Saturday, May 21, 2016

Four New Videos

The Thunder Mesa Mining Company So Far

There's not much new progress to report on the layout this month, but I have spent a little time chronicling the latest happenings in a slew of new YouTube videos. First up is a look back at how the layout has grown and evolved over the years from a 3'x6' display to the room filling model railroad it is today.


Inside Rainbow Caverns

Now, here's look inside Rainbow Caverns at some of the ultraviolet lighting effects that are up and working so far. Just like on the prototype, these scenes have proven hard to photograph but I've finally managed to get some decent clips that give a good feel for how the Caverns are shaping up. There's more to come here, with original scenes like the Bottomless Pit, Crystal Grotto, and Color Changing Pools still in development.



Thunder Mesa in 1910

Next up is something just for fun, some "historic" promotional footage of the railroad and its natural wonders, presumably filmed around 1910.



Sam Towler's Nature's Wonderland Model

Last but not least we have some video shot at this year's Fullerton Railroad Days of Sam Towler's remarkable Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland Model. Sam's model recreates this fondly recalled Disneyland attraction in amazing detail - right down to the themed trashcans! Sam's layout was the undisputed hit of the show, drawing big crowds both days and many "oohs and ahs," both from the general public and quite a few theme park industry professionals. Reader's of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of the old Disneyland Mine Train, and after following Sam's progress for the last decade it was great to finally meet him in person and to see the result of his efforts. Nice job, Sam.



That's going to wrap things up for this time. Thanks for tuning in and don't forget to subscribe to the Thunder Mesa YouTube Channel if you haven't already. Adios for now, amigos!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Video Log: Revised Track Plan with Changes at Calico and Thunder Mesa

Here's Thunder Mesa's revised track plan showing all the changes that have been made. The town of Calico now plays an important role as one end of the railroad in operations. The addition of a reverse loop and short passing siding there now make it possible to operate the layout in a point-to-point fashion. The former village of San Lorenzo has now been incorporated into Thunder Mesa as the "Old Spanish" section of town. This change freed up the far right corner for a turntable and more accessible engine service area. 


The improved track arrangement at Calico forced my plans for an On18 mini-layout to be shelved (again), but the On18 line does make an appearance as a point-to-point mining tram feeder between Big Thunder Mine and the ore bins at Calico. Lastly, the Lone Rock diorama now finds a permanent home on the layout. It's a non-operating scenic feature, but its position against the backdrop offers great sight-lines when looking across the aisle (now called "Coyote Canyon") from the McKennon Arch area.



April 2016 Video Log

Howdy Folks! So much has been happening out here in Thunder Mesa Country that it's hard to know where to begin. The right of way has been changed, towns have been moved, combined or added, and entire areas have been reimagined. On top of all that, a lot of real progress has been made bringing these changes to life with new scenery work and modeling at Horse Thief Canyon and the town of Thunder Mesa well underway. The best way to get caught up on things is with a new video log. After that, I'll delve more deeply into the details below.


Engine #9, the Admiral Fowler

Featured in the new video log is the TMMC's latest locomotive: #9, the Admiral Fowler. Like several of the other Thunder Mesa locomotives, it's an 0-4-2 Porter from Bachmann. I've dressed it up with a fancy cap stack and some custom decals from Stan Cedarleaf.

The "Niner" rounds the bend at Dinosaur Gap. The gold capped stack was made from some HO parts in my scrap box.

Continuing the Thunder Mesa tradition of naming locomotives after Disney Imagineers, animators and others who played a big role in Disneyland's development, the new Porter is named in honor of Admiral Joe Fowler. This was the man Walt Disney put in charge of Disneyland's construction, and who stayed on as general manager of the park for its first decade.

The Admiral Fowler has an unusual crew. The engineer is none other than local legend Chuckwalla Slim, and the fireman is his trusty dog, Sparky. Both figures were painted by my friend, the late Verne Niner, and the locomotive bears the number 9 in his honor. The TMMC has yet to acquire a  #8.


Cattle Cars

The new track plan calls for some larger stock pens at Thunder Mesa and that means I'll need some livestock cars. The TMMC doesn't own any itself, but it does interchange with the parent Santa Fe, Denver & Carolwood and that line does run some cattle cars. To represent some of that interchange traffic, I've repainted and weathered a couple of old Bachmann cars for now.

Livestock car #59 belongs to the Mescal Lines Ry. Disney Imagineer and well known model railroad author John Olson built his HOn3 Mescal Lines in the early 1980s, and my TMMC owes a very large creative debt to that landmark model railroad. 

Car 201 is lettered for the TMMC's parent road, the Santa Fe, Denver & Carolwood. The SFD&C is roughly based upon the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad so it seemed appropriate that their cattle cars should bear the same numbering as the original Retlaw 2 cars at Disneyland.



Out with the On18 "mini-layout" and in With a Reverse Loop at Calico

The plans for Calico have probably changed more than anything else on the layout. Earlier this year I decided to nix the idea for a mini On18 Calico layout in favor of a reverse loop and a mainline stop at the town of Calico itself. I concluded that the space could be much better used for a second town to act as the far end of the line from Thunder Mesa. This decision also meant that the steep grade up to Big Thunder Mine would have to go, and that the village of San Lorenzo could be incorporated into Thunder Mesa town as Verne Niner had once suggested. But don't despair On18 fans! If you take a close look at the plan above, you'll see that the old Big Thunder high-line will now be an On18 mining tram bringing ore to the bins at Calico.

Quick thumbnail sketch for the grade changes at Calico.

Out with the old...

...And in with the new. 

The reverse loop is controlled by an MRC DCC auto reverse module hidden below decks.


San Lorenzo Merges With Thunder Mesa Town

Before his untimely passing late last year, Verne Niner and I discussed several different options for integrating his award winning San Lorenzo diorama into the layout. One thing he had suggested was making San Lorenzo the "Old Spanish" section of town. I immediately liked that idea since it implied a long and rich history for the town. It's something you see a lot in the older towns of the Desert Southwest, where Native American, Spanish, and Anglo cultures all come together and overlap. Still, I was hesitant to alter Verne's beautiful diorama until I came up with the new operating scheme placing Calico at one end of the line and Thunder Mesa at the other. Now there was no reason (or room) for a third town on the layout and I found myself thinking back to our early conversations. The decision made, I carefully disassembled the diorama, cataloging everything in pictures, and managed to save every last detail except for the bead-board foam base. In their new placement, the adobe structures have a somewhat different orientation, but their positions from left to right are the same. Several of the structures also have new foundations at differing heights to better compliment Thunder Mesa's boomtown aesthetic. Adding lighting to the structures was always on my to-do list and this move seemed a logical time to also move forward with that project.

The San Lorenzo structures in their new locations as the Old Spanish section of Thunder Mesa. Disneyphiles may also notice that this arrangement mimics the orientation of Rainbow Ridge to the early California flavored area of Zocalo Park at Disneyland (former location of Mineral Hall and Casa de Fritos). This is no accident and the fountain area here is now called "Zocalo Plaza."

LED lighting has been added to the jail.

The Mercantile has also received LED lighting, along with some new signage and a wooden front porch.


One more thing that remains intact from the original diorama is the Pricom Dreamplayer sound system. The mission bells ring, chickens cluck, horses whinny, and the angry banditos still threaten the pig bathing in the fountain. It's a wonderful scene, and I think fondly of Verne every time I look at it.

New Rockwork, boardwalks and Retaining Walls

With the San Lorenzo structures becoming part of Thunder Mesa, it seemed like a good time to tackle some of the scenery work around town too. The new rockwork that forms a backdrop for the town was built and finished with the same techniques I've been describing in the step-by-step build of Horse Thief Canyon. With the rock and paint work done, I've since moved on to building all of the retaining walls, board sidewalks, and steps through town.

The rockwork behind town was built up with carved layers of extruded polystyrene foam. The layers were then blended together with spackling compound and Sculptamold.

Once the sculpt is complete, the rocks are painted with latex and acrylic paints. Here I'm applying a wash of diluted black to darken the cracks and crevices.

After final paint and with a backdrop in place the scene starts to come together. This new promontory above town is called Castle Rock. Just below that is Injun Joe's Cave, where, as legend has it, lost Spanish gold is still waiting to be discovered.

Here's an overhead view of the new board sidewalks and retaining walls built in town.

And a view from the depot platform. The timber retaining walls help to separate the depot scene from the town beyond.  One by one, each of the paper and cardstock mock-ups in town are being replaced by fully detailed models. It would be much more difficult to plan a scene like this without them. The Marshal's Office will likely be my next structure project.

A quiet night in Thunder Mesa Town. Soon, ground cover, weeds, and other details will be added to further enhance this scene.



Engine Service Area

With the San Lorenzo structures moved to the other side of the tracks, that freed up their former location for an expanded engine service area with much improved access. The centerpiece of this scene will be one of the excellent turntables from Kitwood Hill Models. I'll be building the 9" gallows turntable here, and when completed it will allow the layout to operated in a point-to-point scheme between Thunder Mesa and the reverse loop at Calico.

The new engine service area and an inset of the Kitwood Hills Model turntable. Can't wait to get started on this terrific kit!



Horse Thief Canyon

Meanwhile, progress also continues a-pace at Horse Thief Canyon. I'll continue to update the build of this scenic slot canyon in its own step-by-step series.

Horse Thief Canyon - nearly 75' deep below track level. The mainline will cross here on a classic deck-truss bridge.



Effects Control Panel

Each section of the layout will eventually have its own small panel for controlling lights, sound effects, music, and animation. The first such panel is now complete for the Thunder Mesa section.

This small panel was built into the layout fascia on the Thunder Mesa section. The panel face was created in Photoshop, printed on cardstock and laminated with a matte finish clear acrylic. This was then affixed to 1/8" thick masonite. The functions are controlled by simple SPST on/off switches, and a green LED indicates power. All of the effects on Thunder Mesa run on a 9 volt DC system.



Frontierland Music Loop

Every land at a Disney park has its very own soundtrack, usually a one hour music loop that helps to reinforce the land's theme and further immerse guests in the experience. I've always enjoyed the music played in Frontierland and thought it would be a kick to add it to the railroad. I put together my own extended loop that also includes music from the Big Thunder queue and Big Thunder Ranch (now gone!). The music is provided by an inexpensive MP3 player and piped in through speakers hidden under the layout. There's a short sample of it in this month's video log (above), but you can hear a little bit more of it in this video.



What's Next

The first 3 months of 2016 have been a very busy time on the railroad but with each project completed I see three more that still need doing. Coming soon will be new structures for Thunder Mesa Town, ore bins for the On18 line in Calico, a build of my Kitwood Hill Models 9" gallows turntable (can't wait to get started on that one!), some new scenery and effects for Rainbow Caverns, a backdrop to install, and Horse Thief Canyon to finish. All that and more should keep me busy through the end of the year.

A look ahead at the future through the magic of Photoshop. This is the view standing in Coyote Canyon and looking toward Big Thunder Mine and Rainbow Caverns. Horse Thief Canyon is at left and Dinosaur Gap is on the right. The Indian Pueblos will be right about where the thunder storm is on the backdrop. I've also imagined some black drop curtains down below the fascia to give things a more finished look.



Though work on the layout has been steady, I haven't had the time to update this blog as often as in the past. Going forward, look for more long posts like this one to come out every few weeks or so, and for more frequent posts (sometimes several a day!), head on over to Facebook and follow the Thunder Mesa page there. As always, questions and comments are welcome below. Thanks for checking in, amigos. Adios for now!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Nature's Wonderland, Teddy Roosevelt and the Thunder Mesa Mining Co.

Today, the Thunder Mesa Mining Co. still offers excursions aboard vintage steam trains through Nature's Wonderland National Monument. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, this national treasure has been preserved for the enjoyment of all since 1906.


In the late summer of 1906, tensions were high in Thunder Mesa Country. Mining revenues were down, and the TMMC, and its parent road, the Santa Fe, Denver & Carolwood began pushing into new territories, including those controlled by the Estrella & Sonora Grande and Calico Gold Company. Naturally, the other companies pushed back, and by August, the battle over gold and silver claims in this wild canyon country had escalated to a fever pitch. It didn't take long for rival newspapers and political gangs to get in on the fight and soon they were tossing incendiary lies and insults in all directions. Before long it was greatly feared that conditions would deteriorate into physical violence. Armed toughs from Calico and banditos from San Lorenzo were quietly being recruited by both sides and an all out range war seemed imminent.

Diminutive but dangerous, the notorious Pequeño Brothers arrive in Thunder Mesa to fight as mercenaries on behalf of the railroad. A railroad that, ironically, they had been suspected of robbing in years passed.

From the border country down south came El Puerco and his gang of bandits, ready to shed blood on behalf of the E&SG.


By the fall, none other than the President himself was preparing to intervene in the fracas. Traveling by private rail car, Theodore Roosevelt just happened to be on a secret hunting trip along the fertile bottomlands of Big Thunder Creek when he was briefed on the ensuing hostilities. After quietly surveying the natural wonders of the area (and shooting a dozen elk, two bears, a catamount, a duck, two armadillo, six coyotes, and three chipmunks), our 26th president made his presence known (as the story goes, he announced his presence by shooting a shot glass off the nose of the buffalo head in Big Thunder Saloon). He called a meeting of all aggrieved parties in what came to be known as the "Council of Calico." As it turned out, the President had been thoroughly delighted by the amazing buttes, canyons, geysers, and glittering caverns of Thunder Mesa Country and had concluded that the region deserved to be protected and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.

"Providence," he said, "has been at work upon this land for untold ages. For here has been gathered an unmatched collection of natural curiosities and splendid scenic wonders. Verily, this "Nature's Wonderland" is an irreplaceable treasure of the United States and must be protected from the greed and petty concerns of short-sighted men."

Then, by presidential decree, he set aside the wild country on all sides of the TMMC right-of-way, excepting only existing claims, and effectively hemming-in the land hungry railroad. Invoking the newly minted Antiquities Act, and with the stroke of a pen, TR created Nature's Wonderland National Monument.

It is believed that TMMC founder, Elias Homage, first coined the term "Nature's Wonderland" to describe the unique wild country near Thunder Mesa, but it is generally agreed by historians that our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, was the one most responsible for popularizing the region in the public imagination.


Of course, the railroads grumbled at first, but it soon became clear that the official designation and endorsement of the President himself would be a boon to the area. By 1905, the writing was on the wall as once rich finds at Calico and Big Thunder began to play out. This, in turn, had lead to the mining company's overreach into new territories already controlled by the Calico Gold Co. and Estrella & Sonora Grande. The "Roosevelt Solution" effectively put an end to the conflict while creating a rich new revenue stream for the TMMC.

TMMC management wasted no time in promoting tourism within the new monument as new excursion trains were quickly added to the schedule. Old ore gondolas were converted to carry passengers and secondhand coaches were procured from the Santa Fe, Denver and Carolwood to fill out the new trains. For its part, the SFD&C began to promote direct rail service to Thunder Mesa from Carolwood, Denver and Discovery Bay. By decade's end, tourism had replaced mining as 80% of the TMMC's revenue. In 1910, the TMMC also connected with the struggling Estrella & Sonora Grande Ry. near Lone Rock, and eventually came to control many of that line's assets.

A Thunder Mesa Gazette extra from 1910 tells of the joining of the E&SG and the TMMC at Lone Rock.


Though the mines near Thunder Mesa were largely played out, the rich diggings around Calico continued to produce gold bearing ore well into the new century and the Calico Gold Co. remained independent until the crash of '29 forced a sale of its assets to the TMMC. Calico itself became a ghost town, and the once legendary mining camp merely another attraction for tourists aboard Thunder Mesa's colorful excursion trains.

It didn't take long for TMMC management to catch on to the possibilities of tourism revenue and soon advertising posters like this began to show up in railway stations across the country.

By the early 20th Century, rail travel had made it possible for families to tour the west and see the sites for pleasure. Railroads like the SFD&C and the TMMC were quick to take advantage of this trend.


After 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was never again seen in Thunder Mesa Country. However he did manage to visit other spectacular regions and preserve their natural wonders for future generations as well. As president, Roosevelt created five national parks and used the landmark Antiquities Act to unilaterally create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon. He also set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres' worth of national forests.

Roosevelt's chance visit to Thunder Mesa was a classic case of the right man being in the right place at the right time. Without his wise intervention, it is doubtful that the railroad would have survived much beyond the boom times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the spectacular region known as Nature's Wonderland might never have been preserved. Without Roosevelt, another chance visit by Walt Disney, Ward Kimball and Roger Broggie might never have occurred in the early 1950s, leading to a "rediscovery" of the Thunder Mesa line and sketchbooks full of ideas for a magical little park being planned for Southern California. But that legendary visit is a story for another day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Building Horse Thief Canyon: Part I

After a couple month's break, I'm back to work on the railroad, jumping right back into a big scenery project. Ive made some major and minor changes to the overall plan since the beginning of the year and there will be much more on that in a future post. For now I'd like to bring things up to date on the scenery being built around Hanging Rock in what I'm now calling the Horse Thief Canyon section of the TMMC.

The new cliff wall under construction below Hanging Rock. I'm trying something new on these big canyon sections, building the rockwork almost entirely from extruded polystyrene foam insulation board - or EPF for short (that's the pink foam board from your local home center). In the past I've used it mostly as a scenery base and finished with other techniques, but now I've found a way to carve the foam layers themselves into a convincing representation of sandstone. The Kato power pack nestled into the cliff base will provide DC control for an On18 mining tram running between Calico and Big Thunder Mine - much more on that in a future update.


This is a big project, and I'll be spreading it out over several updates. In this first part, I want to concentrate on the cutting and carving techniques used on the pink extruded polystyrene foam board (EPF). This insulation board is lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and has been used by model railroaders for many years as a scenery base. While building some rockwork for Rainbow Caverns, I hit on a new technique (new to me) for carving rock textures into the foam using a sanding bit in a Dremel rotary tool. I was so pleased with the results that I decided to use the same method on the deep canyon sections of the layout too. It's a little labor intensive, but really no more so than my previous method of stacking foam layers and texturing with Sculptamold. I've got a ton of rockwork to do, so whatever method I choose is going to take awhile, but these EPF canyon walls will end up weighing much less than the equivalent amount of plaster or Sculptamold. An important consideration if I should ever have to move the layout.

It's easy to add access hatches with EPF scenery. Here I've created a removable section of cliff below Hanging Rock so I can access the wiring back there when needed. Just push in at the corner and then slide the section out. A similar removable section will also be built into the cliff wall on the other side of the canyon.

Overall view of the Calico and Horse Thief Canyon sections as scenery work begins. All of that space between track level and the bottom of the benchwork will be filled with EPF rockwork.

The basic tools and materials used on the foam rockwork. 
  • 1" thick EPF insulation board (purchased in 4' x8' sheets)
  • Sanding block - medium to fine grit
  • Loctite Power Grab adhesive and caulking gun (the best adhesive for EPF)
  • Dremel rotary tool and various sanding bits
  • Razor saw
  • Hot wire foam cutter
  • Various hobby and utility knives


The Slot Canyon

Down below the bridges at Hanging Rock is a deep, serpentine defile known to the locals as Horse Thief Canyon. It's a classic Southwestern "slot" canyon, much narrower than it is wide; the kind often found worming back into the sandstone cliffs of Thunder Mesa country. This particular slot canyon is about 72 scale feet deep but only averages about 12' wide. A perfect hideout for horse thieves and rustlers - as long as it isn't flash flood season.

Slot Canyon near Page, AZ. This is kind of the look I'm after with Horse Thief Canyon.

Here I've made a start on Horse Thief Canyon itself, cutting, carving and shaping the bottom three layers. This bottom section will be brought to a high state of finish before I move on to the next three layers of depth. That way, I won't carve myself into a corner by not being able to reach the depths of the canyon for painting and details.

Each rock layer is cut to shape with a Woodland Scenics hot wire cutter, and then the exposed edges are carved into rocky textures using a variety of sanding bits in a Dremel Tool. The layers are then stacked and glued together using Loctite Power Grab Adhesive (see video below).

One more layer of foam added and some spackling to start blending things together. In my experience, common household spackle works just as well as Woodland Scenics foam putty. In fact, I strongly suspect it's the exact same thing - but at less than half the price. I'll let this dry overnight and then it will get a base coat of tan latex paint.

When complete, the canyon will seem to go on forever since it will be impossible to see the end due to built-in view blocks. At night, the flickering glow of an outlaw camp will be visible just around the bend.


To wrap things up for this installment, here's a step-by-step how-to video on my EPF cutting and carving techniques.


Thanks for tuning in, amigos. Next time up we'll do some painting and finishing of the rockwork in Horse Thief Canyon. Adios for now!
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