Introducing the Carolwood & Grizzly Flats Railroad

A Tribute to Walt and Ward

The Carolwood & Grizzly Flats is a small, 38x72" HO scale, standard gauge layout inspired by the backyard railroads of Walt Disney and Ward Kimball. The layout is being built across the aisle from the TMMC and features a California, High Sierra/gold country setting 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, and 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 C&GF is being built across the aisle from the On30 scale Thunder Mesa Mining Company where it can also serve as a forced-perspective background scene when photographing the larger layout.

I'm using Walther's code 83 HO track and turnouts and control will be DCC. The minimum curve radius is a tight 16" and the old-time locomotives have been tested to assure no problems. 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.

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!

Update: Aug 4, 2019

The Carolwood & Grizzly Flats Railroad has been shelved indefinitely. However we never throw anything away at Thunder Mesa Imagineering and many of the ideas from this layout will now be incorporated into the Carolwood Park project.

One thought on “Introducing the Carolwood & Grizzly Flats Railroad

  1. Hi Dave, Big fan of all your work… railroads, art, storytelling, and videos! Two things to share—encouragement and a question. First the encouragement.

    I’m super excited about your C&GF announcement. I’ve been following your posts for a couple years now and have been turning my brain gears on a plan for my own Grizzly Peak themed railroad. Last year I read Michael Broggie’s book about Walt’s railroad story and just couldn’t get enough. I too wanted to capture the ‘magic’ of a model railroad as you have superbly done in a non-prototypical way filled with fancy, details and wonders. Thank you for the inspiration and can’t wait to see the progress on your new project. Now for the question.

    Would you be interested in working with me to draft a screenplay for a live-action film that combines all the lore of Mine Train Through Natures Wonderland, Thunder Mountain, Rainbow Ridge, Grizzly Peak/Flats, and Fronteirland? I once met Jason Sorrel, Disney Imagineering writer, and he told me about how the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise started as a pitched screenplay idea to Disney. I think this idea is ripe for the harvest as Disney continues to adapt their park successes to the silver screen.

    Thanks again and hope to hear back from you soon.

    Jason Lay
    [email protected]

Comments are closed.