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Chasing Trains on the Cumbres & Toltec

Chama to Cumbres Pass


Time for another Railroad Adventure! The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is justifiably famous for its rich narrow gauge steam railroading history and spectacular high-country scenery. Once part of the fabled Denver & Rio Grande Western, this preserved remnant operates daily in season between Chama, NM and Antonito, CO, climbing the challenging 4% grade over Cumbres Pass. Join us on a beautiful fall day as we chase the trains along Highway 17 up to Cumbres at the close of the 2020 season. The workhorse K-36 locomotives seen here were built for the Rio Grande in 1925 and still burn coal, just as they have for 95 years. Watching them work is like stepping back in time. Enjoy!

Building the Big Thunder Dynamite Shack


Howdy folks! In today's blog and video, I'll walk you through the planning and building for my version of Big Thunder Mountain's Dynamite Shack - AKA: the "goat trick" scene! It's a fun scene I've always wanted on the On30 Thunder Mesa layout and I'm happy to share the details here.

That pesky dynamite chewing goat on Big Thunder. Locals call this scene the "Goat Trick," because if you keep your eyes on the goat while your train rounds the sharp curve, you can get a dizzy feeling like you're spinning super fast. The effect works best in the last train car.

I drew these plans based on photos and observations of the structure in both Anaheim and Orlando. The one on the ride is actually quite tiny, so I scaled mine up to O scale person size. Note the built-in sag in the roof.

A planning model for the dynamite shack. This was used to make sure everything looked right at scale and would fit in the scene. It was also used to plan the laser-cut parts that would be used to build the finished model. The side lean-to shed was later omitted for the final version.

Here are the basswood laser-cut parts being assembled. Everything was stained with an alcohol and black shoe dye mixture before assembly and the signs were created with acrylic paint and custom stencils.

Here's a nifty trick. The look of antique rippled glass was created by painting Woodland Scenics Realistic Water onto the acrylic glazing, then drying it quickly with a hair dryer.

The roof was made from 1/16" thick illustration board, trimmed with stained basswood. The shingles are laser-cut paper - a future product from Crescent Creek Models.

The entire scene was built and detailed on a removable piece of Extruded Polystyrene Foam scenery that serves as one of the access hatches for Rainbow Caverns. 3mm yellow LEDs were added inside and out, and the front porch lantern has a built in flicker.

Detailing the scene was the most fun. The goat is from a set of O scale farm animals that I picked up, and the dynamite sticks are short pieces of red wire insulation. Tools and barrels come from various manufacturers, and the Lytum & Hyde dynamite boxes were designed by me and printed out on heavy paper. These are available as a free paper model download here.

More details are visible in this overhead view, including the hidden Mickey made from gears and junk from my scrapbox. The desert plants are from Woodland Scenics, Scenic Express, Pegasus Hobbies and others.

The finished scene. Future plans are to add the Big Thunder goat sound effects with and ITT Products sound module. These can be activated by a passing train, or by pushing a button on the layout fascia.

Big Thunder Camp

The dynamite shack sits on the outskirts of Big Thunder Camp, along the right of way for the On18 Horse Thief & Nevermine mining tram. It makes a nice addition to this scene, where its placement makes logical sense among all of the mining activity at Big Thunder. I'll have more on the mines there in a future update.

That's it from Thunder Mesa. Until next time, adios for now!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

A New Depot for Thunder Mesa


It all started with a kind gift from my friend Robert Kurner. You may remember Robert as the delightfully creative fellow behind the tiki/jungle cruise/typhoon lagoon themed Jungle Navigation Company Railroad. Anyway, Robert gave me one of the old Scale Structures LTD Grizzly Flats Depot kits in O scale. The kit was based on the depot for Ward Kimball's 3' gauge Grizzly Flats backyard railroad, but its history goes farther back than that. Ward had found drawings of an old Lehigh Valley Railroad flag depot while doing research for the Disney film, So Dear to My Heart.  Walt liked the design and so a set was built for the film based upon those drawings (fun trivia fact: a facsimile of Walt's Carolwood Barn also appears as a set in the film). When filming was completed in 1949, Ward asked Walt if he could have the structure for his backyard railroad in San Gabriel, CA. Walt said, sure, if you cam get it out of here, and Ward trucked the set piece home. Then, he and his wife Betty spent the next several years converting the flimsy, unfinished movie set into an actual usable structure with four solid walls and a finished interior. A few years later when Walt was building Disneyland, he saw that nice looking depot on Ward's property and asked if he might have it back for his new park. Ward called him an "Indian giver" and a few other choice names and flatly refused his boss' request. That left Walt with no choice but to dig out those old Lehigh Valley flag stop plans again and have the studio carpenters build a new version for Frontierland at Disneyland. The Disneyland version differs in a few details from Ward's depot, but the overall Victorian gingerbread flavor is the same.

Being well versed in the history, I've aways had a great fondness for this structure and decided right away that I needed to build a version for my Thunder Mesa layout. The only problem was where to put it.

Years ago, I had already scracthbuilt a small depot for my Thunder Mesa town and was quite fond of its looks and proportions. My solution was to move the old depot to the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge where I knew it would fit in perfectly with the small, charming structures there. This freed up the necessary real estate for a new depot at Thunder Mesa.

I began planning for the new depot in January of 2019, but didn't finish the project until March 2020. It didn't need to take that long, but one thing leads to another and I got involved with several other projects along the way. This often happens and I know it can be frustrating for those trying to follow along. I've condensed the entire build here from start to finish as a record and guide for anyone interested.

Like most of my builds, it all started with a paper mock-up...

With the old depot relocated to Rainbow Ridge, I built a paper model mock-up of the Grizzly Flats depot to make sure everything would fit. It did - just barely! This mock-up was made from the Frontierland Station plans you can download free on this website.

The overall footprint is just a little larger than the old depot but the clearances were just fine.

Here are all of the parts laid out prior to painting and assembly. Only the fancy roof brackets and trim are from the original kit. My friend and business partner Jake Johnson had been working on a set of laser cut replacement parts for this kit and I had him cut a set for me. I wanted a depot that was a hybrid between the Grizzly Flats and Frontierland depots, so these parts allow for a door on one end and a window on the other. Disneyland's depot also has double doors and a bay window on both sides. On my version, there is a single door and one bay window on the track facing side like Grizzly Flats.

A coat of primer on the exterior walls for the new depot. Gotta love the fit on those laser cut pieces! The walls pieces are 1/16" MDF with tabbed joinery at the corners. This is a dry fit with no glue yet.

The platform base is a solid piece of 1/4" thick MDF, cut to shape, and the planking is coffee stir sticks that have been distressed with a razor saw and stained with my favorite alcohol and shoe dye mixture. The depot footprint was cut from illustration board and cemented in place as a guide for the planking. Nail holes were added with a hard HB pencil.

Usually the hardest part of any Grizzly Flats type depot kit is building the intricate bay window. Even with laser cut pieces, this was a challenge, but I wanted to get it done right first before moving on to the rest of the structure. As per my usual practice, all parts were painted before assembly. I decided to stick with the Frontierland/ NOS color scheme of Ivory and Hunter Green and the paints used were inexpensive spray enamels with a satin finish.

With the bay window sub-assembly complete, I took the time to create two-sided, double hung windows from the laser cut parts since the structure is going to have a detailed interior. I added some blinds to the bay window, then made a  start on all that fancy trim.

At the same time that I was working on the exterior walls, doors and windows, I also made a start on the depot interior. The interior walls are 1/16" thick Crescent illustration board left in its natural color, and the wainscoting and trim are dark walnut stained basswood. The roll-up blinds are painted masking tape, doubled and wrapped around toothpicks.

Here is the nearly completed interior opened up like a doll's house. I wanted the interior to look cluttered and busy, walls lined with memorabilia - just like Ward's GF depot. There are a ton of Grizzly Flats and Disney references here if you look closely. The closet like nook in the corner will hide electrical wiring for the lights.

An overhead view of the completed interior. The floor is scribed basswood, stained to a golden oak color. Details are from Berkshire Valley, Wiseman Model Service, Banta, and my scrap box. The Navajo rug was printed from an image I found online and the Thunder Mesa sign is a remnant from the original scratchbuilt depot.

Here, work has begun on the exterior details. The fancy roof corbels are white metal castings from the Scale Structures LTD Grizzly Flats kit. Seen thru the bay window, the telegraph operator is an Aspen Modeling Co. figure. The fella with the dog is none other than Chuckawalla Slim from Verne Niner's Estrella & Sonora Grande. The train order board was created in Photoshop, and the doormats are 300 grit sandpaper painted dark gray.

The roof was built as a separate assembly and designed to be removable as shown in the video. This allows for continued access to the interior details and lighting if required.

The roof is in place and nearly all of the fancy trim has been added. I lost track of all the compound angles I cut for that roof trim. Note the new "Thunder Mesa" sign below the eaves. This placement is consistent with the Grizzly Flats depot.

Shingling the roof and getting the lights working. The depot has five 3mm LEDs, 2 warm white to light the interior, and 3 exterior yellow lights to simulate lanterns. The one over the front door flickers. The shingles are real cedar from Crescent Creek Models.

Proof that I never throw anything away and that it eventually finds its way onto the layout. Here's a look at the wiring inside the depot's attic. Yes, that's an old Atlas Connector pulling duty as a power strip. I wanted some sort of terminal strip in case I ever have to change the bulbs (unlikely with LEDs, but still) and this old piece of junk fit the bill just fine. As a bonus, I can even slide the switches and turn some of the lights on or off if I want to. Note that it is cemented to a removable ceiling that prevents light leaks around the roof.

Almost finished! The roof has been completed by adding cap shingles, gingerbread trim, and the main Thunder Mesa sign (which is a callback to the original Frontierland station sign at Disneyland). All that's really left to do now is add a few more details to the platform.

Testing the lights in this nighttime view of the depot scene. You can almost hear the telegraph key clicking and the crickets chirping.

The 2-sided Western Union Telegraph sign was based on a similar sign at Disneyland. It was created in Photoshop and printed on thick paper. The sign bracket was made by soldering together some music wire and a dress pin.

Small holes were drilled in the front wall to accept the sign bracket and it was cemented in place. The ability to add little details like this is one of the reasons I model in O scale.

had a lot of fun detailing the depot platform, arranging the figures and other elements to enhance the overall story. Figures here are from Knuckleduster Miniatures and Woodland Scenics, painted by me.

A scratchbuilt a-frame sign directs arriving passengers to the Panhandle Cafe just across Main Street. The baggage wagon was assembled from a Banta kit.

I decided that arriving passengers might need to refresh themselves after their long rail journey so I scracthbuilt this privy next to the depot. It was assembled from basswood and illustration board, detailed and painted to match the depot. It's important to note that not all 19th century outhouses were nasty shacks with moons cut in the door!

A look at the privy with the lanterns aglow. The lantern is a casting that came with the Grizzly Flats Depot kit. It was non-functional but I added a flickering yellow LED so passengers might find their way in the dark. By the way, it is an agreed upon fact amongst the Thunder Mesa locals that the depot has the best toilets in town.

Another final detail was this loading dock between the parallel tracks in Thunder Mesa town. It's built from O scale lumber and coffee stir sticks, stained a weathered gray with my favorite alcohol and shoe dye mixture.

Over behind the depot, I built some stairs to connect the backdoor to upper Main Street. This is one of those details hardly anyone will ever see, but I know it's there.

What's a privy without a place to wash up? The horse trough was scratchbuilt with "water" made from clear acrylic sheet painted murky green on the back. The hand pump is a casting from Berkshire Valley and the grass and flowers are from Scenic Express. For the small Pinon pine, I used a Woodland Scenics armature with the correct bushy shape but epoxied on a couple extra branches. Then I sprayed the whole thing with Super 77 adhesive and sprinkled on N scale ballast for bark texture. Then I airbrushed the tree dark brown and grey before gluing on Woodland Scenics dark green foliage clumps.

A set of stairs were also built for the freight platform. These are the same stairs that come with Crescent Creek Models O scale Gallows Kit.

And with that, the new depot project was finished. In this shot from Sept, 2020, the ground cover has been worked in up to the edges of the platform and a few new weeds have sprouted up. The previously installed telegraph sound unit from ITT Products below the layout now welcomes guests to the new Thunder Mesa Depot just as it did for the old.

This was a challenging, fun, and rewarding project to build, and I am very happy with the results. The new depot adds tons of charm and character to Thunder Mesa town, just as the structures that inspired it did for Ward's Grizzly Flats and Walt's Disneyland. Many thanks to Robert, Jake and the others who helped me on this project.

That's it from Thunder Mesa. Until next time, adios for now!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad


Let’s take a ride through the redwoods on the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad! Located in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains near Felton, California, Roaring Camp remains one of the premier narrow gauge railroad attractions in the United States. Some of the oldest operating steam engines in the country still pull daily excursion trains up and down the switchbacks of Bear Mountain on grades approaching an astounding 9%! The scenery is just as spectacular as the trains, as 3′ narrow gauge rails wind through the oldest preserved redwood grove in California. Note that this video was taken after the recent September 2020 fires near Santa Cruz. As you can see, the railroad and surrounding woods are still standing and as beautiful as ever! Roaring Camp is a must see for any steam railroad fan, and particularly for fans of vintage geared steam.

A Thunder Mesa Excursion Special


All aboard for a Grand Circle Tour thru Nature's Wonderland on this Thunder Mesa Excursion Special! Enjoy the sights and sounds along the way as we explore the Living Desert, Geyser Gulch, Rainbow Caverns, Natural Arch Bridge and more. Stops at Calico, Tumbleweed, Los Feliz Jct, and Rainbow Ridge. Apologies in advance for some unfinished scenery and empty excursion cars. Thunder Mesa is always a work in progress!

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

Building a Miner’s Shack

Be it ever so humble

This little miner's shack was built for Big Thunder Camp and sits along the right-of-way for the On18 Horse Thief & Never Mine Ry. Made from wood, foamcore, and a few Grandt Line castings, it was a fun and relatively simple project to build. The footprint is about 16x12 scale feet (4x3"). The shack was basically designed as an elaborate lamp for flickering LED lanterns, and I'll show just how to build and install those in the photos and captions below.

A black foamcore box forms the basic shell of the structure that will be clad in wood siding. The ridge line dips on purpose for a built in sag in the roof. The doors and windows are modified Grandt Line castings. The wooden siding is coffee stir sticks from my local craft store, and I purposefully made them a little uneven. Each board was stained with a 10:1 alcohol and shoe-dye mixture and custom fit to its place the structure.

The Grandt Line doors and windows were primed and then drybrushed with craft acrylics to match the distressed look of the wood siding. The clear glazing has been "fogged" with Avery inkjet labels - a nifty trick I picked up. With the walls finished, I tested the fit in its intended location before starting on the roof. Roofing on the shed portion is black gaffer's tape, which does a good job of simulating tarred canvas in this scale. I also installed a cardstock ceiling to prevent light leaks around the roof.

The built-in roof sag was accomplished by carefully scoring and then folding the cardstock roof panels to match the ridge line. Excess material at the top was then trimmed away to match the sag. I drew lines on the roof 3/8" apart and applied the Bar Mills paper shingles with yellow glue. The smoke-jack is another Grandt Line casting.

With the structure complete, it was time to move on to the lighting. The basic materials for a flickering lantern are shown above. I purchase the 3mm yellow flickering LEDs in bulk on eBay. I like the yellow color for kerosene lamps, and flickering amber LEDs for simulating fire. On these newer LEDs the flicker is already built in and no special circuitry is required. The liquid latex is sold as Liquid Electrical Tape at the local hardware store. I used it to insulate the diodes and copper wires inside the barrel where the space is too small for tape or heat shrink tubing.

These photos show the complete lantern assembly for the front porch. A 1/8" hole was drilled through both barrel and the porch. The barrel is a resin casting from Rusty Rails. It was painted with acrylics and glued in place on the porch. The lantern pieces were painted red and assembled atop the barrel as shown. Because of the tight space, bare copper wire was soldered to the diode leads and then threaded through the barrel and porch. Thus the need for the liquid latex. A 510 Ohm 1/4 Watt LED resistor was soldered to the positive lead and then 20 AWG wires were soldered to bring power. After soldering, everything was protected with heat shrink tubing.

In the finished lighting set up, the wiring runs down through gaps cut in the foam base. One flickering and one non-flickering LED light the interior of the cabin. An interior black foam-core box was created to house the lighting and prevent light leaks, and the shack slides down on top of this black box. The last two photos and the video below show how the lamps look when illuminated. A 9v DC transformer provides power for these and other lights on the layout.


Flickering Lanterns in the Miner's Shack

Thanks for following along, amigos. Registered users can leave questions and comments below so, please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

Rainbow Ridge Update

Work continues on the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge as it evolves alongside the progress at Circle D Ranch. The mainline through town has been ballasted with chick-grit, ground cover has begun to be added in the form of real dirt, and a wood plank grade crossing has been installed next to the depot. The depot itself has been refreshed with new "Rainbow Ridge" signs, and the water tank from Hanging Rock has been relocated here since I felt it better fit this scene. Hanging rock will be getting a new (read: old and worn out) water tank of its own in the not too distant future.

A Quick Stop at Rainbow Ridge

Arriving from Los Feliz Junction through Tunnel #1, an ore train makes a quick stop at Rainbow Ridge to pick up new orders before heading on to Thunder Mesa.

The Problem with Facebook
This post is part of an ongoing attempt to relocate material from Facebook to this website. Unfortunately, Facebook continues to engage in a wide variety of highly unethical practices which I have no desire to support. If you are a fan of my art and/or modeling, please follow them here. I will be posting much more here in the days and weeks ahead, and much, much less on Facebook. Registered users can leave questions and comments on posts so please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

Rainbow Ridge Clarion

The first structure built for the new town of Rainbow Ridge was the Clarion newspaper office. My pal and business partner Jake Johnson had some of the pieces laser cut based on my plans and that made construction of the fancy false front much easier. I did my best to match the colors and signs based upon photos from 1960's Disneyland, and the upper section of the false front is made from layered paper, with realistic printed wood textures and the graphics recreated in Photoshop.

Since the structure is designed to sit up against the backdrop, it's only about an inch deep. However, I did install LED lighting and hinted at some interior details. The window curtains are made from unpainted HO scale paper corrugated roofing material, and the curtain rods are dress pins. The front porch is painted and textured illustration board, and the roof was shingled with Crescent Creek Models paper shingles.

Fun fact, this building from Rainbow Ridge still survives at Disneyland (or at least a very close facsimile of it does) as the Gold Nugget Dance Hall above the Big Thunder queue.

Follow along with the photos to see how it all went together.

The Problem with Facebook
This post is part of an ongoing attempt to relocate material from Facebook to this website. Unfortunately, Facebook continues to engage in a wide variety of highly unethical practices which I have no desire to support. If you are a fan of my art and/or modeling, please follow them here. I will be posting much more here in the days and weeks ahead, and much, much less on Facebook. Registered users can leave questions and comments on posts so please, join in the conversation!

All the best,

The Little Mining Town of Rainbow Ridge

Rainbow Ridge was the approximately 5/8 scale mining town that once served as the backdrop and marquee for Disneyland's Mine Train thru Natures Wonderland and Pack Mules attractions. The colorful little western buildings were not accessible to the public, but that didn't stop them from fueling my imagination as a kid. The Mine Train closed in 1977 to make way for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but some of the Rainbow Ridge structures were preserved and repurposed for the queue of that attraction.

In December of 2018, I decided to model my own version of Rainbow Ridge on the Thunder Mesa Mining Company layout. The town of Thunder Mesa was already heavily influenced by Rainbow Ridge, but I wanted a version of the town that was more faithful to the 1960's original. This series of posts follows the progress of that project to date.

The first step was to design the structures. I used vintage photos from my collection, and scaled the models up to full 1/4" scale based on known dimensions like the relative sizes of doors and windows. The buildings are designed to be built in shallow relief since they will sit right up against the backdrop.

The next step was to prepare the site. I made some changes to the backdrop and added a new spur track off the mainline. Using the structure plans I had made, I built paper and cardstock mock-ups of all of the structures and arranged them on a foamcore base. Since Thunder Mesa's depot was being replaced by a new Grizzly Flats/Frontierland style station, I also made plans to relocate the original depot to Rainbow Ridge where it would fit in well with the smaller sized buildings.

Some Grandt Line balustrade railing was added to the depot platform to keep little folks from falling into Coyote Canyon, then the lights were hooked up again to bring the depot to life.

With the structure mock-ups, new spur, and depot in place, I had a good feel for how the scene was coming together. Next comes some fully built shallow relief structures to replace those mock-ups. Stay tuned!

The Problem with Facebook
This post is part of an ongoing attempt to relocate material from Facebook to this website. Unfortunately, Facebook continues to engage in a wide variety of highly unethical practices which I have no desire to support. If you are a fan of my art and/or modeling, please follow them here. I will be posting much more here in the days and weeks ahead, and much, much less on Facebook. Registered users can leave questions and comments on posts so please, join in the conversation!

All the best,