Work Begins on the Thunder Mesa Riverfront

TMMC Update - July 15, 2017

Many people today don't realize that the Colorado River along the Arizona-California border was once navigated by steamboats. Entering from the river's delta on the Gulf of California in Mexico, shallow draft paddle wheel steamers once plied the river as far north as the confluence with the Virgin River near the Nevada-Utah line. From 1852 until 1909, river towns like Fort Yuma, Ehrenberg, and Colorado City benefited from this economical form of transport between the Pacific and the rough-and-tumble mining camps of the Arizona and Utah territories.

In the world of Thunder Mesa, river transport is mainly handled by the small and sturdy steamers of the Western River Expedition Company. Tying up at Fowler's Landing, the weekly boat traffic still provides an important trade link to California, the Pacific, and beyond.

I had long dreamed of adding a river scene to the TMMC but was always at a loss as to where to put it. In my imagination, the boomtown had sprung up near the banks of some wild desert river carving its way through the canyons, but actually modeling such a scene would seam to require far more scale real estate than would be practical. The solution came to me one day recently when I was casting about for a creative way to keep casual visitors from wandering up the aisles and possibly damaging delicate details. I could, I realized, build a river scene right in the aisle in front of Thunder Mesa town, effectively blocking it for casual guests while at the same time adding a great deal of entertainment and visual depth. The trick would be to build it on wheels so that it could be rolled out of the way when actually operating the railroad.

This first step in making this plan a reality was to finish up the fascia in front of Thunder Mesa town and at the end of the aisle on the turntable/engine house section. I wanted this area to look good and finished with or without the River Unit rolled into place. All of the "Big Red Buttons" that guests can push to activate sounds or other effects were moved to the front edge of the layout and their wiring rerouted. Then it was a simple matter of cutting and fitting some flexible strips of 1/8" thick Masonite for the fascia, and then clamping and glueing them into place with Loctite Powergrab adhesive. A strip of carved extruded polystyrene foam rockwork was then glued to the top of the fascia to help ease the transition into the new river section. I carve the EPF with a hot-wire cutter, followed by a drum sanding bit in a Dremel rotary tool. For a video on how I carve EPF rockwork, click here.

 

Building the River Unit

Construction was fairly straightforward, using the same materials and techniques that have been successful elsewhere on the Thunder Mesa layout. The River Unit is basically a rolling table, with a box-girder style top attached to a separate L-girder and trestle leg assembly. The whole thing is very lightweight.

Before starting construction, I took very precise measurements to ensure that the River Unit would fit perfectly when docked in the aisle. I created a template from cardstock to match the inner curve of the layout fascia and then used that as a guide when cutting out the 1/8" thick Masonite top. The top is supported by a box-girder assembly of 1x3" stock, held together with Gorilla Glue and drywall screws. The base was built from 1x3" and 1x2" stock with 2x2" pine for the legs. L-girders made from 1x2's and 1x3's make up the top and bottom rails of the base, and the whole thong rolls on 3" castors. Swiveling casters were installed on one end only so that the unit could be easily steered into place like a shopping cart. The height of the Masonite top is 47" from the floor, placing it about 4" below track level in Thunder Mesa town (16' in O scale). This will be the base for the river. The entire unit measures 65x29.5" - purposefully 1/2" narrower than the aisle to give it some wiggle room when being rolled in or out.

After building the modules in my garage at home, I loaded them into the bed of my pick-up and drove them up to Jerome for installation. To my great relief, everything fit together perfectly as designed, proving once again that I can use a tape measure correctly on occasion. The assembled unit can be easily rolled in or out of the aisle. When in place, a simple C-clamp secures it firmly to the layout benchwork.

With the benchwork completed, I was ready to start roughing in the scenery. Once again I'm using pink extruded polystyrene foam board or EPF. I buy it in 4x8' x 1" sheets at my local home center. It's easy to cut and carve with a hotwire tool or a hobby knife, and I use various sanding bits in a Dremel rotary tool to carve rocky textures into the edges. It makes a huge mess, of course, but that's what shop-vacs are for.

 

Next Week

In the coming days, I hope to finish roughing in the river bank scenery with foam and might even make a start on the next steps of blending things together with Sculptamold and sanded grout. After that will come the scenic painting with acrylics, and real dirt and sand for the ground cover. Further on, I've got some fun structures to build for the River Unit, including one of the beautiful 50' paddlewheel steamers from Kitwood Hill Models. Stay tuned for that!

I'll also be getting back to the Marc F. Davis/Pack Mules foreground scene in the near future too since it segue-ways into the river scene. Happy modeling, friends, Thanks for checking in. Adios for now!

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