney. 


To get around the problem, a few weeks ago I asked my wife if I could move the layout to the other side of the room.  She said yes, which–translated from Wife-Speak–means “Yes, but you have to do all the work.”

The Plan: Move the layout to the other side of the room–where the chimney won’t be in the way–and move the den and computer desk to the side of the room currently occupied by the layout.  The room is symmetrical so the layout should fit on the other side, making the move pretty easy. 

Here’s the den side, which is in a perpetual state of disarray on account of living with three teenagers.  My wife is treasurer of the kid’s swim team and has a temporary table set up this week, adding to the mess.


Step One: Disassemble the layout, starting with the south-side staging yard.  Here’s the yard along the wall.  Starting Time: 1300 hrs.


Below.  By 1340 the yard is removed, plus the hidden corner curve at the end of the layout.  Now to clean up and get ready for Step 2.


Step 2.  Remove the two main layout sections.  This shot below shows where I had to break the scenery to separate the two 2 x 8-foot sections of the layout.  I laid scenery over the joint years ago knowing it would be destructive to separate later.  It took a couple of hammer blows from underneath the break the scenery, and then I was easily able to move both sections to the other side of the room easily. 

A new problem has been created.  I can’t easily join the sections again, so I will have to simply the scenery here.  In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal.  Revising this will make things easier during the next disassembly.


Below.  Here is the layout room with the half the layout removed and the floor cleaned up.  Next I played life-size “Tetris”, moving the den furniture and the layout around the room a few times to get everything in it’s proper places.


Here’s the other side of the room with most of the layout parts in place.  What a mess!


Step 3.  Priority One was setting up the new den.  I got the throw-carpet over, cleaned the sofa, and got the TV all set up (this is the TV with the Wii, so it was important to get it set up and working!).  My daughter Kirsten helped me with most of these tasks.  Here she is earning her allowance.


Below.  Here’s the wife, oblivious to the mess and mayhem around her.  She is a patient woman…perhaps indifferent.  I can’t tell.

By this time, around 5 p.m., 99% of the layout stuff has been moved over.



I spent another hour or two later in the day organizing and cleaning.  One of the first improvements I made to the layout was to raise it a few inches, which is easy thanks to the Ikea sawhorses I use to support the layout.  See the photo above.  I just pinned the top board up two inches and tightened everything up with the wing nuts in front.  This Ikea stuff works great.

Below.  I set up the north side of the layout to check the new height and clearances.  So far, so good.  And there’s no chimney in the way.


Next: I will leave the layout disassembled and remove the backdrop and fascia for some detailed scenery work.  

Doing something like this takes a lot of effort, but I find it good for renewal.  I had a long list of “to-do’s” before moving the layout, and moving the layout identified more problems that need to be addressed.  Now that the layout is in pieces and I can work on those problem areas from all four sides.  I’m excited to get some good work done.

Here’s the short list of To-Do’s:

  • Raise the layout 2-3 inches
  • Raise the fascia a few millimeters to cover the highway crossing
  • Build a box to house all the NCE, transformers, and power strips
  • Lower the height of the staging yard backdrops
  • Simplify the staging yards (one track on south side, two tracks on north side)
  • Build an overhead cabinet for car storage
  • Improve wiring harnesses (use clip-harnesses instead of screw-type harnesses)
  • Rebuild the workbench (run the staging yard behind, not through the workbench)
  • Build a wiring box for all workbench wiring
  • Build a station at the workbench for all recharging devices
  • Need a 25-foot retractable hose for airbrushing
  • Figure out where to put the cabinet and bookshelves!
  • Organize everything–sell some models and parts not used

I want to get most of this stuff done quickly so I can get back to model-building for the upcoming St. Louis RPM event–which will be on 26 and 27 July in Collinsville Illinois. 

By the way, our old St. Louis RPM website has died.  The new one can be found at

– John G