Friday, March 29, 2013

Thunder Mesa #1, the Marc F. Davis

Thunder Mesa Mining Co. #1, the Marc F. Davis

This tiny locomotive is named in honor of renowned Disney Imagineer Marc Davis. It was scratch-built on a Bachmann cable car power truck using mostly old parts from the scrap box.

Small Engine, Big Story

It was the mid-1860's when old Badwater Baxter first discovered gold near the headwaters of Big Thunder Creek. That was years before the railroad came, and back in those days, the raw ore was hauled down from the mines by mule pack. The trail through Rainbow Desert was long and filled with many dangers, but eventually wound its way to Fowler's Landing on the Big River.  From there, the Western River Expedition Company would take the ore down river by boat to the smelters and markets to the south and west.

Pack Mules in the Rainbow Desert. Image courtesy Gorilla's Don't Blog.

Marc F. Davis was the founder of Western River Expeditions and his keelboats and stream launches were manned by some of the most colorful characters in the West. Heck, one legend says he even trained a bear named Ted to row! Truth is, the bear was more of a musician and also played the washboard with the handle of a hoe... Now, where was I?

Artwork by Marc Davis. © Disney

Well, there are many tall tales and legends to from those early days in Thunder Mesa country, but this is the story of Thunder Mesa #1. 

A rare, undated photo of one of  the Western River Expedition Company's larger steamers.

It was the spring of 1878 and floodwaters were high on the Big River. Santa Fe, Denver & Carolwood track gangs were working overtime, laying a new branch line to Thunder Mesa, while a second crew blasted tunnels and built bridges to bring the line down from the Calico mining districts. The TMMC's first locomotive, a handsome 2-4-0 called El Dorado had yet to arrive overland from San Francisco. Deep snows in the mountains and the raging river led to delay upon delay. At long last, word arrived that El Dorado was on its way up river by steam launch, still in crates, to be assembled at the SFD & C shops at Grizzly Flats. But the spring flood was too much for the Western River Expedition's overloaded steamer, the Wicked Wench. It foundered in a whirlpool at Deadman's Rapid where all hands, and the El Dorado were lost.

Not to be. The fancy, brass banded El Dorado went down in pieces at Deadman's Rapid. Only a few parts were ever recovered.

As one might imagine, this was a huge setback for both the railroad and the Western River Expedition Co. The rail on the mining line was too light, and the curves too tight for the heavier SFD & C locomotives. It was clear that a new, small mining locomotive would be needed to finish the line and it would take time and no small expense to ship another from San Francisco. Every day without trains running was a loss in revenue for the line's investors and the telegraph lines were ablaze with accusations and recriminations. The Western River Expedition Company was forced into bankruptcy over the affair and Marc F. Davis was nearly ruined.

Then, when all seemed lost, a brilliant young blacksmith named Roger Broggie  said that he could "put together" a serviceable locomotive from the wreckage of the steam launch and bits and pieces of the El Dorado that had been salvaged from the river. Davis gladly donated the wreck to help mitigate his losses and Broggie got down to work. As it turns out, the blacksmith was something of a mechanical genius, and the tiny 4 wheel locomotive he created helped get the fledgling mining railroad back on schedule. It was ungainly, smokey, and loud, but, by thunder, it ran!

The home-built locomotive that helped build the railroad, Thunder Mesa #1.

A little over a year later, the line from Thunder Mesa to Calico was completed and the first ore trains began to roll. In a rare display of magnanimity, the railroad brass decided to name the little locomotive that helped build the railroad the Marc F. Davis. History does not record wether Davis was honored or chagrinned by the gesture.

The real Marc Fraser Davis working on a model for the never built "Western River Expedition." It was to be a Pirate's of the Caribbean style boat ride through the Wild West featuring many scenes filled with his trademark humor. As part of the larger Thunder Mesa complex planned for Orlando, some of the ideas survived to be used on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

The Model

My 1/4" scale Marc F. Davis is a tiny locomotive with no known prototype. It shares certain characteristics with some early vertical boiler Climax and Shay type locomotives, but its main inspiration comes from the two walking-beam locomotives seen as set pieces at Big Thunder Mountain in Anaheim. 

Inspiration for the Marc F. Davis, this tiny mine locomotive at Disneyland.

Fun trivia note, these two engines were featured in the 1978 Disney film Hot Lead and Cold Feet starring Jim Dale, Karen Valentine and Don Knotts.

My model began with the itch to build something and a day spent "cleaning out" my scrap boxes. Let me tell you, after thirty-plus years in this hobby working in multiple scales, you get a pretty serious collection of unfinished models, incomplete kits and left over parts. HO and On30 share the same track gauge, which is one of the things that makes On30 so appealing to us kit-bashers. It's easy to use readily available HO scale mechanisms, wheels and other parts as the starting point for a myriad of On30 projects. This project started with an HO scale Bachmann cable car power truck.

Just five scale feet long on O scale!

I pulled it out of the scrap box, set it on the track, cranked up the juice and, lo and behold, it ran! Sort of. After cleaning the wheels and contacts and treating everything with a liberal dose of CRC 2-26 it ran like a top.

Electrical pick-up problems? Not any more! If you model a lot of small, short wheel-base equipment like I do, this stuff is your best friend. Use it on wheels and track.

Now I knew I had the perfect power truck to build one of those tiny vertical boiler steamers I'd been dreaming of. Power would be DC only due to the motor being grounded in a metal frame, but since the TMMC is wired for both DC and DCC operation I knew that wouldn't be a problem. Follow along with the pictures and captions to see how it all went together.

An Acurail HO boxcar frame was cut apart, reassembled, painted Grimy Black and then framed with scale  6"x8" strip wood. This gave a sturdy frame with coupler pockets to receive Kadee #5s.

A deck was created with some 3/32" scribed siding and clearances were tested on the layout. The entire locomotive is a press-fit on top of the power truck and can be removed if necessary. 

The vertical boiler was made from various scrap box finds including an HO Roundhouse tank car and the inverted balloon stack from an HO IHC 4-4-0. The smokestack is a technical pen ink cartridge.

Here's the partially completed engine. I had no plan and just basically made things up as I went along. In this view can be seen the steam chest, single vertical piston and rod linkage that "drive" the locomotive via a theoretical cam and gear arrangement below decks. With the exception of some bits of wire, all of the drive line parts came from an HO IHC 4-4-0.

The Marc F. Davis ready for service. I weathered the model with acrylic paint and colored chalks to depict years of heavy use (and abuse). The cab was built using printed photo textures of actual weathered wood with the Thunder Mesa herald added. Click the photo to see a large version with all of the various parts called out.

Building the Marc F. Davis was a lot of fun, especially since it cost me next to nothing using mostly old parts from the scrap box. I built it primarily as a scenic piece, something to sit on a siding and look cool, so the fact that it actually runs and can pull a couple of ore cars is just a bonus in my book. Coming up with an elaborate backstory for the engine was almost as much fun as actually building it. Many thanks to the real Marc Davis for the years of enjoyment he has provided for myself and my family, both at the movie theater and in the parks.

Now here's a short YouTube video of the One Spot in action on Thunder Mesa.

Hope you enjoyed the story of #1 and thanks for stopping in. Adios 'till next time!

#1, rounding the bend on the Thunder Mesa Line.


  1. Really nice work! And what a charming, whimsical little steamer! And seems to run quite well also, after watching the video.

    I must also say that this locomotive has enlightened me with one of my own proposed kit bashes. I've been wanting to construct a similar locomotive in On20 (O scale on HOn3 gauge track) for a tramway I plan to build.

    Now, have you installed DCC to your engine here? Or is it still DC powered?

  2. Thanks! The Ones Spot is still DC powered. It's so tiny that there really not much room in there for a decoder.

    1. Yes, I see. I reread the article and discovered that you did mention it was DC. Not sure how I missed that. *shrugs*

      Even so it is still a delightful little engine. I hope to see more of it in the future!


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