Category: model railroading

Introducing the Carolwood & Grizzly Flats Railroad

A Tribute to Walt and Ward

The Carolwood & Grizzly Flats is a small, 4x6' HO scale, standard gauge layout inspired by the backyard railroads of Walt Disney and Ward Kimball. The layout has a California, High Sierra/gold country setting and is themed to the late 19th century.

A Little History

In the early 1950s, Walt Disney built an elaborate 7 1/4" gauge live steam railroad in the backyard of his home in Holmby Hills, California. Dubbed the Carolwood Pacific after the street on which the Disney's lived, the pike featured a 1:8 scale 4-4-0 locomotive built by Disney Studios machinist Roger Broggie, and a complete set of freight cars and caboose built almost entirely by Disney himself. The ornate little locomotive was modeled after Central Pacific #173 and christened Lilly Belle in honor of Walt's wife, Lillian Disney.

More than a decade earlier, Disney Studios Animator and unrivaled train enthusiast, Ward Kimball had obtained some vintage full sized 3-foot gauge railroad equipment from the defunct Carson & Colorado and Nevada Central Railroads and set about restoring these items with the help of family and friends. A vintage 1881 passenger coach was joined by a Baldwin 4-6-0 locomotive that Ward and his wife Betty had saved from the scrappers torch for the princely sum of $400. In 1949, A small depot used in the Disney film So Dear to My Heart was given to the Kimballs by Walt Disney after that film finished production and Ward set about transforming the flimsily built movie set into a working structure. Ward Kimball named his backyard empire the Grizzly Flats Railroad and called it "the Scenic Line of the West," though it only traveled a few hundred feet. More rolling stock and structures were added over the years, including a second locomotive, the Chloe, and a handsome three stall engine house to compliment the 900' of narrow gauge track on their San Gabriel property.

Both of these backyard railroads were extremely influential in the development of Disneyland. The parks original locomotives were designed by scaling up and adapting plans from Walt's 1:8 scale Lilly Belle, and the Frontierland Depot was modeled after Ward's Grizzly Flats station. Legend has it that Walt even asked Ward to give him the original depot back so that he could use it at Disneyland. By then, Ward had put a lot of work into the little structure and reportedly told Walt, "Go build your own damn station!"

Today, Walt Disney's Lilly Belle and other Carolwood Pacific rolling stock rests in the care of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Fransisco, while Disney's railroad legacy, including the original barn/workshop from Walt's Carolwood Drive home, is preserved by the Carolwood Foundation which maintains Walt's Barn and related items at Griffith Park, CA.

In his later years, Ward Kimball donated most of his collection to the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA. His beautiful Baldwin 2-6-0, Emma Nevada, can be seen there, as well as his small plantation locomotive, the 0-4-2 Chloe. In 2007, the iconic Grizzly Flats depot, along with the water tower, were moved to John Lasseter's Justi Creek Railway, located at the Lasseter Family Winery in Glen Ellen, CA. Sadly, both structures were destroyed when wildfires swept through Sonoma County in October of 2017.

About the Layout

There can be no denying that Walt Disney and Ward Kimball were men of extraordinary imagination. Both loved trains, and both built elaborate worlds to run them in. The Carolwood & Grizzly Flats does not attempt to replicate the backyard empires of these men in a historically accurate way. Instead, it tries to hitch a ride on the same current of imagination that drove them both, conjuring the type of landscape that they perhaps imagined when joyfully operating their steam engines. So it's a miniature world of towering High Sierra peaks, deep forests, rushing rivers, creaking wooden trestles, colorful varnish, and all the bells and whistles from the early days of western railroading.

I chose HO standard gauge for the C&GF based on the availability of certain items and because Walt's Carolwood Pacific took many cues from the standard gauge Central Pacific. Ward's GFRR was strictly narrow gauge, but the truth is, once you get back into 19th century railway equipment, there really isn't as much of a size difference between standard and narrow gauge rolling stock. I also chose it because I wanted to do something a little different from my On30 Thunder Mesa Mining Co. So, different gauge, different scale, different locale.

I'm using the same "greatest hits" approach with this layout that I've been using on Thunder Mesa all these years, throwing in all of the Disney elements that appeal to me and fit the theme. Unlike Thunder Mesa, this layout will have loads of trees, mostly Ponderosa Pine to compliment it's High Sierra locale. This mountain theme also give me the chance to include many old favorites that never found a place on Thunder Mesa. In addition to Ward Kimball's Grizzly Flats, there will also be scenes that include Walt Disney's Barn, Fort Wilderness, a riverside Indian Village, burning settler's cabin, and many other elements found along Disneyland's River's of America or from the good old days of Nature's Wonderland and the Mine Train. The backdrop will be printed on 13 oz vinyl scrim with seamless "coved" corners in cyclorama style and feature the visage of Grizzly Peak from Disney California Adventure.

I'm using Walther's code 83 HO track and turnouts and control will be DCC. The minimum curve radius is 18" and the ruling grade is about 3.5%. Scenery will be constructed with my usual EPF foam methods, though I might do a few plaster rock castings to get the look of High Sierra granite.

For layout lighting, I'd like to build a dedicated "roof" over the whole thing with integrated RGB LED lighting for ultimate control. Stay tuned for more details on that project as it develops.

As construction progresses I'll still be taking time to work on the TMMC and the many projects that need attention there, but ideally I'd like to finish most of the C&GF within a year. Hope you'll follow along to see if I can get it done!

Adios for now!

Nature’s Wonderland, Teddy Roosevelt and the Thunder Mesa Mining Co.

Originally published April 1, 2016 on the old Thunder Mesa Blog  

In the late summer of 1906, tensions were high in Thunder Mesa Country. Mining revenues were down, and the TMMC, and its parent road, the Santa Fe, Denver & Carolwood began pushing into new territories, including those controlled by the Estrella & Sonora Grande and Calico Gold Company. Naturally, the other companies pushed back, and by August, the battle over gold and silver claims in this wild canyon country had escalated to a fever pitch. It didn't take long for rival newspapers and political gangs to get in on the fight and soon they were tossing incendiary lies and insults in all directions. Before long it was greatly feared that conditions would deteriorate into physical violence. Armed toughs from Calico and banditos from San Lorenzo were quietly being recruited by both sides and an all out range war seemed imminent.

By the fall, none other than the President himself was preparing to intervene in the fracas. Traveling by private rail car, Theodore Roosevelt just happened to be on a secret hunting trip along the fertile bottomlands of Big Thunder Creek when he was briefed on the ensuing hostilities. After quietly surveying the natural wonders of the area (and shooting a dozen elk, two bears, a catamount, a duck, two armadillo, six coyotes, and three chipmunks), our 26th president made his presence known (as the story goes, he announced his presence by shooting a shot glass off the nose of the buffalo head in Big Thunder Saloon). He called a meeting of all aggrieved parties in what came to be known as the "Council of Calico." As it turned out, the President had been thoroughly delighted by the amazing buttes, canyons, geysers, and glittering caverns of Thunder Mesa Country and had concluded that the region deserved to be protected and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.


"Providence," said Roosevelt, "has been at work upon this land for untold ages. For here has been gathered an unmatched collection of natural curiosities and splendid scenic wonders. Verily, this "Nature's Wonderland" is an irreplaceable treasure of the United States and must be protected from the greed and petty concerns of short-sighted men."

Then, by presidential decree, he set aside the wild country on all sides of the TMMC right-of-way, excepting only existing claims, and effectively hemming-in the land hungry railroad. Invoking the newly minted Antiquities Act, and with the stroke of a pen, TR created Nature's Wonderland National Monument.

Of course, the railroads grumbled at first, but it soon became clear that the official designation and endorsement of the President himself would be a boon to the area. By 1905, the writing was on the wall as once rich finds at Calico and Big Thunder began to play out. This, in turn, had lead to the mining company's overreach into new territories already controlled by the Calico Gold Co. and Estrella & Sonora Grande. The "Roosevelt Solution" effectively put an end to the conflict while creating a rich new revenue stream for the TMMC.

TMMC management wasted no time in promoting tourism within the new monument as new excursion trains were quickly added to the schedule. Old ore gondolas were converted to carry passengers and secondhand coaches were procured from the Santa Fe, Denver and Carolwood to fill out the new trains. For its part, the SFD&C began to promote direct rail service to Thunder Mesa from Carolwood, Denver and Discovery Bay. By decade's end, tourism had replaced mining as 80% of the TMMC's revenue. In 1910, the TMMC also connected with the struggling Estrella & Sonora Grande Ry. near Lone Rock, and eventually came to control many of that line's assets.

Though the mines near Thunder Mesa were largely played out, the rich diggings around Calico continued to produce gold bearing ore well into the new century and the Calico Gold Co. remained independent until the crash of '29 forced a sale of its assets to the TMMC. Calico itself became a ghost town, and the once legendary mining camp merely another attraction for tourists aboard Thunder Mesa's colorful excursion trains.

After 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was never again seen in Thunder Mesa Country. However he did manage to visit other spectacular regions and preserve their natural wonders for future generations as well. As president, Roosevelt created five national parks and used the landmark Antiquities Act to unilaterally create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon. He also set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres' worth of national forests.

Roosevelt's chance visit to Thunder Mesa was a classic case of the right man being in the right place at the right time. Without his wise intervention, it is doubtful that the railroad would have survived much beyond the boom times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the spectacular region known as Nature's Wonderland might never have been preserved. Without Roosevelt, another chance visit by Walt Disney, Ward Kimball and Roger Broggie might never have occurred in the early 1950s, leading to a "rediscovery" of the Thunder Mesa line and sketchbooks full of ideas for a magical little park being planned for Southern California. But that legendary visit is a story for another day.

Experience Nature's Wonderland at Thunder Mesa Studio!

Enjoy the beauty and "history" of Nature's Wonderland National Monument on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company model railroad! Open Studio Days are back during Jerome's 1st Saturday Art Walk. Join us for a fun time at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ, Home of the Thunder Mesa Mining Co., an operating 1/4″ scale narrow gauge display featuring spectacular scenery, lights, animation, and sound. Meet local artist D.L. Meek and see what’s new on his drawing board. Stick around after 5pm for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk.

Free parking at the venue and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown Jerome from 5pm to 8pm

Click here for full event info!

Open Studio & Train Day ~ Saturday, Feb 3

Open Studio Days are back during Jerome's 1st Saturday Art Walk! Join us for a fun time at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ. Enjoy the beauty and "history" of Nature's Wonderland National Monument on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company Model Railroad, an operating 1/4″ scale narrow gauge display featuring spectacular scenery, lights, animation, and sound. Meet local artist D.L. Meek and see what’s new on his drawing board. Stick around after 5pm for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk.

Free parking at the venue and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown Jerome from 5pm to 8pm

Click here for full event info!

Open Studio & Train Day ~ Saturday, Nov 4

Join us for a fun time at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ. See what’s new on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company, an operating 1/4″ scale narrow gauge model railroad featuring spectacular scenery, lights, animation, and sound. Meet local artist D.L. Meek and see what’s new on his drawing board. Stick around after 5pm for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk. Free popcorn and Thunder Mesa railway passes for all guests!

Free parking at the venue and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown Jerome from 5pm to 8pm.

See our events page for full details!

Train Night Preview, Free Stuff, and a Big Thank You

Hey, folks! Just a few quick announcements before I rush out the door to get ready for tonight's Open Studio. First, check out my latest video (above) from the Thunder Mesa Studio YouTube channel to see a preview of nighttime operations on the TMMC. Then, click on back here and get free MP3 downloads of the Night Sounds and Haunted Undertaker Shop soundtracks used on the layout. Just in time for Halloween!

Thunder Mesa Night Sounds Free MP3 Download

Haunted Undertaker's Shop Free MP3 Download


Free Standard Shipping Thru Oct 9 at the Thunder Mesa Spreadshirt Shop!

And for another awesome deal, visit the Thunder Mesa Studio Spreadshirt Shop and get free standard shipping on all the cool designs right up through Monday, October 9th. Just enter this code at checkout:


Thank You!

A very special "thank you" to everyone who has followed the progress of Thunder Mesa over the years, read my articles, commented on these posts and videos, sent me cool stuff, purchased my designs, or made a contribution towards the completion of the railroad. You guys are the best and I am humbled by the positive responses I have received. The layout exists to entertain and bring joy and there's much more to come. 

Happy Halloween!

Yes, I know it's still weeks away, but tonight's Open Studio will kick off the season for me and Halloween is my favorite holiday after all. The photos above were taken during last night's final lighting and effects check and that got me in the just the right mood for this spooky season. Hope to see some of you there tonight! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

My Latest Column in Model Railroad Hobbyist

A New Home For Thunder Mesa

My latest Imagineering column for Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine is now available to read online.  In it, I take a detailed look at "imagineering the move" of the Thunder Mesa Mining Co. layout from my old home to my new studio in Jerome, AZ, and at prepping the space and painting the backdrop there. You can read it here: Model Railroad Hobbyist Magazine.


Open Studio and Train NIGHT – Saturday, Oct 7

Kick off the Halloween season in Jerome with our first ever Open Studio & Train NIGHT at Thunder Mesa Studio in Jerome, AZ. See night operations on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company model railroad,  and  the Moonrise in the night sky over Thunder Mesa! Experience the new Haunted Undertaker's Shop and spooky Boot Hill Graveyard. Meet local artist D.L. Meek and see what’s new on his drawing board. Stick around for the 1st Saturday Jerome Art Walk. Free Halloween treats and Thunder Mesa railway passes for all guests!

Free parking at the venue and free shuttle bus service to and from downtown Jerome from 5pm to 8pm.

See the Events Page for complete details.

Boot Hill Part 3 and The Haunted Undertaker’s Shop

Studio Update - Sep 30, 2017

My Undertaker's Shop tribute to Disney's Haunted Mansion is just about finished as of this writing, with just a few more small details to add. The same is true across the street at Boot Hill Graveyard, where a new picket fence and a gnarled old tree have sprouted up. This week's video log goes into detail on the "illusioneering" and special effects at the Undertaker's Shop, and shows how I built the "Lantern Tree" in the graveyard from twisted picture wire and acrylic modeling paste. I'm pleased with how these scenes have turned out and quite happy to have them done in advance of next Saturday's Open Studio & Train Night.

The Undertaker's Parlor of Messrs. Atencio, Crump and Gracey has been installed in its plot near the front edge of the layout. A follower of the TMMC Facebook page suggested that I rotate the structure 90º to give guests a better view of the interior effects and that turned out to be an excellent suggestion. Thanks for that! Below decks, an ITT Products sound module with a 2", 8 ohm speaker plays a spooky 2-minute soundtrack that I created. George at ITT products was very helpful when creating this custom sound module and I highly recommend his products. Both the soundtrack and the interior Pepper's Ghost effect are activated by one of the "Big Red Buttons" that guests can push on the layout fascia. There's much more on the Pepper's Ghost effect in this week's Thunder Mesa video log.

Check out the video below for part 2 of the time-lapse Undertaker's Shop build.

Over at Boot Hill, I've been putting the finishing touches on the scene with a weathered wooden fence and a gnarled old Juniper tree that has a flickering lantern hanging from the branches. I wanted some sort of illumination for the scene during night operations and this seemed like a fun and clever option.

The picket fence was built from Grandt Line castings with scratch-built wooden posts between them. The knobs on top of the fenceposts are dress-pin heads. The fence was assembled in three large sections at the workbench where it was primed and painted before being installed in the scene. I primed it with Krylon flat grey before drybrushing on splotchy coats of light tan and white acrylics to simulate weathered and faded paint on a wooden fence. I still need to add the iconic "Boot Hill" sign to the crossbar above the gate.

I built the tree using braided picture-hanging wire, twisting several strands together to create the trunk and then unraveling the ends to simulate smaller branches and twigs. Some some scrap-box bits were glued to a 3mm yellow flickering LED to make a lantern, and then the soldered on leads were hidden within the tree's armature.  All of this was then coated with three or four applications of acrylic modeling paste to build up texture, taking care not to cover the lantern itself. I let the paste dry overnight before finishing the trunk with a dark brown primer, followed by several dry-brushings with lighter shades of tan and grey acrylics. The tree was then installed on the layout and Woodland Scenics dark green foliage clumps were cemented on with Aleene's Tacky Glue. You can see a time-lapse of the tree being built in this week's video log.

I'm pretty pleased overall with how the entire scene has come together. As usual, it turned out to be a little more complex than I had originally planned as additional effects and details were added, but I'm very happy to have it (mostly) done in time for the Halloween season! 

I'm not quite sure which project I'll be tackling next. There are a few more lighting effects I'd like to finish up before next weekend, but I'm also more than ready to get back to work on the Thunder Mesa Riverfront and its 50' paddle-wheel steamer. Right now, it's time to clean up the studio and get organized again after the last two weeks of frenzied modeling. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

PS: As a bonus for following along, I'm offering the ambient night sounds of Thunder Mesa and the Haunted Undertaker's Shop soundtrack as free Mp3 downloads. I created both of these tracks for the layout and they can be downloaded and played on any MP3 capable devise. Add a little nighttime atmosphere to your own layout or a spooky Halloween soundtrack. Have fun!

Thunder Mesa Night Sounds

Haunted Undertaker's Shop

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Boot Hill Part 2 and the Old Jerome Cemetery

Studio Update - Sep 16, 2017

We're halfway through the month and I'm up to my eyeballs in new projects ahead of the Oct 7th Open Studio & Train Night. Still, I did find a little time to go exploring at the old Jerome Miner's Cemetery, my little town's answer to Boot Hill. And speaking of Boot Hill, that's one of the main project that's been occupying my studio time this week and the primary subject of this week's video log. I'm also deep into construction on the neighboring undertaker's shop, a project that should add some spooky new fun to the layout.

The old Jerome Miner's Cemetery is a little hard to find if you don't know where to look and most visitors to Jerome don’t ever go there.  It's a spooky and somber kind of place, and public records indicate that over 500 burials took place there. The oldest visible markers date to the 1890’s but there are undoubtably some much older graves whose markers have been lost to the ravages of time. Most of the readable markers display Mexican or Italian surnames - indicating this was a graveyard for the poorer immigrant labor-class of old Jerome. A little research reveals many tragic stories of death among the miners and other citizens. There were terrible mine accidents, disease, murders, and some quick frontier justice. Many of the graves are just shallow, unmarked holes in the ground, while others are more elaborate, surrounded by gothic wrought iron fences. I just love having this authentic bit of Old West history right here in my backyard.

The structure mock-up I teased in last week's video log has been revealed to be the undertaking parlor of Messrs. Atencio, Crump and Gracey, three well-known names among Disney Haunted Mansion fans. This is my small tribute to the Haunted Mansion and so far things are moving along at a good pace. Construction uses my preferred method of textured and painted illustration board. I created the façade and signs in Adobe Photoshop and then printed them out on heavy HP premium presentation paper using the photo-quality settings on my home inkjet printer. The printed façade was then laminated to Cresent 300 cold pressed illustration board using 3M 45 General Purpose Spray Adhesive before being cut to shape with a hobby knife. I'll go into more detail on the build in a future post, including the addition of a spooky Pepper's Ghost effect that will animate behind the upstairs window. In the meantime, here's a time lapse video of the structure build so far.

The construction of Boot Hill is well covered in the last two Thunder Mesa video logs (see last week's here), and next week's should see the project through to completion. I'll just add that the grave markers use the exact same printed paper texture technique that I've used on many structures and even on a couple of rolling stock projects. Researching, planning, and building the scene has been a whole mess of fun. Epitaphs on the markers are a mix of some borrowed from Disney's Haunted Mansion, Boot Hill in Tombstone, AZ, Knott's Berry Farm, and a couple originals I came up with that reference favorite movies like Blazing Saddles and the Bob Hope classic, Paleface. I started out with a goal of making 13 grave markers but actually wound up with closer to 20.

Next week I'll finish up Boot Hill by adding some fencing, lighting, and other details, and go more in depth on the Undertaker's place. So far everything is on schedule for the Oct 7th open studio where there will be a few other surprises in store too. Stay tuned! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

Postscript: On a sad note, while I was building the new undertaker's structure and preparing this blog, I learned that legendary Disney animator and Imagineer X Atencio had passed away at the age of 98. Francis Xavier "X" Atencio was a wonderful, multitalented artist who will probably be best remembered by Disney fans as the show writer and lyricist for both the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Without X there would have been no "Yo Ho, Yo Ho," or "Grim Grinning Ghosts." Here's a lovely video tribute to X Atencio from the good folks at Fresh Baked Disney.  

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Boot Hill Part 1 and a New Video Log

Studio Update - Sep 8, 2017

This week I started on a few new projects in preparation for next month's Halloween themed Open Studio & Train Night. Halloween has always been my favorite time of year and I'm looking forward to sharing some new scenes and fun night effects on the TMMC. Chief among these is the new Boot Hill scene that I've chosen to build at the front edge of Thunder Mesa town. This spot was recently home to a dummy spur track, installed as a convenient place for displaying the vertical boiler Marc F. Davis locomotive. That didn't last long though and TMMC #1 has now been relocated a little farther down the line. Check out this week's video log, where I show off some recently acquired vintage Lionel equipment, and to see the new Boot Hill scene begin to take shape. Below,  I'll go into a bit more detail on how Boot Hill is coming together.

The first order of business was taking up the dummy spur and scraping away most of the sanded grout and real dirt that made up the ballast and ground cover. Removing the spur was an easy decision since it had really become a track to nowhere. Once I started building the Thunder Mesa Riverfront it no longer made much sense as a stand alone scene. I popped the track off of the foam base with a putty knife and then scraped away the rest, taking care to preserve and save as many of the weeds, flowers, and clumps of pricey Scenic Express grass as I could.

Then it was off to my big box of scrap foam pieces for a likely sized chunk of pink EPF (extruded polystyrene foam). After cutting the rough shape with a hot-wire cutter, a sanding block was used to shape it into a low hill. Then I traced the outlines of several 1/4" scale graves with a hard lead pencil, and cut one empty grave out completely with a hobby knife. Then the hill was glued into place with Loctite Power Grab construction adhesive.

After that came the fun part, sculpting and blending the hill into the scenery base with Sculptamold. For some of the graves I added raised humps of Sculptamold, and for others I made a shallow depression to simulate older graves that had settled. A large hump of excavated "dirt" next to the open grave adds a touch of realism.

Once the Sculptamold had dried, everything was painted to match the rest of the scenery with my scenic base color. This is a lightened Raw Sienna tone that I have pre-mixed in a flat latex at my local home center. After that dried, I stippled on a thin layer of Polyblend sanded grout to enhance the dirt texture.

I dug the open grave down a bit deeper into the scenery base and then installed a 5mm diffused blue LED. This will be one part of the lighting package for the entire scene and should offer a spooky glow from regions beyond when activated.

The last thing added was a new structure mock-up to replace the Pack Mules building since it no longer made much sense being next to a graveyard. I don't want to say too much about the new structure yet - you can see the mock-up in the video - but I'll be ready to reveal much more about it by next week.

Last but not least, the less-than-fully-operational Marc F. Davis was moved down the line to be part of the scene at Saguaro Siding. This track is almost never used in operations and can be electrically isolated from the rest of the layout. An important consideration since the Marc F. Davis is DC powered and the motor would quickly burn up with exposure to higher DCC voltages. It will probably stay in this spot for quite awhile.

As for me, I gotta keep moving forward. There are many projects in the works and I'm having a lot of fun with all of them. Wait 'till you see the moon over Thunder Mesa! Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

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