Friday, October 24, 2014

Viva San Lorenzo!

Verne Niner's Award Winning Diorama Comes to Thunder Mesa Along With Big Changes to the Track Plan



The sleepy border village of San Lorenzo. This award winning diorama by Verne Niner will soon find a new home on the Thunder Mesa layout. Photo by Verne Niner.


When friend and fellow modeler Verne Niner recently announced that he would be dismantling his Estrella & Sonora Grande layout to pursue new adventures in HOn3, many wondered what would become of the superlative structures, fine details and beautiful equipment from that landmark On30 layout. Well, the short answer is that Verne will be selling off most of the layout to other modelers before finally dismantling it at the first of next year. I was fortunate to come to an agreement with Verne regarding a large chunk of the layout, the village of San Lorenzo. I knew that the diorama would make an excellent addition to the TMMC and I simply could not pass on the chance to own such a beautiful and detailed piece of modeling. It is sad news indeed that Verne's E&SG will soon be history, but we're both happy that the spirit will live on as TMMC trains continue to visit San Lorenzo.

The colors, theme, details and scale of the scene makes San Lorenzo a perfect fit for the Thunder Mesa layout. Photo by Verne Niner.

More San Lorenzo details. The frustrated banditos may never get that pig out of the fountain. Photo by Verne Niner.


The San Lorenzo diorama measures 18" x 30" and features four custom soundtracks in addition to an amazing level of detail. A Fantasonics unit plays the sounds of splashing water in the fountain, ringing mission bells, neighing horses, singing birds and the banditos threatening the pig - all at the touch of a button. Details abound. A diamondback rattlesnake slithers through the bushes, a hawk perches atop a saguaro, and rock hound Chuckawalla Slim's Model T truck pauses by the Mercantile. Above all, the mission church is a remarkable feat of scratch-building, complimenting and contrasting with the smaller, secular buildings of the village. Everything works together here in the best tradition of modeling as story. It is no wonder that the diorama won the 2013 Gazette Award at the 33rd annual Narrow Gauge Convention in Pasadena and was featured in the Jan/Feb 2014 Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.

Thirsty cowboys pause for drink of water near the mission ramada. Photo by Verne Niner.

A local farmer stops to chat with the padré, his traditional oxcart loaded with bales of hay. Photo by Verne Niner.

Detail of the mission doors. Photo by Verne Niner.

Bell tower of the mission church. Note the Harris hawk perched atop the saguaro - a common site in the Sonoran Desert. Photo by Verne Niner.


I know that the San Lorenzo diorama was a real labor of love for Verne and I am honored to be taking stewardship of it. San Lorenzo will remain whole and intact on the Thunder Mesa layout, an important stop along the line, and a tribute to the old E&SG. Some pieces from Verne's On30 collection are still available as of this writing, but they are going fast. Click here if you are interested in owning a piece of Estrella & Sonora Grande history.

Big Changes to the Thunder Mesa Plan

As Verne and I discussed the future of San Lorenzo, we've also been swapping ideas about his planned HOn3 D&RGW layout and about the expansion plans for Thunder Mesa. I have been somewhat discontented with my overall plan and the few tweaks I've made here and there haven't resolved the larger issues. In its original form, the TMMC was a very simple 3' x 6' scenic display with a loop of track. It was what is known as an "island design" meant to be viewed from all sides. This type of design has fallen out of fashion in recent years with most modelers now preferring an "around the walls" style plan. This makes sense because island designs take up a lot of space in the center of the room and, the theory goes, you can get more railroad in the same space be wrapping the track around the walls and leaving the center open for operators, namely, you and me. I also suspect that the move away from island style layouts has something to do with some modeler's desire to distance themselves from the perception that they're just "playing with a train set." Fortunately, I've never cared about such perceptions and am the first to admit to having a heap of fun playing with trains.

Anyway, in my quest to expand the layout from its original island I've mostly focused on trying to morph the plan into some semblance of an around the walls design. This has been a largely frustrating exercise because the two design styles have such different requirements. I finally got to the point where I was almost ready to tear out everything I've already built and start over again from scratch. Surely a true around the walls style plan with shadowbox type modules and a nifty lighting valance would be much more sensible, wouldn't it? Then Verne said something that made everything click into place. He said that Thunder Mesa has depth. Yes, scenic depth is exactly what you get with an island style design and exactly what you often lose with boxed-in shelves along the wall. Eureka!

Turns out I really like depth, which, along with dramatic vertical separation is one of the defining characteristics of my particular modeling style. So it was back to the drawing board again. I was already drawing up a new plan to work San Lorenzo into the layout and to take advantage of the space recently vacated by the N scale Pagosa & Southern. I took the opportunity to create something with maximum scenic depth and multiple viewing angles for the Thunder Mesa island. Moving the Thunder Mesa section out from the wall also opened up much needed space for the town, passing tracks, yard and engine facilities.

The focus is on scenery, structures and continuous running on this folded dog bone style plan. Room for a new engine service facility at upper left was an unexpected bonus. Grid spacing on the plan is 12". Aisle width is 30". The thin blue line represents an around the walls backdrop. Tip: to see the plan full size, right click and choose "Open link in new tab."


If I were to list my model railroading interests in order of importance, "scenery" and "structure building" would be way up at the top and "realistic operations" would be down somewhere near the bottom just above "wiring." Truth is, I'm much more of a model builder than an operator of miniature railroads and that's just fine. I like nice looking trains rolling through amazing scenery. This new plan is designed to emphasize those druthers while making the most of my art studio's givens. The mainline is about as uncomplicated as I can make it, with trains starting and finishing their runs in good old Thunder Mesa. I might add a couple of hidden staging tracks under San Lorenzo but that's still up in the air at this point. The Calico line is separate once again and stays up high to twist and turn through Calico Mountain on some 12" radius curves. It now transfers ore to the Thunder Mesa line via a tipple. The village of San Lorenzo is featured on a high bluff above the tracks, and will be complimented by the Indian Pueblos on one side, and the mining camp of Estrella Gulch on the other. Coyote Canyon will be a very dramatic scene with a high steal viaduct, natural bridge and teetering hoodoos. The town of Thunder Mesa will be rotated and moved down slope a bit, closer to the tracks for better viewing of the detailed structures. Another bonus of this plan is somewhat wider radius curves on the new sections.

I'm very happy with the new plan and think it offers just the kind of modeling opportunities and challenges that I want. The scenes will be detailed, layered and deep, with a wall-mounted backdrop wrapping around on three sides. I'm also thrilled to be bringing San Lorenzo over to Thunder Mesa country. I was planning on modeling a sleepy border town and Verne's excellent diorama fits the bill perfectly. I want to thank the readers of this blog who have followed along through all of the changes and twists in the design process. There are a few central ideas that I've been drilling down to and I think I'm getting much closer now. As always, question and comments are welcome below. Adios for now, amigos!
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