My HO scale Rice Lake, Dallas & Menomonie Ry. (RLD&M) is named after a short line in northwestern Wisconsin that was eventually absorbed into the Soo Line around the turn of the 20th century. The line was known for the blueberry bushes along its route, hence its Blueberry Line nickname. However, my layout portrays the RLD&M in a “what could have been” theme. Instead of a sleepy short line, my RLD&M is a busy main on the Soo that connects the Twin Cities with Duluth, Minn. The time period is the steam-to-diesel transition era in the early 1950s.
The multi-level layout occupies a 17 x 24-foot space with a 2 x 9-foot extension for an interchange yard. It also features a 100-foot-long mainline run. It’s the most complete home layout that I’ve built, but it’s certainly not the first.
A lifetime of trains
For as long as I can remember, I’ve liked trains. I have a photo of myself at my first birthday with a pull-along steam engine toy. When my older brother’s interest in model trains waned, I inherited first his American Flyer and then his HO scale train layouts. I preferred the realism of the HO trains, especially the fact that the locomotives had couplers on both ends for switching.
With sports and other activities during high school, I didn’t spend much time with the hobby during my teenage years. Then when I was in college, I told my steady girlfriend (now my wife) about how much I missed the hobby and my dreams of a house where I could build a layout. That year, she bought me a subscription to Model Railroader magazine, and I’ve been back in the hobby ever since.
Planning the railroad
Back in the 1980s, I researched and wrote a history of the RLD&M that appeared in an issue of The SOO magazine, published by the Soo Line Historical & Technical Society. Several years ago, my friend Arlyn Colby expanded that research and published a book titled The Blueberry Line. The last Soo Line train ran on the line in the early 1960s. None of the prototype trackage remains, but some of the old right-of-way has been preserved as a recreational trail.
Historical research led to an idea for a model railroad, inspired by the Soo and the RLD&M. While planning my layout, I used many of the prototype town names. The Ridgeland branch line on my track plan is the most representative of the prototype, modeling the branch that ran from Ridgeland to Barron.
Following this theme, I kicked around layout ideas for a few years after we moved to a new home in Verona, Wis., in 1986. I also spent time finishing the basement layout room and set up some preliminary benchwork, but nothing permanent.
By then I’d also become involved in the South Central Wisconsin Division of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA). At a 1993 meeting, the division announced that we would host the 1997 NMRA National Convention in Madison, Wis. That announcement proved to be the great motivator for me to get to work. I really wanted my RLD&M to be up and running as one of the convention’s featured layout tours.
By the convention, I’d more than reached my goal and had completed 90 percent of the layout. However, I made many modifications to the railroad over the next 20 years. These included, expanding the West Minneapolis staging yard, which I wrote about in the February 2014 Model Railroader.
Benchwork and track
The layout has two decks connected by a helix and also features staging tracks. The layout rises from 50" to 58" with a 2 percent maximum grade.
Almost all the benchwork is cantilevered off the walls. I used 2 x 4 vertical wall plates connected by 1 x 4 stringers attached to the plates with triangular plywood gussets. The only support leg that I needed to install was under the helix. In a couple locations I also used L-girder benchwork.
The roadbed is ½ "plywood topped with ½" homasote. I also taped and spackled the homasote joints. During the layout’s lifetime I never had any issue with the material swelling or shrinking.
When I first started the railroad, I opted for the then readily available and economical Atlas code 100 flextrack. I also used the many Atlas turnouts left over from previous layouts in the yards. I used Peco turnouts on the main line.
Initially I installed commercially available track ballast. In later years, I began making my own ballast from sifted play sand that I tinted with a wash of isopropyl alcohol and black shoe dye.
The layout scenery base is plaster hardshell over cardboard strips. At first I covered the scenery base with dirtcolored latex house paint followed by various colors of ground foam. More recently, I’ve switched to using Woodland Scenics and Scenery Express ground cover adhered with a 50/50 mix of white glue and isopropyl alcohol.
I carved many of the exposed rockfaces from Hydrocal plaster or Sculptamold. Many of the retaining walls are also carved in plaster or cast using a silicone rubber master.
My early scenery efforts included trees made from dried yarrow and sedum plants. I’ve since switched to using SuperTrees from Scenic Express. Small shrubs are made of broken pieces of SuperTrees armatures or Woodland Scenics products.
I used Woodland Scenics Realistic Water at Lakeside.
I added depth to the scenery by installing a 1 ⁄8" tempered hardboard backdrop painted sky blue. After a few years I thought the backdrops looked too drab, so I started adding photos to them.
I took many photos of prototype trackside buildings and eventually learned how to manipulate the images using Adobe Photoshop software. I could stretch out images or even add doors and windows to make a building look completely different. The backdrop clouds and trees are also photos that have been overlayed or reversed so the casual observer won’t notice when an image repeats.
I had my photo backdrops printed on matte paper at a local office supply/printing store. I mounted the backdrops with 3M Super 77 spray adhesive.
I also used some commercially available photo backdrops, including products sold by Realistic Backdrops.
The layout room is illuminated with 4-foot-long fluorescent shop lights. Part of the Duluth Yard is lit with smaller under-cabinet style single-tube fluorescent lights. During recent years, as some of these smaller fixtures began failing, I replaced them with light-emitting diode (LED) string lights.
Many of my town structures are made of Design Preservation Models (DPM) modular components. [Design Preservation Models is now owned by Woodland Scenics. – Ed.] It’s easy to use the DPM wall sections to make a structure that fits a specific location.
I’ve also scratchbuilt some industries from .040" styrene. All the structures are well-braced, as I’ve learned that styrene will eventually warp with age.
At Barron, my scratchbuilt Purina Mill began as a project for a previous layout. Using a catalog photo of a Walthers mill as a guide, I scratchbuilt the structure from Bristol board with silos made from Pringles chip cans. For this layout I rebuilt the mill from styrene with silos made from PVC pipes.
There are also many kitbashed structures around the layout.
The layout at a glance
Name: Rice Lake, Dallas & Menomonie RR
Scale: HO (1:87.1)
Size: 17 x 24 feet with a 2 x 9-foot interchange yard
Prototype: Soo Line
Locale: northwestern Wisconsin
Era: 1950 to 1955
Mainline run: 100 feet
Minimum radius: 30" (main), 18" (branch)
Minimum turnout: no. 6 (main), no. 4 (yards)
Maximum grade: 2 percent
Benchwork: L-shaped supports cantilvered from walls, some L-girder
Height: 50" to 58"
Roadbed: 1⁄2" homasote on 1⁄2" plywood
Track: Atlas code 100 flextrack with Atlas and Peco turnouts
Scenery: plaster hardshell
Backdrop: painted 1⁄8" hardboard with photos
Control: Digitrax Digital Command Control
Wiring and control
I originally designed the layout for direct-current (DC) block operation. These blocks proved invaluable when I began installing a signal system using Bruce Chubb’s Computer Model Railroad Interface (C/MRI) electronics.
Bruce Chubb designed the C/MRI system more than 30 years ago. He wanted to use the logic processing power of a computer to do what previously required lots of wires and relays. I’d followed Bruce’s signaling articles, including his 16-part series on C/MRI in Model Railroader, and in 1999 began assembling my system. While I could have bought assembled C/MRI boards, I instead used blank circuit boards and soldered on the components myself. I finished the task by 2002.
I scratchbuilt the searchlight signals using steel washers for the heads and brass parts for everything else. I originally used two-color 5mm light-emitting diodes for the aspects but switched to 3mm LEDs when they became available.
I use an old Windows 95 computer to run the QuickBasic 4.5 C/MRI software. My friend Don Wood wrote the initial program, but I programmed the screen display and other subsequent changes.
In 2010 I converted the layout to Digital Command Control (DCC) using a Digitrax system and the firm’s wireless simplex-radio throttles. Other than removing my large block control panel and some wiring, the DCC conversion was easier than I thought it would be. I still use the C/MRI system without any problems.
I’ve updated many of my locomotives to DCC and sound. I also try to purchase new locomotives with factory-installed DCC sound decoders.
Locomotives and rolling stock
Because I model the early 1950s, I can plausibly run both steam and diesel locomotives. When I started the layout, I would kitbash Roundhouse steam locomotive kits to better match Soo prototypes. As the quality of locomotive models has improved, I’ve upgraded my fleet to include engines from Athearn, Atlas, Bachmann, Broadway Limited Imports, and Walthers.
Since I limited train lengths to 10 cars, I don’t worry about double-heading locomotives. Some of my most powerful engines are my four Alco RS-1 diesels built by Kato. A single Kato RS-1 can pull 20 freight cars up a 2 percent grade.
I have about 150 pieces of rolling stock on the layout. I try to keep my cars consistent with the layout’s era. There are kit-built and ready-to-run cars from a variety of manufacturers. I also have some cars designed by my friend Ken Soroos for the Soo Line Historical & Technical Society. I’ve also painted and decaled cars for the RLD&M using custom decals that I designed and then had printed by the late Don Manlick.
When I add a car to the layout, I follow a standard process. First I replace any plastic wheelsets with metal ones, paint the wheel faces and car underframe, and add weight to the car until it matches NMRA RP-20.1 specifications. Then, after gently washing the car to remove any leftover impurities, I apply a wash of charcoal-colored acrylic paint to weather the model.
For many years Nickel Plate Products made the only commercially available ready-to-run HO scale model of a Soo Line wood caboose. Back in the 1970s, I bought one for $35, and it remains the only brass model I own. My other Soo Line wood cabooses are built from kits by LaBelle, Dennis Storzek, and Centralia Car Shops. I’ve also kitbashed several cabooses from Roundhouse “Old Timer” models.
Most of my passenger cars are kitbashed Athearn models. I also have a few ready-to-run Soo Line cars made by Walthers.
I’ve always been intrigued by prototypical model railroad operation. Even as a little boy, I thought just running trains around a loop was boring.
When I was older, I gained some experience learning how a real railroad worked. While in college, I spent two summers working for the Soo Line as a switchman and a yard clerk. I got to see firsthand how a major railroad division point operated. [You can read about Bob’s experiences on the Soo in the July and August 2017 issues of Trains magazine. – Ed.]
As I planned my current layout, I read Bruce Chubb’s How to Operate Your Model Railroad (Kalmbach Publishing Co., out of print). You can still find the book on the secondary market, and I recommend it to anyone looking to incorporate prototype operating practices into their layout.
I’d tried car-card routing systems on previous layouts, but had mixed results. By the time I started building my current RLD&M in the 1990s, personal computers had become more commonplace, so I started searching for some model railroad operations software. I found and started using SHIPIT! by Albion Software in 1998. The software is very close to how I remember clerking on the Soo Line back in the 1970s.
The SHIPIT! software also eliminated the need for writing out switch lists and train orders. I wanted to spend my time running trains, not filling out a lot of paperwork.
I’ve made some modifications to the SHIPIT! software, including adding embedded messages at several locations. I also break up some trains into first and second sections. The first section carries through freight and the second section handles any en route switching. This method has helped alleviate many traffic bottlenecks. During an operating session, my crews and I can usually run nearly 30 trains.
A typical operating session lasts 3½ hours. Since the SHIPIT! software requires a 24-hour day, we follow a 7.25:1 fast clock.
Jobs on the RLD&M include three yardmasters, one each at Minneapolis, Duluth, and East Junction. The layout could run with as few as two or three train crews, but we usually have eight to 10 operators.
I don’t have a dispatcher. Instead I rely on operators to follow the SHIPIT! switchlists and trackside signals while verbally communicating with each other when necessary. My job is to act as chief troubleshooter (and sometimes referee).
There’s always room
At the time of this writing, the RLD&M will have been dismantled for several months. Because of my health issues, my wife and I needed to sell our home and downsize to a condo. However, the condo has a basement with room for my wife’s craft projects and, perhaps, a small model railroad.
I’ve done some degree of model railroading in every house, apartment, condo, or trailer in which I’ve lived. I never used lack of space as an excuse for not being active in the hobby.
My railroad may be gone, but it’s not forgotten. It lives on in video form. I invite any readers to visit the layout virtually by watching the many videos on my YouTube channel.
Find links to Bob’s videos of the Rice Lake, Dallas & Menomonie under Online Extras at www.ModelRailroader.com. ■