My parents gave me an O27 gauge train set when I was just knee high to a grasshopper. As a teenager, I sold this and invested the meager proceeds into the world of HO modeling. My brother-in-law Rick did most of the track laying and electrical work on a two tiered T-shaped layout comprised of two 4' x 8' sheets of plywood. I became skilled at running two trains at a time on a single power pack and delighted audiences with my dramatic train wrecks. In my later teen years, perfume and petrol took its toll and the layout became a collection of oxidation and cobwebs.
The Salad Days
In 1978 I began the excruciating pain of college. No time for a layout! In 1980 I married Terry and we moved into a small home. No room for a layout! A further blow was dealt when Mom and Dad decided to move to a smaller home. "Remove thou train layout from our basement!", they cried. I boxed up the cobweb covered buildings, oxidized track, and dusty locomotives and rolling stock. The plywood, frame and legs became firewood. My entire layout was now reduced to three milk crate sized boxes. We both graduated from college in 1983 and the following year we moved into (what seemed at the time) an enormous house. With good jobs and free time, we traveled the country and relished in each other's company.
Up From the Ashes Grow the Roses of Success
Dozens of years down the road those boxes would have eventually become auction fodder at my estate sale had it not been for Terry. Wives have a way of looking deep inside their husbands and seeing a young boy's heart. "Rebuild your train layout.", she said as if it were as easy as whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. This simple statement put the train in motion. I spent several years diligently searching for just the right layout that would meet my desires. I love to just sit and run my trains. I don't want to run realistic operations or scratch build a lot of structures. I just want to run my trains. I finally found an almost ideal layout diagram in a hobby store in Atlanta, Georgia. My fate was sealed the following Christmas, when my father-in-law gave me plywood and lumber for a train layout. The seeds had fallen on fertile soil.
I Ain't Made of Time
Before I go any further, I must remind you that like most of us, I have very limited free time. Wife, kids, church, job and home carve out a large percentage of my pie. Plus, I play guitar (including recording my own music), am totally addicted to the computer and have a wide variety of other hobbies. But the true free time killer is my job as Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout troop. It can eat up three to four evenings a week plus several weekends a month. However, this job tapers off dramatically in early December and doesn't get back into full swing until mid January. This is when I work on my train layout. I realize it will take me many, many years to have a presentable layout, but that's okay. Just so long as I can run the trains!
Now back to my story. Few places I visited have a lifelong effect on me. Alaska was one of these. Our 1986 excursion etched countless wonderful memories and landscapes into my brain cells. Wildlife was everywhere! Our Alaska Railroad trip was fantastic and it started me down the road to becoming a railfan. Not long after returning home, I began preparing a room in the basement for the future layout. Drywall, paint, carpet, cove base, lighting, suspended ceiling, and a large wooden storage cabinet made the dreary room come alive. Father-in-law Doug (with minimal help from me) built the four tables that would be the foundation for the layout. Learning from my previous teenage experience, we built the tables for easy disassembly. One small detail plagued my thoughts: What railroad should I model? Asking friends and family produced a rainbow of ideas. Terry's idea was unquestionably the best: the Alaska Railroad. I thought this was an excellent idea. Hey, we had bought an Alaska Railroad boxcar from a hobby store in Anchorage. That was start! How hard could it be to find other Alaska train items?
In 1987 I began the toilsome journey of slappin' down the track. This is a fairly difficult task since 99% of it is above the board! (1, 2, 3) This means creating tons of risers, gluing them to the board, nailing wooded roadbed strips to the risers and then laying down the cork board and track. This may be pretty easy for an average Joe, but to a three toed sloth like me, it is an excruciating process full of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I can't tell you how many times I threatened to quit during the track laying process. Father-in-law Doug came to my rescue by cutting almost 100 risers to exact lengths. Eagle Scout Steve came to my rescue by assisting in the cutting of the various shapes and sizes of roadbed with a jigsaw. What a mess sawdust creates! Not until after all the track was in place did I remember that part of the plan was to have track joints where two tables came together. In this way, the layout would be modular in case we ever thought of moving to another home. This almost came back to haunt me when we went house shopping in 1997 and 1998. Ultimately, we stayed put, but if we hadn't, I am sure someone (Rick?) would have come to my rescue and helped me to cut things apart.
The electrical work began in 1989 and was not completed until 1993. I will never forget the rapt fascination with which my one year old daughter Laura (strapped in her pumpkin seat and seating on the train table) watched the train weave its way around the layout. I didn't think she would ever grow tired of it! I have left a 1' x 12' side section of the layout totally void of anything so my three children have a place to play while I am there botching up (oh, I mean working on) the layout. It really warms my heart when one of my kids asks, "You going to work on the train tonight?" An affirmative answer never fails to draw a crowd of jabbering kids clustered around that 1' x 12' section playing with blocks, Matchbox cars, Polly Pockets and yes, my old train cars and buildings. Sure glad I hung onto them! By the end of 1993, I had completed the control panel, hooked up all the switch machines and had the layout working under cab control. Brother-in-law Rick came to my rescue several days before New Year's when the soldering work got too intense for my limited patience.
The basic scenery work finally began in 1994. Styrofoam had to be cut and put in place between tracks to act as a foundation for the plaster base and scenery. This was a very nasty task! The foam had to fit tightly between the two tracks and match the incline. Terry came to my rescue and did most of the tracing for the foam cuts. Once the foam was cut, it was wedged into place and the tops painted brown. You can't imagine the mess created by cutting Styrofoam. Via the gift of static, it sticks to arms, legs, walls and even the vacuum cleaner. Like a loyal puppy, it follows you wherever you go! Now, the Dayton division of the Alaska Railroad was ready for realistic scenery. One person came to my rescue in 1996 to lend assistance with mountains and ground cover. (5, 6) His mountains look like mountains while mine look like funky, squatting blobs. We tore out my feeble attempts and started anew. This person laid down crumpled newspaper and masking tape the way a sculptor molds clay. With acute visualization, he applied plaster gauze, primping and pinching it to produce the desired effect. I would then follow with plaster and paint (i.e. the unskilled tasks). With an artist's heart, he then sprinkled on five shades of Woodland Scenics ground cover followed by a light dusting of sand. The work became even more pleasant when we purchased a home theater system thus causing the transfer of our 100 watt stereo system into the basement and into the train room. Yowza!
Seek and Ye Shall Find
With the tables built, the electrical connected, the control panel completed and the scenery created, it was time to run the train! But what about Alaska Railroad HO scale locomotives and rolling stock for my layout? I quickly discovered that you can't find it in hobby stores. What to do? Why I need someone to come to my rescue, of course! Weren't you paying attention to the above theme? I helped fund an airbrush for brother-in-law Rick. Beginning in 1993, he began custom painting Alaska Railroad stuff for me as Christmas presents. A GP40-2 (#3015 which took Terry and I to Denali N.P. and back), GP7A and B, RDC unit, passenger cars, flats, tanks and a MOW crane and caboose. What will this year bring?
But being an American, I want more! What to do? Why the power of the Internet, of course! And the rest, as they say, is history. I won't bore you with the many paths I went down, the rocks I uncovered and the treasure I found. Let's just cut to the chase. In November of 1996, I began encountering fellow Alaska Railroad enthusiasts (via the Internet) who shared their great databases of knowledge with me. When I decided to share this information with the world in April of 1997 by creating an unofficial Alaska Railroad site, the resources started coming out of the woodwork. All Alaska Railroad hobbyists have benefited from this, but not to the degree that I have! Today I have 203 items on my HO scale ARR roster, 54 items on my N scale ARR roster and have one token car in G, two in O (1 , 2) and two in Z (1, 2) scale. As a matter of fact, I have acquired so many HO scale items that I had to build a second yard to park them.
I have also begun collecting Alaska Railroad memorabilia. My email pals have spoiled me rotten in this area, but I continue to look for even more in other places such as Ebay. Whatever I have is not for sale (as it also has sentimental value), but I would consider swapping it all for locomotive #3015 delivered to my back yard. <grin>
Death of a Dynasty
I ran Alaska Railroad trains on this layout for over 12 years. There were many magical moments including the longest passenger train in history - eleven McKinley Explorer railcars pass under the afternoon freight and the day my son John took over operations on the layout. However, all good things must come to an end. On April 20, 2004 we bought a home and I realized that my layout would not fit into any of the rooms. On July 28, 2004 I ended my current stint as a model railroader and ran the trains one last time before getting out the wrecking crane. Although it took 18 years to build up the layout, it only took one evening to tear it down. How depressing! I kept the switches and tables to (hopefully) use on a future layout.
I never did get around to using Casey and Pat Durand's Alaska Trees for Dummies kit, Randy Thompson's old Denali Depot drawings to build an HO scale version, constructing the Walther's coal mine kit Terry bought me or painting a scenic backdrop on the basement walls.
As I looked over the new house, I saw a 16' x 22' rec room that we don't really have plans for. Maybe it is time to begin looking at layout plans.
A New Dream
Well, I finally found a new layout plan that I like. It is fairly complex so I am going to have to locate several people to come to my rescue before I can begin work on it.
Page created 12/11/97 and last updated 6/5/15
© 1997-2015 John Combs unless otherwise noted