Category Archives: Alternate History

First Cut at a Paint Scheme

I’m finally getting to the point – with my recent completion of a spray booth and a mainline that’s once again operational – where I want to start thinking about how I should paint CR&NW equipment for the layout. What should a modern-day Copper River & Northwestern look like?

Let’s consider what the prototype and other Kennecott roads did, and see what that might mean for the layout.

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Bridging the Gap

One of the big problems with modeling the CR&NW is the sheer amount (and variety) of bridges the line had. My layout gets some of the most iconic of the large ones – Miles Glacier, Chitina, Kuskulana, Gilahina, and McCarthy. Some are significantly shortened, such as Miles Glacier at only 40% because I don’t have room for a bridge 10 feet long, some are done at maybe 60-70% full size (McCarthy, Chitina, Gilahina and its “modern” replacement), and Kuskulana is done at nearly 100% full scale.

They’re all scratchbuilding or serious kitbashing projects, because for obvious reasons none of them exist as kits (or even anything close). That sounds like a lot of fun, but it also means the results will be one-off hand built models that will take weeks, if not months, to complete if done to the accuracy I want. In the meantime, I’m going to be working around them doing scenery, painting, etc. that’s likely to accidentally damage a real model.

The upper deck main line has been inoperable for nearly a year now since I removed the temporary plywood bridges at Kuskulana and Gilahina, as they were in the way of starting latticework to support the scenery hard shell. Those gaps in the mainline actually have been a huge mental block. The “not being able to run a train” factor combined with the overwhelming nature of all these bridges to model. About two weeks ago, I decided it was time to build something between plywood and the final models – some temporary bridges. Close enough to the real thing to be plausible, but cheaply and quickly constructed using 3D printing.

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The real CR&NW was completely timetable & train order operations, with no block signals of any kind.  There’s a lone, uncredited reference in Wikipedia about the CR&NW having at least one “wigwag” crossing signal, but I’ve never seen any evidence to support this.  Given the limited number of trains operated and the generally poor condition of local roads at the time, I sincerely doubt that the CR&NW ever had a single circuit for anything.  At least as of 1920, this is confirmed by the ICC’s “Annual Report on the Statistics of Railways in the United States”, where the CR&NW has nothing under the cost line items for “Signals & Interlockers” and “Signals & Interlockers – Depreciation”, and “Crossing Protection”.  There’s the possibility of them coming later, but I still doubt it.  (I would love to be proven wrong, however.  Anyone?)

Update (Oct 16, 2017):  Turns out, I’ve been indeed proven wrong!  See Robert Hilton’s comment below.  There’s a photo in an old Magnetic Signal Company catalog of an overhead, lower quadrant wig-wag in Cordova on page 9.  Now I have a plausible reason to build a working wig-wag for the layout.

The model CR&NW however, having evolved into a modern heavy ore hauler, would almost certainly have block signals.  In my “alternate history” leading to the present day, the railroad underwent extensive modernization and reinvestment in the late 1940s / early 1950s.  Radio dispatch (which didn’t become widespread until the 1960s-1970s anyway) would have been nearly impossible, given the remote country and deep canyons traversed by the line.

For inspiration, let’s look to a pair of near-contemporary prototype ore haulers in the far north – the Quebec, North Shore & Labrador and the Cartier Railway (Quebec Cartier Mining or QCM).  The QNS&L was built between 1951-1954 and was equipped with CTC from the start.  The Cartier was built several years later, in 1959-1961, but it too was equipped with CTC from the start.  Clearly equipping a remote ore line of a few hundred miles in length with CTC isn’t beyond the realm of feasibility.  Plus, I have a serious fascination with signalling, so…

A Showcase Miniatures N scale searchlight signalGiven a modernization date in the 1940s/1950s, searchlight signals would have been the standard of the day. (Again, looking at the QNSL and QCM, it’s searchlights all around.)  The US&S H, H2, H5 and GRS SA were both extremely popular and were the most common type of signal installed all over the US and Canada during the 1940s through about the 1980s.  Recently they’ve been falling in record numbers, as their inherently mechanical color changing mechanism (a relay with three small color lenses) requires regular inspection, testing, and maintenance, as opposed to modern three-light heads.  The preference for searchlight type signals works out just fine with me, since they’re probably my favorite signal type and they minimize the number of wires or fibers that need to go to each head. Showcase Miniatures / Century Foundary makes an absolutely beautiful N scale searchlight kit. They’re lit with fiber optics, which allows them to be very accurate in terms of scale. (Oversized N scale signals really, really bug me…) I’d purchased a couple of their kits some time ago, so I pulled one out tonight and built it. It really is a work of art and not nearly as hard to assemble as I’d feared.  (I still have some fear of doing a double or triple head…)  I didn’t feel like breaking out the airbrush, though, so it’s unpainted for now.

The problem is then feeding light into them. Railroad signals have a unique color to them that’s often not captured by LEDs. The AREMA standards (Communications & Signals Manual, section 7.1.10 – “Chromaticity”) require green to be between 498-513nm, yellow to be between 589-597nm, and red to be 627-660nm. Very few 3-color LEDs hit this or even get close, particularly for green. One of the few that gets very close is the Bivar SMP4-SRGY. It’s a small PLCC4, with wavelengths of 525nm, 591nm, and 631nm. To my eye, it looks nearly dead on for the prototype colors. The PLCC4, while fairly small, would still look huge on the head of an N scale signal, and would need four wires running down the mast.

A board with two SMP4-SRGY leds on it for driving two searchlight headsSo, given that my signal models of choice are based around fiber optics, I created a board with two LEDs on board and holes for clip-in light pipe holders that fit perfectly over the LEDs. (The light pipes are Dialight part 515119200550F if anybody cares.) A Showcase Miniatures searchlight connected to the LED board by fiber opticsI can then drill a small hole in the light pipe and glue the fiber into it. The signal LEDs and their wiring (attached through an RJ45 jack for easy connecting) stay attached to the layout, and the signals can be installed and uninstalled with the ease of just connecting or disconnecting the fiber and light pipe.

bcol3902-and-signal.jpgonlayout.jpgGiven their fragility, the actual signals will be one of the last things installed on the layout.  I’ll build some temporaries for initial operations and testing.  The LED boards, however, will be installed as part of the signal system.  I did a temporary install (using the power of electrical tape to hold up the signal) at one of the block boundaries tonight just to see what it would look like.  In the final install, the light pipes will be painted black to eliminate leakage, but as I said earlier – wasn’t in a painting mood tonight.

Nizina Yard

In 1915, the Alaskan Engineering Commission presented a report to then president Woodrow Wilson concerning the potential expansion of railroads within the Territory of Alaska.  If you want to read the report yourself, Google Books has it scanned and online.  Part of this was an exploration of potentially expansions to the Copper River & Northwestern, none of which were ever actually built.

The report proposes two branches from near McCarthy to other nearby mining districts.  One, a 14 mile branch, would extend around to the east side of Bonanza Ridge (the main Kennecott Mine was on the west side) up McCarthy Creek to the Mother Lode mine.  The other, a ~17 mile line, was proposed from McCarthy further southeast to the gold mining district along the Nizina River.

Because the Mother Lode Mine was on the opposite side of the ridge from the rest of the mines, eventually the tunnels were interconnected.  Mother Lode ore was sent through the Bonanza Mine to get it to the other side of the mountain, and then down the trams to Kennecott to be loaded.  There wouldn’t have been a reason to extend the railway around the backside of the ridge for it.  More interesting would be the Green Butte and Nicolai mines, which existed on the east side of McCarthy Creek, might have been able to use rail service.

The Nizina Branch idea is more intriguing, however.  Even while there was active mining at Kennicott, there was placer gold mining going on at Dan Creek, southeast of McCarthy and on the opposite side of the Nizina River.  Additionally, copper prospects had been described just a few more miles up the Nizina and Chitistone Rivers, along Glacier Creek.  So it’s slightly plausible that – should copper mining have survived in the district – that additional mines would have been developed on these prospects.  I don’t proclaim to be any sort of expert (or even novice of any note) in this area, but the US Geological Survey has a 1943/44 report on mining prospects in the Nizina District available as a PDF.

The short version is that I needed more traffic at the north end of the line to keep operations on the layout interesting.  I also wanted a test track above my workbench that I could use for working on equipment and programming DCC decoders.  Given that the workbench is just across the wall from McCarthy and Cordova, and that McCarthy was at just about the right height for a workbench branch, I decided the “Nizina Branch” would be born.  It will serve as staging for one empty coming up and one load going down each operating session.

The yard is three tracks wide, with the one nearest the edge being the DCC programming track in addition to storage.  Given that this is all just staging trackage, I used some leftover Atlas code 55 flex and turnouts that I had lying around.  You may notice an odd bit of 3-rail track near the end, as if I’d decided to model dual gauge.  Since I do spend a decent amount of time working on HO models for other folks, I needed the programming track to be compatible with both HO and N scale equipment.  So, using a few PC board ties and some extra rail, I built a dual HO/N scale programming section.  And yes, that’s a BC Rail B39-8 running around.  It won’t be part of the CRNW’s roster, but much like my IAIS ES44ACs, I’m rather fond of it and you’ll probably see it running around in “unofficial” layout photos.

The switch machines are, of course, my MRServo design.  They’re completely open source, but available from Iowa Scaled Engineering if you want to buy some.  The wiring is still a bit rough – I haven’t gotten it all finalized yet.  I was just happy to get the track power and programming track lines run back to the electrical panel with my limited time this week.


The Katalla Branch

Ever since I drew the original plans a year ago, I’d always had the idea that – should the CRNW have survived – that there might be a branch to Katalla.  As those familiar with the CRNW know, at one point Katalla was to be the terminus of the CRNW.  It had a key advantage for a burgeoning mining industry – nearby coal and oil reserves.  The town lacked one key feature, however – a natural deep-water harbor.

In reality, Katalla’s demise began with the federal government (under President Teddy Roosevelt) withdrawing public lands from coal mining in 1906.  Shortly thereafter, the lands were closed to timber and oil extraction as well.   Then, in November 1907, all of the Katalla dock and breakwater facilities were destroyed in a series of early winter storms.  With no available resources – save a single 160-acre oil field – and no facilities, the CRNW packed up and moved its terminal to Cordova.   Katalla would get a refinery to process the limited (but apparently high quality) crude it produced, but little other industry developed to sustain the town.  By 1933, when the refinery accidentally burned, there were reportedly only about 100 people still living in town.  However, that was the end – after 1933, Katalla would fade into history.

In 1971, however, new hope arose for industry in the Katalla area.  Thanks to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and its effort to compensate the Alaska native peoples for their losses, the Bering River bituminous fields and the Carbon Mountain anthracite fields passed to the Chugach Alaska Corporation, one of the regional corporations set up by the ANCSA to administer lands transferred back to the native people.  In 1991, the rights to develop the field were sold to the Korean Alaska Development Corporation as part of CAC’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.  KADCO has yet to do anything with these rights, and in fact several conservation interests have discussed buying them to prevent any future mine.

Further, the CAC obtained rights to try for commercially-exploitable quantities of oil and gas in the Katalla Field in 1982.  However, these rights were temporary, and expired at the end of 2004 unless a commercial well could be put in production.

In reality, no commercially viable oil well materialized, and the coal fields remain untouched since 1906.  However, with the idea that my modern day CRNW could provide both a customer and a transportation solution, I’m going to explore the idea that at least the coal fields were developed at a small scale.  Local coal seems a plausible energy source for both my processing plant at Eyak, the town of Cordova (which in reality today draws its power from both hydro and a large diesel plant), and the mine operation itself.  Plus, having another local job to run adds more operating interest than just the ore trains and wayfreights plying the mainline.

As much as I’d like the branch to have been developed in the 1920s or 1930s, I’d have to bend history around too much to make that plausible. If the Guggenheims and JP Morgan couldn’t get the Department of the Interior to change their mind about resource extraction in the 1910-1930 era, there’s no plausible reason to believe that it would have happened between 1930 and the transfer of the coal loads to the CAC in 1972.  So, in my version of the world, the Katalla Branch would have been developed in about 1972, once the dust had settled on the ANCSA.

One of the original 1913 Alaska Railroad Commission reports indicates that two routes were considered from the CRNW to the Bering coalfields.  Both would start near the Miles Glacier Bridge.  One route would run around the coastline to Katalla and then back up the Bering River.  The other (shorter) route would run up the Martin River delta, cross over near the foot of the Martin River Glacier, and then pass over some steep grades (estimated at 1.7-2%) and around the western shore of Lake Charlotte.  From there, it would reach the mines and could be extended down towards Katalla.  By 1972, with modern motive power, construction techniques, and the recently-reinforced knowledge of the powerful damage earthquakes could transform the coastline, I have to assume that the the mountain route via Lake Charlotte would have been used.  Plus, there was no reason for the Katalla Branch to actually go to Katalla by that point, as there wasn’t anything left of the town.

My other problem is rather pragmatic – I sketched in the Katalla Branch coming off the mainline between Alaganik and the Miles Glacier Bridge.  In reality, it would have diverged in this area, coming off the mainline after it had crossed the braided tributaries of the Copper on the north/east side of Long Island.  The problem is that’s located at the end of the peninsula on my layout, and I can’t come up with a good way to helix the track down at that point.  There’s just too much benchwork needed to support the peninsula to start putting holes in it.

I don’t intend trains coming off the branch to ever be particularly long – maybe 8 cars plus engines and caboose, to be roughly in proportion to mainline trains at 20ish cars.  Plus, back-of-the-cocktail-napkin calculations show that creating 200 tons of pure copper a day via electrowinning would take roughly 4-5 cars of coal per day, given typical generation efficiencies.  So if I could pull 8 cars out every op session, that seems reasonable to feed the whole shebang.

Enter the train elevator.  Basically a strip of track 55-60 inches in length, mounted to a wood carriage that rides on two linear rails.  A pair of stepper motors and jackscrews raise and lower the track between the two decks.  I intend to make it 99% automated, so that the train pulls in, power gets cut when it hits a sensor, and the elevator takes it to the other level.  From an operator’s point of view, they’ll leave Katalla Junction and disappear into the trees, and a minute or so later pop out of a summit tunnel or cut on the very lowest deck.

There’s absolutely nothing like it in the prototype.  I know and accept that.  I wouldn’t want one on the mainline – the main decks will be connected via a proper helix – but it seems an acceptable way to add time (otherwise the supposedly 38+ mile branch would only be maybe 15 feet long) and an easy connection to what amounts to a long industrial spur.  It gives me a plausible connection to local fuel producer, and a reason to run another local job every op session or two.

I’ve got the rails, the screws, and the stepper motors – now it’s just a matter of getting all the other widgets (screws, brackets, etc.), designing some controls, and testing it out.  I’ll let you know what comes of it.

Smells Like Progress

While not feeling the greatest this weekend, I resigned myself to the basement and building benchwork.  As a result, the gridwork is now in place for Cordova-Eyak on the bottom level and McCarthy-Gilahina-Chokosna on the upper level.

Included in the upper level is the first major piece of depressed grid that will accomodate one of the four big bridges I plan to model  – the Gilahina Trestle.  (Photo linked from Don Bains’ Virtual Guidebooks site.)  The other three big bridges being the Miles Glacier / Million Dollar Bridge, the third Copper River crossing, and the Kuskulana Bridge.)  The current version is actually the second trestle – the original burned in 1916 and was replaced by the one we have today.  The structure is ~880 feet long and ~90 feet high on a ~15 degree curve (radius ~440ft.), with six piles per bent and extensive cross-bracing.  Today, it survives alongside the McCarthy Road in a deteriorated state.

For my proto-freelanced version of the CRNW, though, there’s simply no plausible way the trestle would have survived in service to present day.  A 100 year old high wooden trestle is just not up to the passage of heavy ore trains and 200-ton locomotives multiple times per day, no matter how well built or well maintained it may be.  Plus, the trestle forms most of a very sharp curve – much sharper than any reasonable mainline standard.  However, it’s such a stunning visual element along the line, and one that many people who have visited the area are familiar with, so I also can’t leave it out.  My solution is that the mainline will pass by in the foreground, atop a modern deck girder bridge constructed as part of a 1960s-70s era line change (exact date in alternate history to be determined), while the old abandoned trestle remains in the background.  Like many things in the wilderness of the far north, the old is often left just because it’s not economical to tear it down.  Plus, in this case its historical significance to the area in addition to its site within the the Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve would lend to its preservation.

I’ve had to scale the Gilahina Trestle just a bit.  While 880′ in length, it’s only about 650′ on a straight line between the ends due to the sharp curvature.  (Distances estimated from aerial photographs.)  At full size, it would be approximately 4′ long and 6.75″ high in N scale.  I plan to keep it full height – hence the drop section to give me an extra 3.25″ to play with, but compress the length to about 3′, or 480′ in full size.

If anybody has measurements or plans for the Gilahina Trestle, I’d greatly appreciate hearing from you.  Otherwise I’ll have to head back north and spend some quality time with just me, the trestle, a tape measure, and an ultrasonic range finder.

Here’s a couple shots of the new benchwork grid, including the drop section for accomo


In addition, the Fast Tracks jig finally arrived, and I’ve been practicing at building turnouts.  So far, I’ve built two – one right and one left – and I don’t think I’ve quite gotten the hang of it yet.  Both are usable, but not quite as perfect as I’d like – particularly in the area of getting the point rails just right and making the throwbar move flawlessly.  (I seem to always get the point rails stuck on the stock rail when soldering them, and can never get it deburred once I separate them.)  Also, the FT#7 is a bit bigger than the Atlas #7, leading me to believe the Atlas #7 is really more of a #5-#6.  I’ve put my second attempt next to an Atlas unit so you can do a size comparison.

fasttracks first-scratchbuilt-turnout

Until next time…