Photos by the author
The Union Pacific Railroad chose the easy route and crossed the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, well to the north of Denver. The citizens of Denver soon realized that without rail service, they would be left behind. The Denver Pacific Railroad was chartered and built to connect with the UP near Cheyenne. That is the prototype for my railroad. Now a part of the UP, this line has been an important feeder to the mainline and a connection with the southwestern railroads.
When I was in high school a friend gave me the book, Last of Steam. To a young steam fan, this was a window into a fascinating world of railroading, and I proceeded to nearly memorize it. I always liked big steam and the chapters on the Union Pacific really caught my interest. From then on, the choice of a prototype railroad was never in question.
I grew up reading the wonderful series of articles on operation by Frank Ellison. He was one of the pioneers in operating model layouts like real railroads and helped to bring the hobby out of the toy train mentality. Because of my interest in railroad operations, this layout was planned from the beginning to provide for realistic operations. This piece of the Union Pacific doesn't have the long Streamliners and Big Boys like the "mainline," but it does have many more opportunities for interesting train operations. The Denver Pacific has always been single track, which adds interest to an operating session with most trains having to use the passing sidings for meets with other trains. The Platte Valley is a large agricultural area, which necessitates many local freights to serve industries located in the towns along the railroad.
Benchwork - I am fortunate to live in an area where basements are common. My wife and I agreed that the upstairs was hers and the basement was mine. I ended up with about 60' x 15', which is shared with furnace and laundry. The basic frames are L-girder construction. These are very durable, with some being part of their third railroad. The ribs are spaced about 16" apart and are 1x2s sawed from various scraps. The 2x2 legs braced with 1x2s makes a secure base. Everything is screwed together with thousands of drywall screws.
Trackwork - If you want a smooth running railroad, a good foundation is essential. With that in mind, I use 3/4" plywood for the track sub-base. Some of the layout is 12 years old and is still as true as the day it was installed. Im pretty picky about grades, vertical curves and cross-level, but the reward is trouble free operation.
Homasote is glued on top of the sub-base with carpenter s glue and clamped overnight. When the glue is set, I use sandpaper lightly to smooth everything. All of the exposed roadbed is painted with gray latex to help seal the Homasote.
Every type and size of flextrack is used, from Code 100 down to Code 40. The previous layout used miles of Code 100 track and many switches, which were salvaged for this layout. If I had to do it again, there wouldnt be any Code 100. None of the rail joints are soldered. This gives some flexibility for climate changes, a necessity for a large layout in the South. If a joint gives me trouble, it may get soldered, but this is rare. Every other rail gets a power feed so this takes some of the pressure off rail joiners to conduct electricity.
The trackplan is point to point with an optional continuous run for open houses or when Im just too lazy to operate. I included as much of the prototype track and facilities as possible without over crowding. Two yards, at Denver and LaSalle, are modeled. The Denver yard works mainline trains and LaSalle works up locals. Denver pre-blocks outbound freights with through cars and local cars. Mainline freights set out and pick up blocks of cars at LaSalle keeping that yard supplied with cars for the local freights. There are two passing sidings, each long enough for 30 cars and four F-units. One has a middle crossover, which gives the dispatcher a three-way meet option. This really comes in handy when LaSalle gets full and cant take any more cars.
I have always wanted a 4-12-2 and better still, a place to run it. For a long time I had the engine but had to run it on a friends PRR layout (totally unacceptable). When I planned this layout that problem was solved by using 42" minimum curves and #8 turnouts on the mainline. Curves up to 72" are used when possible for cosmetic reasons. This is flatland railroading so the grades are kept at 1% or less even though there really is no level track. The railroad undulates to give the scenery believability and to allow tracks to cross over each other.
Scenery - With this size layout, scenery has to be kept simple. I use tried and true methods that Ive used for many years. The scenery base is screen wire covered with Structolite plaster and painted an earth color. The basic ground cover is about seven different colors of Woodland Scenics ground foam. This is layered on and held secured with dilute white glue or Mod Podge. My ground cover is too green but living in Kentucky makes it difficult to not add "just a little more green." My neighbors grow yarrow around their mailbox, which I harvest in the fall for my trees. I dip the dried heads in sanding sealer then coat them with ground foam. Since the trees in the prototype area are not very big, this looks fairly good.
Structures are mainly plastic kits painted and weathered without many embellishments. The only structure that I put a lot of effort into is the coal dock at LaSalle. It is kitbashed from a Cheyenne coal dock to only straddle two tracks (vs. three tracks for the real one).
Backdrop - The very simply constructed backdrop is made from 1/4" drywall, bent in most corners to give a continuous sky. Drywall is durable, cheap and easily worked or repaired, while giving a smooth surface for the sky. The entire backdrop was painted sky blue to represent a beautiful Western summer day. About five years after it was made, I decided that it needed to be white at the horizon line, tapering to blue as you go up. I mixed three different shades of blue with different amounts of white added and brushed this on starting at the horizon and tapering up to full sky blue. Due to the passage of time, the colors were not exactly right, but it ended up looking pretty good with wispy clouds. The Rocky Mountains are off in the distance and are represented by light grays and whites mixed. This is a very simple backdrop that doesnt draw the eye away from the layout.
Locomotives - 1950 was right in the middle of the transition from steam to diesel. This makes a really interesting time to model railroad. The real UP dieselized the western part of the system first because of water and operating considerations. This left the steamers for the eastern districts, including the Denver Pacific. E-units, Erie-builts and 4-8-4s are used to pull passenger trains. Freights get F3s, FAs and various steam. Alco, EMD and FM switchers and an 0-6-0 handle switching chores. For years I bought brass steam, as they became available with the hope of building a layout to use them on. Most have been painted and weathered and are in service. The UP Historical Society and numerous books on the UP provide all of the information needed to paint and letter these correctly. Lately I have acquired some plastic steam locomotives (Challengers and a USRA Mike). These look fine alongside brass as long as they have good paint and weathering. Most visitors cant tell the difference. Every time I think I have all the locos I need, something new turns up that I cant resist. So the loco roster continues to expand.
Cars - Modeling the Union Pacific in 1950 becomes easier every year. Most of the important freight cars are available in kit form from the manufacturers and others can be built or kitbashed rather easily. I have a lot of older Athearn and MDC cars, which have been repainted (some more than once) in appropriate paint schemes. Everything gets weathered and the wheels also get painted. This layout can support about 300 cars and not be too crowded. When a new car comes out which I must have, something has to come off the layout.
Cabooses were a huge problem until Centralia Car Shops came out with their CA-3, 4 cabooses. The CA-1s are sometimes available from Gloor Craft and build up pretty well.
Passenger cars are another matter. There aren't that many really authentic cars available for this era. Walthers announced their 10-6 Pullmans, which were built in 1950. MDC has the Harriman series with a few useful cars. I was fortunate to acquire a train of American Beauty UP cars, which became the City of Denver. Though this is not authentic at all, it looks nice considering that the cars are 45 years old. Since Denver Union Station is included, there are passenger trains from other roads on the layout. These include the Rocky Mountain Rocket (RI), Colorado Eagle (MP) and California Zephyr (CB&Q and D&RGW).
Timetable - For years, I operated mostly alone and scheduled/dispatched trains as the need arose. When the layout became presentable enough to have others operate it, I realized that some scheduling was needed. During one of my sessions, I simply wrote down everything that went on; this became Timetable #1. As more layout and trains were added, the timetable expanded to become #3 or #4 now.
Train orders - Train order forms were made on our computer by my wife from a photograph of a real UP 19 Order. I hand write the information on each one as to where the train is, where it goes and any meets. All the operator has to do is read the order and he knows what to do with his train.
Switch listing - One of our local operators devised a "destination" switch list system. His reasoning was that prototype switchmen are only interested in where the car goes. Therefore my switch lists give each car a destination. The list for the freight yards give destinations for all of the freight cars, while the local lists only show cars that belong in that locals territory. The concept is very logical and simple. If a car is misplaced, the next local along will correct the mistake and start the car to its destination.
If I was a typical model railroader, the power supply people would all be out of business. My fixed cabs use Variacs and toy train transformers. This arrangement varies the speed of the trains by controlling the voltage. I used to run up to five Athearn locos on a train and this requires a substantial power supply. Ive used this setup for about 30 years with all of the original parts still in place. For walk-around controls I build simple throttles using Radio Shack parts. These are rugged, easily repaired and provide good control for switching. The layout is divided into about 15 blocks, which are connected to the cabs by rotary switches. I dont feel that a DCC system will allow me to do much more than I already do, so thats one expense I'll skip.
The engine terminal at Denver will be started next. This will give me a place to store and turn engines between runs. The prototype turntable was only 100' long, making the heavy Challengers a real problem. All of the other steam engines will fit on a 100' table. This includes 4-8-4s, early Challengers and the 4-12-2. I'll do like the UP and raise the rear wheels of the tender so the engine can swing. This is why Big Boys rarely visited Denver until much later in the steam era; they had to be turned on the wye.
If I am going to spend money on electronics, it'll be a signal system. The prototype used lower quadrant semaphores, which would really enhance the visuals and operations.
The scenery is an ongoing project that I work on when the mood strikes me. Last year the local NMRA Division hosted a regional convention and I spent a lot of time completing scenery to make the railroad presentable. Now Im more laid back and am enjoying the layout.
This layout has been a joy to construct and operate. I hope that I can continue to refine it for many years to come.