A Disney-themed Backyard Railroad

Castle Peak and Thunder Railroad

Text from feature article printed in Garden Railways Magazine, October, 2009

Inspiration for garden railroads come from many sources, some expected and some by surprise.  Many modelers have patterned or themed railroads after fond memories from childhood having grown up close to a railroad or from a fascination for a particular route. I suppose my story is no different. I grew up in Southern California in the 1960s in a newly built tract home surrounded by orange groves. If the wind was blowing in the right direction and you were listening for it, you could clearly hear the routine sounding of a steam whistle and the clanging of a bell signaling the coming and going of trains. The passengers of these trains however were not headed for a destination, but were bound for a “Grand Circle Tour“ around a new prototype of family entertainment, the theme park. This new park was Disneyland. After growing up within walking distance from “The Park” (as we call it); after working on the canoe attraction during my summer breaks from college, and after holding annual passes for 23 years, I guess it has rubbed off on me. I never intentionally set out to build a model of it at my home, but I have found that it has served as a wonderful theme for my back yard project, the Castle Peak and Thunder Railroad (CP&TRR).

Design

I wanted the design of this railroad to have more than just a theme. It should fulfill a predetermined set of design objectives in a consistent and integrated way. I started with a list of must haves. The overall feeling should be quiet and soothing, more garden than railroad. It should have music and the sound of water. The track plan should be such that you never see too much track at one time. It should not be obvious that the train is simply traveling in a circle. Each of the relatively few structures should be exquisite in design and execution, less is more. It should not feel crowded. Humor, drama and surprises should pop out to delight the observant visitor. And mostly, it should be fun.

Design Process

I knew from the beginning that this was going to be a long term project and that it deserved adequate design time. I hope that you are sitting down and don’t laugh too hard, but I first built a scale model of the model railroad. This model was built at 1”=1’-0” scale and was a working design model. The overall yard is roughly 62’x 45’ so my model was 62”x 45”. It completely consumed our dining room table for about a year being pushed and pulled until I was happy with it. This model was the tool by which I worked out topography, sight lines for photography, track layout and major plantings. My wife was always supportive of the project, but she wanted to be sure that her lawn did not disappear as the railroad grew. This model helped her to see that she would still have a usable yard, and there was peace in the home. I drew the track plan and structures in a CAD program. I would print out the track plan at 1” scale and cut out just the track portion and lay it on the model. Structures were printed out at the small scale and little mock-ups made of each one in polymer clay. The rockwork was molded in non-drying modeling clay. This way I could push peaks around and make sure tunnels would work etc. The first two rock projects, Mermaid Falls and Big Thunder Mountain, were constructed using only this model as a guide. Not fully satisfied with the results, I could see that this rough model was not detailed enough to precisely guide the construction process. For the second two rock projects, Castle Peak and the Temple of Doom setting, I built much more detailed models of the rockwork from polymer clay at a larger scale. These two projects went much smoother. I found that if I had sculpted it accurately at a small scale, I could proceed confidently reproducing it at G scale in concrete.

Track

The final design called for the whole railroad to be raised off the ground by 20 inches. This would set it at seat height so that you would not have to be on your hands and knees to set trains out and would also bring it closer to eye level for viewing. A short retaining wall was built which also helps to separate the railroad from pedestrian areas. I was concerned that the fill dirt (and there was a lot of it!) might settle unevenly so I decided to screw all of the sectional track in place on pressure treated 2x6 lumber that had been cut and securely assembled to fit the track plan. I had seen this technique in a video that had been purchased at a train show. For the first 5 years, San-Val stainless steel joiners were used to ensure electrical connectivity. Over time, it became apparent that this would not be a long term solution and so I broke down and invested in a resistance soldering unit and soldered jumper wires at the rail joints. Ballast is granite poultry grit secured in place with a 50/50 mixture of Elmer’s glue and water.

Rocks and Water

After the track was in place and the trains were running, the major rock and water features were built. Each feature was undertaken in separate years. All of the rocks are concrete over foam. The basic technique is really quite simple. First cut the foam roughly to the desired shape leaving room for the concrete. Here is where the design models were very useful. Next, wrap “chicken wire” around the foam and secure it with bailing wire. Sometimes we would stab rebar through the foam and drive it into the ground to secure the foam. Once all the foam is in place, apply the first coat of concrete at least ¾” thick to cover the wire and let it harden completely. The second coat of concrete should be at least an inch thick or as thick as is needed to sculpt the major rock features. As the second coat is hardening there comes a time when it will take the texture of a “skin” rubber mold. The skin should be dusted with a release agent prior to pushing it onto the semi-set concrete. The next day, wash the hardened concrete to remove the white powder release agent and paint the wet mountain with exterior latex paint that has been thinned or use concrete stain. This is more of an art than a science. If the paint is too thin then there will not be enough “hold power” in the paint to withstand the weather and it will appear to fade with each rain. If you do not thin it enough, then it will just sit on the surface and look like house paint on your mountain. Years after all the rockwork was complete, I was lucky enough to meet a gifted decorative painter named John Rayburn. John has worked extensively for Disney and had painted many of the attractions at Disneyland including rocks. John added his magical touch to my rocks and in fact, my Big Thunder Mountain is painted with paint left over from the painting of Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain. How about that! There are four major rock features on the CP&TRR each with its own waterfall or set of waterfalls. I wanted as much of the sound of water as I could get to help mask traffic noise as our rear property line abuts a busy street. The water for each of the falls is circulated by an independent pump. These pumps were readily available at the local home improvement center.

Structures

There are 5 primary structures on this layout. I wanted each one to be distinctly different from the others so I set out to learn a different technique for each. The first was The Dwarf’s Cottage (wood, plaster and thatch roof), The second was Sleeping Beauty Castle (Plywood, PVC, wood turnings and cast resign veneer), the third was Big Thunder Depot (Redwood slats glued together to form walls and left natural to weather), the fourth was Main Street Station (laser cut acrylic) and the most recent was the Temple of Doom (solid cast resin). I first saw the mold making and resin casting technique at a clinic at a garden railroad convention and decided to give it a try. I like it because it withstands weather so well.

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

The Disneyland locomotives and rolling stock are amongst the most recognizable in the world and yet they are difficult to impossible to find commercially available. Many that are made by major manufacturers and bear the Disney name have little resemblance to their full size counterparts. There are five engines that run on the mainline of the CP&TRR. They are scratch built replicas of the five engines of the Disneyland Railroad. Thanks to Steve DeGaetano for his wonderful books, Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! and From Plantation to Theme Park. These books contain the fascinating history of these steamers and include engineering drawings that I used to build the replicas. Much of this construction was documented on Burnsland.com, a website devoted to the Disneyland Railroad. The engines all started with Hartland motors and chassis. The cabs are sheet styrene and boilers are ABS tubing. The cab pieces were drawn in a CAD program and then laser cut. The domes were turned on a wood lathe and detail parts were purchased from Hartland, Bachmann, Ozark Miniatures and Trackside Details. I created the graphics in a computer program and applied them to the models using a custom dry transfer system called DecalProfx. This can be found at PulsarProfx.com. Casey Jr. runs on a separate elevated line. This engine did not receive any cosmetic alterations as it was a faithful reproduction. It was built by Accucraft and sold under the Disney name. I did remove the undersized, noisy motor and the grinning locomotive is now pushed by a Hartland motor located in the calliope car. The Big Thunder locomotive #4 travels in and out of the mines of Big Thunder Mountain. This little engine began life as the petite LGB Olomana and it has been modified to resemble the famous run away mine train.

  The rolling stock was produced as follows: The yellow coaches (known to Disney insiders as Retlaw 1) are kit-bashed Bachmann Jackson Sharp coaches and combine. Reproducing the paint scheme and lettering took some research as the cars were retired in 1974. The freight train, or Retlaw 2, utilized parts from Hartland stock cars, flat cars and gondolas. Red striped canopies, benches and passengers were added. Casey Jr. rolling stock involved a lot of sculpture work. The ornamental side panels of the calliope, cage cars and caboose were sculpted in polymer clay and then reproduced with resin castings.

Plantings

As much as I wanted the overall feel to be more garden than railroad, I am a modeler first and definitely a gardener second. The irrigation system was installed to allow flexibility as my master model only identified planting areas and not the exact watering needs of any particular species. The plantings were all purchased from local nurseries. As crass as it sounds, if they die, I just replace them.  We are blessed with a mild climate that will allow almost anything to grow and most do quite well. I found one nursery that has a wide variety of ground covers including many sedums, thymes and mosses. I just pick the ones that I think will look good taking into account sun or shade. I put them in the ground and hope they do well. With the infrastructure, models and trains now nearly complete, the next major work on the project will be to fine tune the planting.

Operation and Maintenance

The original intent was to have the railroad fully automated such that it could be turned on at social gatherings and not need the attention of either me or my staff (my kids that is). This has never proved practical. Someone has always got to keep an eye on things. The automation that has been implemented allows two trains to run on the main line. Each one slows to a stop first at Main Street Station and then again at the water tower. One train cannot leave the station until the other passes a sensor on the opposite side of the main loop thus keeping a safe distance between the trains. The Casey Jr. line is a double reversing loop controlled by LGB electronics. It runs continuously. The entry trolley, the Big Thunder engine #4 and the Kalamazoo handcar at Main Street Station all run on point-to-point routes and reverse themselves every five seconds. All of the structures stay outdoors year round. The only real maintenance on the railroad is cleaning the track and water basins and pruning the plants. I clean the brass rails with a Scotch-Brite pad on the end of a gypsum board sanding pole. If the ponds get dirty, I simply start the pumps and turn a valve to divert the waterfalls to a drain line. Once drained, I hose the basins out and then refill them. Locomotives stay indoors on shelves in my office and rolling stock stays in a shed on the side of the house.

Conclusion

Walt Disney said that Disneyland would never be complete as long as there was imagination left in the world. I guess the same could be said of this project. This is a wonderful hobby of ours; providing as much enjoyment while working on it as in experiencing the finished project. Some say that happiness comes when you are doing what you want to be doing. Building a project like this requires a lot of doing so I guess that I could legitimately call the CP&TRR, “The Happiest Place on Earth.

Welcome