After many years working in HO scale – most recently modelling the Boston & Maine Railroad Claremont Branch – my hobby went in a decidedly different direction. For a number of reasons, I’d become unhappy with the small size of HO.
It was 2003 and model railway electronics was entering a new chapter with the widespread introduction of DCC sound decoders. My exposure to them on other model railways totally changed how I operated a model railway and I wanted to explore that on my own layout. The problem was, the decoders at the time were larger than the tenders of the tiny B&M 2-6-0s I wanted to put them in.
There were other issues too – and these, together, persuaded me to look at larger scales. I’d been interested in O scale since I was a kid, and had long had a casual interest in the two-foot gauge railways of Maine. When the opportunity arose to purchase a brass model of Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes #24, I jumped on it and launched my journey into the obscure world of On2.
As I often do, I started learning about my new subject by buying books about Maine two-footers to help me decide what to model. I was drawn to the Monson Railroad’s unique combination of mining and industrial railroading – it was a short (six-mile) railroad built primarily to serve a large slate company. But most of the models available were for two other railroads – the Bridgton & Saco River (later Bridgton & Harrison), and the most famous of the Maine two-footers, the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes.
The answer was to freelance – to draw inspiration from the Monson Railroad, but populate the layout with B&SR and SR&RL locomotives, passenger cars, cabooses, and other rolling stock. I obtained a map of Maine and plotted a route that incorporated the Monson Railroad – then named my freelanced railroad after the two counties through which it ran:
The Somerset & Piscataquis Counties Railroad was born.
I always liked the name: it was a mouthful, but conveyed an awkwardness that I found most appropriate for a small railroad incorporated in the 19th Century.
One fall day in 2003, I invited a couple of close friends over for dinner. Afterwards, we headed to the basement, tore out the Boston & Maine railway, and started building my first narrow gauge layout in its place.
My wife had returned to school to pursue her PhD and there was a possibility that we would be relocating to wherever that career would lead her, so I decided to make this layout sectional and moveable. I also decided to tackle this layout in stages, rather than all at once.
The first stage was two sections that comprised the Hebron Pond Slate Company – a slate quarry and slate works at the end of a branch line line. This had a run-around track (which also had several spots for freight cars to serve the quarry and power house), a couple of spurs into a shipping building at the slate works, a spur for a derrick in the quarry, and a modest locomotive service area that included a turntable to spin the rail bus that provided basic passenger service for quarry workers.
Future sections of this layout would include a junction with the main line at Enoch Pond. Trains to the north would head into staging, while trains headed south would end their trip at a small terminal at Snowdon, which included a transfer yard to connect my slate hauler with the standard gauge national rail network.
While this layout narrowed the space between the rails, it also really broadened my horizons in the hobby. This was a great era of experimentation for me.
I learned to install DCC and sound. I added interiors to passenger cars and cabooses. I scratch-built structures with working windows and doors, real glass in the windows, and interior lighting. I scratch-built flat cars, slate loads (including individual roofing slates), crates, and slate processing machinery. I pounded my own ballast out of slate flooring tiles. I learned to paint backdrops, and create convincing scenery. I framed each section with an integrated fascia/valance, like a shadowbox, and explored the use of layout lighting to provide a strong sense of sunlight and shadow. And I embraced finescale operations – adding proper railroad paperwork, switch locks, and other tools to slow down the operations and maximize the play value of operating sessions.
I also made a couple of trips to Maine in the mid-2000s to explore the railways and even did some time learning to fire and operate Monson #4, which was in steam at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum in Portland.
(Portland, Maine, was an amazing city to visit, too: Still one of my favourite train-related destinations. I think of it often – in part because on one of I ended up buying a desk from a company in Portland. I’m sitting at it as I write this.)
And I wrote – a lot – about these projects for Railroad Model Craftsman magazine. My little On2 layout even made the cover on a few occasions:
I learned so much with this layout, and I was really pleased with the results. Looking through the photos of the quarry, I think it still shows well:
As noted in the caption for the layout plan, I finished the quarry sections and got as far as laying most of the track at Enoch Pond. Then, a project to properly insulate the larger room next door to this layout space opened up a new opportunity for a larger layout. I moved the S&PCRR version 1 into the new space and started building what would become Snowdon. It was a larger, more complete, terminal with space for passenger cars, locomotive servicing, a large transfer yard, and so on. The plan was to connect it to the Enoch Pond and Quarry sections. But that never happened.
I enjoyed my freelanced slate hauler and many aspects of working in On2, but the larger layout never satisfied like the quarry did. In addition, even after having my brass locomotives tuned up by a friend (who was much better at that sort of thing than I was), they remained fussy performers. The Forneys were so stiff that they would find any unevenness in the track and hit the ties. Most of the locomotives had trouble pulling even one brass passenger car up a grade. And so on. My interest in operations meant reliable equipment was essential – and vintage brass wasn’t up to the demands.
I could’ve continued to pick away at those issues, but a bigger challenge arose: I simply didn’t have the time to make the trip to Maine two-foot country. It was a 12-hour highway drive away, and across an international border. I was busy with work and other commitments and felt less and less connected to the railroads that inspired me.
Eventually, I decided I needed to look for a prototype closer to home. While working in On2, I had also acquired some models in other scales and gauges – including a pair of Canadian National Railways steam locomotives built in S scale. As I’ve recounted elsewhere on this website, I eventually ended up tearing out the Somerset & Piscataquis Counties Railroad in favour of modelling a CNR branch line just a couple of hours away: Port Rowan in 1:64 was the result.
I applied many of the skills I learned building the S&PCRR to my Port Rowan layout – refining and improving on techniques. So my exploration of narrow gauge modelling was most valuable. And I’m still a fan of the Maine two-footers. I even kept all of my On2 equipment. At some point, I’ll figure out a way to put those models on permanent display, because I have many happy memories associated with them.