Photos by Miles and Fran Hale
When I first started model railroading, I overheard a conversation at my local hobby shop about a fantastic local layout. The "reclusive" builder and owner was described as a master in the art of converting everyday items and materials into believable railroad construction supplies. The layout was described as nothing short of amazing in detail and color. I was new to modeling and had not yet had the privilege of visiting any other layouts, but hoped I would get the chance to see this one someday. As luck would have it, I got my chance to see Jim Harringtons craftsmanship during our regional NMRA conventions home layout tour program. I had been asked to help chaperone one of the bus tours, with our first stop planned for the Harrington residence. During our initial trial run for the tour, I had the good fortune to spend some time with Jim and his wonderful Green Valley & Western layout. It turned out to be the first visit I had made to a layout other than my own.
Jim was an excellent host, and I found him very open and eager to share his insights and techniques on layout construction. Three visits later, I am still impressed with the realistic and intense colors. Not quite the hermit he was previously described as, and always offering someone a visit to his home, his guests are treated to a remarkable visual display. His scenery almost glows with intensity. Almost every structure is fully detailed inside and out. The motive power is brass, and most of what you see on the layout is scratchbuilt or totally kitbashed beyond recognition from its original form. As one of the Louisville areas premier modelers, his work has been the inspiration for many of our local layouts, including my own. When Jim walks in the door at the monthly division level NMRA meeting with a model under his arm, you can bet the model contest competition is going to be stiff. Years of experience, a thoughtful eye for detail, a sense of color and a knack for bringing out the not so obvious has earned him the respect and admiration of his peers. I hope you enjoy the layout.
This layout is all about silver mining and the support industries common to that enterprise. The GV&W features a typical narrow gauge setting, but it is built as standard gauge. Its more than the measurement between the rails that gives narrow gauge its appeal. Jim wanted to reproduce the look and feel of a narrow gauge line without having to endure the expense and lack of locally available products commonly associated with that venue. His layout started out as HO gauge. During its development, Jim discovered the looks of a narrow gauge rail line were more to his liking, but he didn't want to waste his already extensive collection of rolling stock. Until recently, narrow gauge supplies weren't readily available on our local store shelves. As Jim explains it, "The hobby is not supposed to be about frustration." I wholeheartedly agree after spending a month waiting on HOn3 supplies for my own layout. Some narrow gauge does exist on the layout, but in limited amounts. Those lines are separate from the standard rail lines, but allow him to run the HOn3 stock he has on hand.
The layout is basically straightforward in its design and construction. The first thing you see when you enter the layout is the removable duck-under used to allow continuous running of the otherwise point-to-point trackplan. The device features hidden contacts and a dovetailed notch at both ends. The V-shaped notch allows the bridge to be dropped back into place without any deviation in alignment. The rail joints are silky smooth at the transitions to the main layouts rail lines. The addition of this one feature makes continuous running possible so non-operating visitors can enjoy the action. Visitors without a model railroading background tend to enjoy the continuous running more than the more prototypical point-to-point way of operating a layout. They cant seem to accept trains operating in reverse. Shove a line of log cars down the rail and you can really confuse them! Just try explaining to a visitor that some mining and logging locomotives lived their entire lives without ever being turned around, and see what kind of reaction you get.
The benchwork on the Green Valley and Western is framed in wood with cookie-cutter plywood tops. The around-the-room base framing was installed shelf style, anchored and braced onto stringers, and nail gunned into the basement walls. Homasote roadbeds and tabletops support Atlas code 100 rail and Shinohara turnouts. A dehumidifier runs all summer long and when combined with the sturdy construction, code 100 flextrack and dependable turnouts, Jim has enjoyed a trouble free layout in our notorious Ohio Valley climate. I once called him on the phone for some advice on handlaying turnouts. His response was, "Why bother, when you can buy them cheaper, more dependable and install them quicker than you can by spiking your own." I ignored his advice and now whenever I have problems with one of my turnouts, Jims words come back to haunt me. The key to a dependable layout is the quality and sturdiness of the components used...and not just for the benchwork. If you want it to last, you'll build it that way.
The coloration and texture of the scenic elements along the Green Valley & Western are naturally produced. Jim blends most of his ground cover from natural materials. His grass is ground mosses and sawdust. Bark, sawdust, dirt and dust are a few of the elements used to obtain the covers needed. Even the plasterwork has had the recipes doctored to achieve a better texture and working time. Over five hundred pounds of fibrous Gold Bond plaster make up the most prominent of the mountains on the layout. Gold Bond was once prevalent as a construction plaster finish for interior walls, and has a fibrous blend of plaster and cellulose in its composition. No rock castings were used; all the mountains, walls and terrain were hand sculpted into the wet plaster before it set.
The water features on the layout were built with epoxy resins. The river path was cut from the original table top, then dropped below grade to be anchored back into the layout to form the river bottom. The edges were plastered back in to complete the display. All natural plant materials have been dried and treated with glycerin to keep them from turning brittle. Various dyes are added when needed. His marsh grasses are actually ground up broom materials. The blender has really been through a workout with all the pine bark, acorns, nut hulls, pencil sharpener shavings and other debris that have each had their turn at the puree setting. Grass materials are treated to two or more different dyes before being spread out to dry on newspaper. Trees have been modeled using balsa armatures, toothpick branches and moss foliage. Lichens and some commercial foam do appear on the layout in limited quantities. The coal seen around the layout is the genuine article, personally ground to the size needed. Rocks are rocks, and the dirt is dirt.
Upon entering the railroad room, one of the first things you notice is the number of wonderfully detailed structures that dot the landscape. By taking your time to inspect each one, you'll be amazed at the fully stocked and decorated interiors. Each has its own mini-scene within the whole scheme to entertain the viewer.
One of the most fascinating items I found was one of his three turntables that has a scratchbuilt mechanism. Operating the turntable is accomplished by rotating a dial on the front of the table facade. While this is not unusual, the smooth action is unbelievable. There is an actual heft and feel to the weighty movement. This can be directly attributed to Jims past employment at a naval ordinance installation. Being a machinist on the militarys weapons systems has had its influence on the inner workings of the turntables manual driveline.
This mechanical ability is also evident in the brass locomotive stock on the layout. Almost all have been altered and detailed in some form or fashion. Jims collection of Great Northern and Santa Fe brass locomotives is quite impressive, as is his collection of Heisler, Shay and Climax logging locomotives.
Jims house was constructed in 1972, but he didn't add the layout room until three years later, after attending the 1975 NMRA National Convention in Dayton. He came home hooked on model railroading and began preparations by formulating a trackplan to suit his interests in western themes. The layout room has since needed to be expanded to allow for the area that is home to the mountainous areas of the railroad.
Jim painted his own backdrop and performed almost all of the work himself. In the beginning, he consulted other experienced model railroaders, but after getting a few pointers, he has pretty much done everything you see in the photographs.
Structures on the layout have all been named after family members or close friends and associates. This is in keeping with a tradition that has been a part of model railroading from the very beginning. In the grand scheme of everyday life, having a miniature spot on some layout named after you wont make newspaper headlines or CNN, but it is an honor and the kindest form of flattery to be considered worthy of having your name appear on a fellow modelers artwork. This is especially true if the structure is as fine as one of those found on Jims layout.
The layout is powered by an older Zero One DCC control system. The decoders for that system are rather large by todays standards. Jim has been able to overcome the size problem by installing a large number of these in head-end cars and tenders. The electrical wires are not all that obtrusive and in most cases go unnoticed until they are pointed out. Jim is considering an updated DCC system now that the Zero One decoders are getting harder to locate. The opportunity to add sound decoders will also be realized by switching to one of the more popular systems available on todays market. The HOn3 section of switchback rail is powered by a standard DC power pack. All the turnouts have manual throws to eliminate the need for the mass of wiring required to operate the many turnouts on the layout. The positions and placement of the structures on the layout are designed to allow easy turnout control access by the operators...operational is the key word.
Since space is at a premium in the Harrington household, the train room will not easily accommodate a large group of operators at one time. For this reason, he has hosted only a few operating sessions. His involvement in national, regional and local organizations has allowed him to show the layout in tours, but operating under those conditions would prove impractical, so those rare operating sessions have been memorable for those lucky few who have participated.
The layout allows access to the main yards from either direction, with loads from two major mining sites. Ore processing and transfers to and from the narrow gauge line are handled from a rather unusual ore ramp and dump. The ramp structure was built in place with the layouts only code 83 rail and features a compound radiused and inclined configuration. A peek-a-boo look over the ore bins reveals the heavily detailed chute assemblies and pulley arrangements. The turntable at that location was originally an older Atlas model. A gallows superstructure was added on top of scale stripwood to backdate the mechanism into his layouts early 20th century timeframe. This is the only motorized turntable on the rail line. Jim has issues with the intrusive sound the older mechanism makes, but the clockwork-style indexing is foolproof. He installed a manual version of the same mechanism on another part of the railroad, but moved the operating crank below the tables surface to keep from compromising the look of the scene.
If you ever get the chance to visit Jims layout, take the time to look at the all the little details we have come to take for granted now that most of our scenic materials are commercially available. Notice the grasses and mineral textures. Each pile of debris has its own natural element added to its construction. The colors are rich and full, but not so overpowering as to be gaudy, or out of place. Enjoy Jims wonderful way of making you feel at home and welcome during your visit. This is one of those layouts where you go home with more than just one or two ideas for your own projects. If you notice something in particular, be sure to ask Jim how he did it. Hell promptly provide you with the step-by-step instructions you'll need to duplicate the feature for yourself. Jim is definitely not the reclusive hermit he was once described as being. And as far as the original layout tour went, not only did the tour go home with a lot of nifty ideas, but with a real appreciation for his wife's baking. The cookies were fantastic!