Photos by the author
While most model railroads are described in terms of square feet occupied, its more descriptive to define the Golden Circle Model Railroad Club in Manitou Springs, Colorado, in cubic feet. The clubs layout soars through multiple levels from 4' to just over 11' and theres even more when you consider the layouts base level is 4' above the floor and theres still a foot to go up on top to the ceiling.
The club is modeling the gold-rich Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District in Colorado and the railroad lines that served it. This includes railroads in Colorado Springs. The layout focuses on the beginning of the 20th Century. The era was a heyday of rail and mining activity in the West, particularly in Colorado, and most particularly in Colorado Springs and the Cripple Creek-Victor Mining District some 20 crow-flying miles west (40-50 miles by rail) and 4,000' higher. Three railroads entered the Mining District from the outside world and there were also two traction lines serving the extensive array of small towns, mines and samplers.
The Cripple Creek-Victor District is one of the fabled Colorado mining areas. A gold producer, it matched the frenzy and financial success exhibited by such places as Leadville, Aspen and the silver-rich San Juans. It made overnight millionaires out of many. The main source of access came through Colorado Springs where the giant Golden Cycle Mill was located. Standard gauge ore trains ran from the mines to that mill until it closed in 1949. In the era modeled by the club, additional access came up Phantom Canyon from the south via narrow gauge. The mining district itself had hundreds of miles of trackage at its peak with six operating railroads.
The primary railroads modeled by the Golden Circle Club are the Colorado Midland, Midland Terminal, Florence & Cripple Creek and the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District, also known as the Short Line. But you will also find the Santa Fe, Denver & Rio Grande, Colorado & Southern, Rock Island, two traction lines in the mining district, the Golden Circle Railway between Victor and Vista Grande, and two more trolleys in the modeled portion of Colorado Springs.
And by the way, did I mention that the club is located in a castle?
Today's Golden Circle Club came into existence in 1979 but traces its lineage back to 1949 and a series of moves until it settled into the Miramont Castle in 1979 where it took its current name. And there begins some complexity. The castle was built about 1895 by a French-born Catholic priest, Fr. Jean Baptist Francolon who occupied it with his widowed mother. Later it became a sanitarium, and now it is now open to the public as an historical site. And the club, through its parent organization, the Pikes Peak Historical Model Railroad Museum, operates its growing model railroad on a daily basis in the summer for tourists coming to the Pikes Peak region.
Club member Al Greist explains, "There are three cooperating organizations involved in all this; the Manitou Springs Historical Society, owners of Miramont Castle; the Pikes Peak Historical Model Railroad Museum, owners of our building and the display; and the Golden Circle Model Railroad Club, the builders of the display or model railroad."
The Model Railroad Museum is set up to handle summer operations, to accept donations and, because it is not a fraternal group, it qualifies as a tax-exempt entity. It has made: non-interest-bearing loans to other model railroad clubs in the Pikes Peak region, grants to other museums for railroad displays, and gifts to a local trolley group deep into restoration of real-time equipment and re-establishment of an operating trolley system in the Colorado Springs area. It has negotiated a 99-year lease on the property from the Historical Society.
Whew! But its the model railroad we came to see, so lets explore!
The layout is multi-level HO scale and immediately surrounds the visitor entering the 20' x 40' building that the club constructed atop a castle garage. The club members refer to these quite simply as Levels 1, 2, 3 or 4. Matching the prototypes, both narrow and standard gauge are modeled. Construction has been going on since 1979 and "we're 95 percent started and about three percent finished," Greist said. Still, the 600' mainline is in operation from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek. The clubs operating nights are the fourth and fifth Fridays of the month.
If there is a focus, it is the mining district encompassing Cripple Creek, Victor and a host of storied small towns and mines. This area is all of Level 4 and with trains running from Colorado City and Colorado Springs on Level 1, the trip is fairly lengthy. The track level rises almost 7' from a base of 4' to nearly 11' using one double helix and right-of-way ascending the outer walls of the building. With that in mind, its better to think of the club quarters with its 12' ceiling in cubic feet (9,600) rather than square feet (800)!
The helix connects Levels 1 and 2. Keeping things prototypical, it has a 4% grade.
The main lines to the mining district are the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Ry (CS&CCD) and the Colorado Midland/Midland Terminal Rys (Midland) in standard gauge, and the Florence & Cripple Creek Ry (F&CC), Colorados most financially successful narrow gauge. These form the bulk of the prototype railroads modeled, but others are represented. The Colorado & Southern has trackage at the Santa Fe depot, although the ATSF is little more than an abbreviated yard. Also modeled in Colorado Springs is the D&RG as well as the citys two trolley lines.
In the planning stage is the Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Ry, which will run its precarious 25% grade all the way to the top of the layout. The two electric interurbans that served the Cripple Creek and Victor area and were known as the High Line and the Low Line, are also modeled. The F&CC portion modeled is the trackage from Cripple Creek to Victor plus a stretch of Phantom Canyon.
Yards are constructed of Homasote over 5/8" plywood. Roadbed is laminated Homasote, 11/8" strips laminated vertically similar to spline sub-roadbed. Ties and rail are handlaid right on top of that.
The club uses Codes 100, 70, 55 and 40 rail. Track, save for about 20' of unseen flex track, is handlaid. Levels 2 and 3 are Code 100. Levels 1 and 4, where visitors are very close to the layout, is mostly Code 70 rail with some sidings in Code 55. The narrow gauge is Code 55, and the Code 40 is used only scenically, not for operation.
The various levels have different radius requirements. Level 1, which includes the 11/2-level double helix that connects to Level 2, is 30" minimum as is the standard gauge on Level 4. The Level 2 and 3 mainline is a generous 40" radius and is designed to give a nice long run to equipment anybody wants to bring to the club. Seven to eight feet away and at the viewers eye level, the fact that it is Code 100 rail is not terribly gross. The narrow gauge radius is a minimum 24", while the trolley lines go as low as 14". And speaking of 14, thats the size of one of the interurban grades at one point on the High Line in the mining district. Grades on the narrow gauge are a maximum 5% and on the standard gauge 4%.
The prototype Midland grade ascending Ute Pass was 4% and the CS&CCD up to 3.7%. The club faced the same problems as the prototypes did; only its was getting up to and over the entrance door! Most of the mainline is in although there are several small yards and sidings to build. At its maximum the Golden Circle expects to have 1,500' of track operational.
There isn't a commercial turnout on the layout. Each is built in place with whatever frog angle is required.They estimate there are between 230-250turnouts now in place on the layout. All are powered except for a few where it is convenient for the operator to throw them by hand.
DCC control has been considered, but currently the six mainline cabs are all stationary. Yard controls are separate and the layout is divided into 65 electrical blocks connected by “miles and miles” of wire from 12 to 22 gauge. Most of the long feeder runs to blocks are 12 gauge. The layout is set up to eventually accommodate carrier control. Carrier control is planned for the future, but because some club members may not have compatible equipment, the layout will also continue with block control.
There is a lot of what some modelers term "safety scenery" - basic scenery in the contours it will take when completed that is an earthy color but not yet finished. Its a good technique to keep things off the floor, especially when thats as much as 11' away!
"We build slowly," said club member Rich Brunnworth. "Our method is to use Terri brand towels dipped in Keene's cement with a dry pigment mixed in. Thats draped over wet newspapers in sort of a hard shell, but it’s not Hydrocal. It’s cheaper and has a very long setup time, about 24 hours, but has the strength of Hydrocal when dry.
“The trick is you have to keep it wet long enough for it to set and wet newspapers underneath handle this. If they were dry they would suck all the moisture out and the Keene’s Cement would have no strength at all.” Brunnworth points out the toweling assists in the rock sculpture. The nylon thread in it provides a good deal of the sculpture when it dries and the threads come up and “you’ve got pre-sculptured rock.”
The club has used some Hydrocal where a large mountainside might not hold until dry, but the Keene’s cement goes on top.The Keene’s is especially useful when a scenery applier is up on a scaffold and more time is needed to work it than would be available from Hydrocal. Plaster of Paris is often used as a finish coat since it is soft enough to carve.
The focal point for the modeling is 1900, but there’s a give and take of 1895 to 1917. The club has several copies of the ColoradoMidland Series 300 locomotive (2-8-0) thatthe prototype purchased in 1907. The Golden Cycle Mill in Colorado City is modeled as it existed after a fire in 1917 and theprototype of at least one of the buildingsthat are on the layout burned down in 1895,so it doesn’t fit one particular year.
Structures have to be historically accurate for the era and prototype. They are both kitbashed and scratchbuilt. The Colorado City Midland roundhouse, built by club member Mel McFarland, preceded the kit,which came on the market in the late 1970s. Club President Tom County built the Elkton Mine twice. The first time he constructed it full HO size as a cardboard mock-up; it was wedged in-between the layout and the ceiling but was essentially too big! Rebuilding it smaller solved the problem of its fit. Many of the buildings are “downscaled,” that is built smaller than scale. The Golden CycleMill has about 6'of space, but should have 30'. It is really built in N scale but with doors big enough for HO cars and people to enter where prototypically necessary.
Midland fans will easily recognize Colorado City with its distinctive roundhouse,administration building, machine shop and water tank. No attempt is made to model mile by mile, rather the club has chosen to model distinctive scenes including the Devil’s Slide area and Cathedral Park on theCS&CCD, and short stretches of PhantomCanyon with historically recognizable bridges. The landmark Englemann Trestle,once found at Manitou Springs, is also in the works. Backdrops, painted by Lyn Eno, wife of one of the members, also try to depict specific prototype areas.
The club has taken some license in its approach to modeling the mining district.The prototype mining district was a seven-mile diameter circle with a big hill in the middle. If it were modeled like that, everything would be sloping away from the viewer. The club essentially took that circle and came in from the north with a scenic saber saw and cut from the northern border about two-thirds of the way through the hill and unwrapped it. That unwrapping was then wrapped around the viewing area in the middle so the high point is all around the walland the scenery slopes down to the viewer.
For catenary fans, the club is modeling four trolley lines. These include the Colorado Springs Interurban, Manitou Electric Railway & Casino Co., and both the High and Low Lines in the mining district that were a part of the CS&CCD.
The four levels are each distinctive.
Level 1 contains the yards of the major railroads modeled as well as representations of Colorado Springs, Colorado City and Manitou Springs. Yards for the Santa Fe, Rio Grande and CS&CCD are in Colorado Springs. Structures are limited to those directly in contact with the railroads due to space limitations. The major Midland yard is in Colorado City. On one side of the aisle way is the freight yard, while on the other is the passenger yard, shops, 14-stall roundhouse, machine shop and various other buildings.
The huge Golden Cycle Mill is adjacent to the Midland passenger yard. The 6' long structure is actually a liftout so that members can access some trackage behind it. Visitors attest to its accuracy with comments such as, "I used to bring my uncle lunch in that part right there," and one former employee who pointed out the windows in the area where he once worked.
The Manitou Springs portion of Level 1 has the trolley tracks in the street with the interurban running to the Cog Rail depot, disappearing and returning to view back in town.
Levels 2 and 3 really serve as a huge helix using the outside of the room to gain altitude with 4% grades. Outside of Woodland Park on the Midland the towns on these two un-level levels are either passing sidings or simply a water tank location. There are two routes from the yard areas of Level 1 to the mining district; one tracked by the CS&CCD that approached along the eastern flank of the Front Range, and the Midland which followed Ute Pass through Woodland Park to Divide where the Midland Terminal RR took over the remaining run into Victor and finally Cripple Creek. The prototype CM of course ran on west to Grand Junction.
The CS&CCD encounters no yards until the mining district, but goes through Bear Creek Canyon, Sublime, North Cheyenne Canyon, Fairview, Clyde, Cathedral Park and finally Grassy where it again had an interchange with the Midland. The Midland similarly has no real yards until Bull Hill in the district. From Divide the Midland track runs through Midland and Gillette before it meets the CS&CCD at Grassy. While this was Midland Terminal trackage, it was not uncommon to see Colorado Midland equipment on the line.
Level 4 is the mining district with its six operating railroads. An entire large layout could be built around this area alone.
The Midland and CS&CCD meet once again at Grassy, which has a scissors wye and an interchange. Both lines then run to the Bull Hill mining area first. There is an additional wye at Bull Hill, and this is where the dual-gauge trackage begins.
Both of the standard gauge lines circle the room and serve much of the same territory before they terminate at Cripple Creek. Towns in the area include Independence, Elkton and Anaconda. And it is up here that the two roads encounter two interurbans and two narrow gauge lines.
The High Line and Low Line interurbans travel in and out of the Cripple Creek-Victor-Goldfield Independence area. These are interconnected with the standard gauge steam roads as were the prototypes. The High Lines 14% grade can be handled by the clubs trolleys. There shouldn't be any problems going down as long as the brakes hold! The Low Line follows the Midland through Anaconda, Elkton and Victor, eventually serving the Independence and Portland mines, and also comes into Cripple Creek.
Finally Level 4 is home to the Florence & Cripple Creek and its wholly-owned subsidiary, the Golden Circle, both narrow gauge. The club models the F&CC trackage as it came through Victor, Altman and Goldfield, a triple switchback down to the El Paso Mine and a steep drop down Rosebud Hill to serve several lower mines. There is a small yard at Cripple Creek and the line continues under the town and emerges on the other side of the room as if running upgrade in Phantom Canyon. This 50-mile canyon run is modeled with about 30' of track, but no attempt has been made to include either the Florence or Canon City terminals.
The Golden Circle connects with the F&CC at Victor, has a hidden loop behind that town and eventually services mines on its way to Vista Grande.
The Museum owns nearly two dozen locomotives and about 200 pieces of rolling stock. But club members bring in their own equipment on operating nights. Only museum equipment is used during the daily summer operations. "We wear them out and are often replacing brushes, crank pins and side rods on the locomotives. Remember, we operate the layout nearly eight hours a day, seven days a week during the period from Memorial Day through Labor Day," Greist said.
During those running sessions, the duty operator - a paid position will often invite visitors, young and old alike, to run one of the trains. They get a lot of wide-eyed expressions from parents, but the opportunity is a hit with them and the youngsters. Its restricted to Level 2, and they are told "they can run as fast as they want and after once around the layout, must give up the throttle to the next person in line." And theres plenty of action for visitors to see; one train is run on each of Levels 1, 2 and 3 and two trains are in constant operation on Level 4. The Castle supplies a percentage of its gate receipts to the Museum for this operation.
The arrangement somewhat restricts major construction during the summer months, but small projects that wont shut down the mainline are accomplished.
In addition to operation during the summer months, the club opens the line to the public on weekends following Thanksgiving for the Castles Victorian Christmas celebration.
The club meets every Friday at 8 PM, and visitors are welcome.