Zurich: A ghost town you can model

My recent post about the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge prompted to me to revisit my many books on the three-foot gauge Keeler Branch – and the result is this closer look at what could be done with this prototype in a modest space.

While the SP Narrow Gauge is a small prototype, the two terminals – Laws and Keeler – would require a fair bit of length to model properly. The mid-point connection with the standard gauge Southern Pacific at Owenyo would also be a space-eater. None of them is very complex, however, and I may draw them up … some time.

But let’s start with a more modest undertaking: Zurich, California:
Zurich-1954 photo ZurichCA-1954-BillPoole_zpsa4a85c0a.jpg

That’s Zurich in the early 1950s as captured by Bill Poole and found on the Carson and Colorado Railway blog. Click on the image to visit the blog, and consider donating to help the railway restore SP #18 – a 4-6-0 that ran on the Keeler Branch.

As the image suggests, Zurich was a pretty small town in a dramatic setting. Today, Zurich is a bona fide Ghost Town. Desiccated timber, crumbling concrete and a plaque marking the former location of the station are all that remain:
Zurich-Marker photo Zurich-Marker_zps80b603d8.jpg
(Click on the image to read more about the Keeler Branch on the Abandoned Rails website)

But in happier days – the kind we like to model – Zurich generated a respectable amount of traffic for the SP Narrow Gauge. In Southern Pacific’s Slim Princess in the Sunset, author Joe Dale Morris notes Zurich had a 20′ x 46′ depot, plus the following customers:

Blue Star Grinding shipped Talc, Marble, Clay and other products from its plant. Many of these were in bags, shipped in boxcars.
A loading ramp south of the depot was used to load gondolas with talc and soda ash.
The Standard Oil Company had a facility to receive petroleum for the area in tank cars.
The stock pens shipped cattle and sheep in stock cars.

That’s a great variety of car types for such a small place. Here’s how they look when laid out on a layout that’s fairly faithful to the prototype:

SPNG-Zurich CA-On3 or On30 photo SPNG-Zurich-On3_zpsc28d38d9.jpeg
(Click on the image to view a larger version)

In this plan – designed for the O scale enthusiast (in “n3” or “n30”) – Laws is to the right, while heading left takes one to the transfer yard at Owenyo and beyond that to Keeler. I describe it as “fairly faithful” because the oil dealer spur should actually connect to the mainline between the two double-ended sidings. The way I drew it saves a considerable amount of length without compromising the operation.

Zurich would make for a manageable, but interesting, narrow gauge layout. The modelled portion takes up 17 feet (plus staging to either end, which could be accomplished with a sector plate), which is pretty good for O scale, even O scale narrow gauge. (This same plan could be used for Sn3 in 12′-9″. However, I’d be tempted to keep the layout at 17 feet and add more distance between the structures for an appropriately relaxed presentation.)

I’ve designed Zurich to fit a 24″ deep space, perhaps on top of storage shelves. But if one had more depth then I’d suggest adding 6″ to the back. One could also make the layout 36″ deep, adding 8″ to the back and 4″ to the front. With this kind of depth available, I’d also be tempted to run the main at a slight angle to the front edge for additional visual interest.

And switching Zurich would be interesting too. It’s not a puzzle layout but there’s still plenty to do and not much track in which to do it. Stock cars would have to be moved when switching Blue Star, and in reading about the Keeler Branch I believe that the Laws-bound train would switch the trailing point spurs and leave any pick-ups on one of the double-ended sidings to collect on the return trip to Owenyo.

The wide open spaces and flat terrain around Zurich suggest an high-level layout – perhaps up to the breastbone – while the incredible mountains in the background demand a backdrop with curved corners.

This would be a great layout for the hobbyist who loves to build things. The SP Narrow Gauge is very well documented and the wooden rolling stock and structures lend themselves to scratch-building. What’s more, a high layout with strong lighting would be a great place to display one’s craftsmanship. Finding prototype steam power in On3 will require hunting for a brass 10-wheeler, but Rich Yoder Models has imported the GE 50-Ton diesel “Little Giant” in On3 and On30 – and as reader Bill Uffelman notes, Bachmann’s On30 “Tweetsie” 4-6-0 would work as a good stand-in with some redetailing and the addition of a Whaleback tender from Wiseman Model Services. Backwoods Miniatures also offers a Whaleback tender kit as part of their On30 line.

In Sn3, PBL and Railmaster have done the 10-wheelers (in RTR brass and in kit form, respectively).

Looking for more information? I highly – highly – recommend Joe’s book. It’s out of print, but click on the cover to launch an AbeBooks search:
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The Desert Princess

The Southern Pacific’s Keeler Branch in California was an other-worldly place.

It was a place where whaleback tender-equipped 10-wheelers hauled classic narrow gauge boxcars, gondolas, flat cars, stock cars, tank cars, specialized hoppers and water cars, plus unique cabooses. Trains ran past weather-worn structures and through spectacular scenery that ranged from fertile to desert, framed by the incredible Sierra Nevada, Inyo and White Mountain ranges, to serve small towns and large resource industries.

And, it’s a great subject for an achievable layout – in narrow or even standard gauge.

It’s a narrow gauge modeler’s delight and a scratch-builder’s dream – especially for someone looking for an alternative to the Colorado three-foot lines. What’s more, the SPNG is incredibly well-documented. There are a lot of top-notch books on the line, including Southern Pacific’s Slim Princess in the Sunset 1940-1960 by Joe Dale Morris and Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge Locomotives and Freight Equipment by Robert A. Bader – both published by the SP Historical and Technical Society. While these are my favourites, a number of other books have been published too. There’s plenty of information about the SPNG – including hundreds of photos and excellent track diagrams for many of the places along the line.
Morris-SPNG photo Morris-SPNG_zpsa47fd30f.jpg Bader-SPNG photo Bader-SPNG_zpsd4dee8ed.jpg

For atmosphere, the Classic Railroad Videos series from A&R Productions includes The Desert Princess. (In fact, it’s their best-selling title, according to their website.) Here’s a very short clip, courtesy of the publisher:

So what’s missing? Well, frankly, there’s not much commercially available for the SPNG in any scale. And that’s a shame. In Sn3, P-B-L imported some SPNG steam locomotives at one point, but they’re hard to find. Here’s one that turned up recently in an online auction:
PBL-SPNG-8 photo PBL-SPNG-8-01_zps6743b616.jpg

PBL-SPNG-8 photo PBL-SPNG-8-02_zps707ca821.jpg

Also in Sn3, Railmaster offers a kit for SPNG locomotives – one that even the manufacturer admits is a challenge:
 photo Railmaster-SPNG-Locos-Sn3_zps12e15c02.jpg

I recall seeing brass models in On3 and HOn3 as well, but as with all things brass they’re hard to come by.

For diesel fans, Rich Yoder Models did an On3 model of SP-1 – a GE end-cab unit known as “Little Giant”. I wrote a review of this model – also offered in O standard and On30 – for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, and the review is posted online here.

The rest of the equipment is also problematic. Some craftsman kits exist for freight cars in Sn3. If there’s other equipment available, I haven’t encountered it. The fact that one can spend a day doing Google searches on modelling this line and turn up almost nothing by way of equipment is most telling of the challenge one would face.

That said, one could use stand-in models. In On30, the Bachmann 2-6-0 is two wheels short but is a suitable small steam locomotive – and the modeller could do some kit bashing and scratch-building to give it a whaleback tender and SP-ify it. And narrow gauge equipment tends to have advantages over standard gauge stuff when it comes to scratch-building. First, it tends to be of simple, wooden designs, which are easier to build that riveted steel cars. Second, a layout doesn’t need a whole lot of equipment since narrow gauge freight cars are, by their very nature, in captive service: They don’t roam the national rail network, because they can’t.

If narrow gauge is not your thing then in HO standard gauge, the Bachmann 10-wheeler would be a decent start for a smooth-running model. Again, it would need modifications to make it more SP-like. Or one could standard gauge the branch and use SP 2-6-0s from Glacier Park Models (O scale), River Raisin Models (S), or Iron Horse Models (HO).

It’ll come as no surprise that I have not found many layouts online that depict The Desert Princess. Byron Henderson has created a layout plan for HOn3, which can be found on his Layout Vision website. Better yet, find the Morris and Bader books and work right from the prototype plans they contain.

Meantime, I hope someone of influence at one of the larger manufacturers catering to the narrow gauge community (a Bachmann or a Mountain Model Imports, for instance) grabs the Morris and Bader books and falls in love. It would be easy to do, and both SP modelers and freelancers would delight in models of the SP’s narrow gauge 10-wheelers (Numbers 8, 9 and 18 are the most famous), interesting freight equipment, and distinct water cars and cabooses. On3/On30 models would have a lovely presence without overwhelming a layout space, and one could spend a great deal of rewarding hobby time switching the modest yet interesting yard at Laws, California… the transfer yard at Owenyo… or the talc company at Keeler.

Well worth a look if you’re in the market for something a little different!

70 Tons of Achievable Fun

GE 70 Tonners Book photo GE70T_zps382dedea.jpeg

This post differs a little from the standard fare on this blog, as it’s not about a specific railway that would be a good candidate for an achievable layout. Rather, it’s about a favourite locomotive of mine – one that is ideal for the modest trains that an achievable layout will support.

The General Electric 70 Tonner could be found on many railways, including large ones like the Southern Pacific (21 units) and Canadian National (18). But its real home was on smaller lines. Whether short lines or serving industries with line-haul operations, some 200 examples of GE’s bantam-weight road switcher could be found across North America.

Now, author Ronald D. Sims has released a 172-page survey of the 70 Tonner. Published by Shade Tree Books, this softcover contains more than 270 photos and 70 Tons of data about these tiny yet useful diesels.

I learned a lot of neat stuff from my copy, and I was inspired by many of the photos of these locomotives working on short lines, industrial customers, former interurban railways, and the like. Any of these could be the rabbit hole down which a model railway enthusiast could fall in search of a modest-sized prototype that would be an excellent subject for a layout that doesn’t become a time suck or a bank-breaker.

Three of the short lines covered here come to mind.

The Modesto and Empire Traction Company in California fielded an extensive roster of 70 Tonners in active service into the 21st Century. I wrote a two-part layout design feature on the METRR in October 2007 and November 2007 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine. I also wrote about detailing and painting HO scale 70 Tonners for the METRR in the April 2004 issue.

The Santa Maria Valley RR is another California shoreline that once rostered a fleet of 70 Tonners to serve a large sugar beet processing plant at Betteravia. Byron Henderson has developed a layout plan based on the SMVRR. And the Santa Maria valley Railway Historical Museum has a nice HO scale layout based on this line, although the website has not been updated since 2006…

Finally, the Fort Dodge Des Moines and Southern Railroad used many 70 Tonners painted in an attractive white and orange scheme that I think did a nice job of paying tribute to its interurban heritage. I’ve never run across anybody modelling the Fort Dodge line, but I’m sure you’re out there somewhere.

Those are three examples – there are many more, as this book on GE’s 70 Tonners ably demonstrates. Highly recommended. Give it a look.