Thunder Mesa Mining Co.

Once Upon a Time in the Wild West

Way out in the wild canyon lands of the Southwest, beyond the Rainbow Desert on the old stage line to Grizzly Flats, you'll find Thunder Mesa. Indian legend claims that the twisted rock spires in the area are really people turned to stone by an angry thunder god, but most folks pay little heed to such tall tales. Fact is, nobody much came that way until an old prospector called Badwater Baxter found gold on the Mesa back in the '60s. His claim didn't stay a secret very long and soon the rush was on! People came from all over to seek their fortune and a town seemed to spring up from the wilderness overnight. They called it Thunder Mesa, the biggest little boomtown in the West.

As the mining operation grew it became clear that a railroad would be needed to haul the rich ore to market. Investors from the Santa Fe, Denver & Carolwood Railroad (SFD&C) agreed to build a branch line to the boomtown of Thunder Mesa and operate a narrow gauge mining railway to the mining districts beyond. Construction proved long and difficult due to the extremely rugged terrain but the Grizzly Flats branch of the SFD&C finally reached Thunder Mesa in the summer of '79. From there, the new Thunder Mesa Mining Co. Railway wound its way through the labyrinth of canyons to the rich diggings around Calico Mt.

Soon, the fame of the little railroad spread far and wide and special excursion trains had to be added to the schedule for visitors demanding to see the unmatched scenic wonders that the railway passed through. While tunneling through Rainbow Ridge, for example, railroad construction crews discovered amazing caverns filled with colorful formations and waterfalls.

Elsewhere along the line fantastical red rock hoodoos towered and teetered over the tracks and geothermal features bubbled and boiled below the new Geyser Gulch trestle. Abundant wildlife was everywhere and before long the whole area became known as a veritable Nature's Wonderland.

It is believed that TMMC founder, Elias Homage, first coined the term "Nature's Wonderland" to describe the unique wild country near Thunder Mesa, but it is generally agreed by historians that our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, was the one most responsible for popularizing the region in the public imagination. While on a hunting trip in 1906, TR helped to arbitrate a land dispute among the various mining and railroad interests which in turn led him to set aside large portions of undeveloped land along the right of way as Nature's Wonderland National Monument.

"Providence, 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."

-Theodore Roosevelt

TMMC management wasted no time 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.

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. Many years later, another chance visit by Walt Disney, Ward Kimball and Roger Broggie in the early 1950s led to a rediscovery of the Thunder Mesa line and sketchbooks full of ideas for a magical little park being planned for Southern California. The rest, as they say, is history.

An On30 Model Railroad

About the TMMC

• Scale & Gauge: On30

• Overall Size: Approximately 200 square feet

• Era: 1890 ~ 1910

• Locale: Somewhere in the American Southwest

• Inspiration: Narrow gauge railroads, old western movies, Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm

• Special features: Light effects, sound, and animation

The above tall-tale was just a jumping off point for this model railroad empire. Bringing it to life required a great deal of wood, many gallons of paint, mountains of urethane foam, a bushel of electronic gizmos, brass, plastic, wire, specialized tools, and many, many tiny, easily lost, detail parts. Not to mention countless hours of enjoyable research into the intricacies of actual steam powered railways and 19th century mining operations in the American West. The skills required for such an undertaking where either picked up during previous projects or learned along the way.

Construction began late in the summer of 2011 and continues to this day, with the project more than half complete as of this writing. There's no hurry to get it done, and though the story has remained largely the same, plans have changed several times and the railroad has gown in size and scope, taking on something of a life of its own. What began as a very simple 3x6' diversion, now occupies about 132 square feet. The TMMC (railroad reporting marks for the Thunder Mesa Mining Co.) began life in an unused corner of the garage. That proved a bit snug so it was soon moved to a 16x16' finished outbuilding. Several years and many changes later, the railroad now holds a place of honor at Thunder Mesa Studio in its own dedicated display space.

Photo Gallery

A Work in Progress

The Thunder Mesa Mining Co. is more than a model railroad, it is an interactive themed environment with lights, sounds, animation, and effects designed to immerse visitors in the story of this miniature world. Its function is to entertain and delight. Though much of the railroad is finished, there are still many things left to do and it will most likely always be a work in progress. Many commercially available products such as model locomotives, track, rolling stock, figures, and various kits are being used on the layout, but many things, such as most structures, are being custom built from scratch. The rock-work scenery of buttes, mesas, and canyons is mostly hand carved from light-weight urethane or polystyrene foam. Even the saguaro cacti are carved from foam. Please visit the Thunder Mesa Blog for an ongoing series of articles, videos and how-to's related to the railroad.

Thunder Mesa Studio and the Thunder Mesa Mining Co. model railroad are available to visit by appointment, and open to the public on special open house train days. Please see the Visit the Studio page for more details.