CP Executive train in Albany

CP Executive train in Albany

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Visiting the Isle of Shoals Tramway

My wife and I recently had the extreme pleasure of visiting with Rich Chiodo and his Isle of Shoals Tramway, a gorgeous garden railway in New Hampshire. Built to a scale of 7/8 = 1' (which is 1:13.7), his models use G scale track to represent 2 foot prototypes. And it has a true Welsh narrow gauge theme throughout. I saw an article several years ago in a magazine about it and I wrote him asking for information. He kindly extended an invitation to visit and five years later things worked out. It is an outstanding garden railway and has proved to be worth every part of the long trip to see him. However, there was a greater reason to go visit then to just see his trains. Read on to find out more...

I have a lot of interests when it comes to trains. If you are a train buff too, then I don't need to explain it. One of them is garden railways. I have always wanted one. When I was probably 10, my father took me to a local hobby store and they had an outdoor layout on the ground. I remember several things from that adventure: it was sleeting or hailing that day so we didn't stay outside long but the train kept running; it was pulled by an LGB mogul (in the early 1990s, probably all trains were pulled by LGB somethings...); and the track arrangement was a folded figure eight and it had a diamond crossover. It was a big train. I love big trains. I was sold. Years later my mother even said I could put a train in our garden but I couldn't see how it would work.

Fast forward to 2004 and I moved to Albany for school. Thinking bigger was better, I purchased a pair of USA Trains undecorated 44-tonner models and detailed them to match the engines on the Arcade and Attica RR (even though one was technically a 65-tonner). I built handrails from soldered brass and purchased extra parts from manufacturers. Then I had them custom painted for the A&A. Since I lived in an apartment with no room for a garden layout outside or an electric layout inside, they sat in boxes. I did start subscribing to Garden Railways magazine though, and formulating ideas for the future.

While the publication, and the hobby itself, has evolved over the decades (I have back issues to 1985), there were certain concepts that I came to realize that I wanted on my own layout. First, without a doubt, it has to be simple. If you read the magazine today you will notice a recent trend to put a model railroad in the backyard. That means lots of track and switches serving industries, with car cards and planned operations for the trains, and an overall complexity that mimics indoor layouts. I won't say this is a bad approach, but it isn't my approach. I want to have a garden with a train(s) in it that I can watch at my leisure and let it run and run around without fear of derailments. Extra switches and sidings I won't use, so they are out. 

Second, it has to have a British narrow gauge railway theme. I want to scratchbuild structures that look like they came from across the pond. Signals, details, and even the trains will evoke British narrow gauge practice. My favorite Welsh narrow gauge line is the Talyllyn Railway and while I may not ever make it there I want a piece of it here. My layout will be built to the scale of 16mm, or 1:19. This is appropriate for 32mm track, but I am using 45mm track so that all G scale stuff I own can run. The gauge will be wider than 2 feet, but I don't care. And most others won't even realize the difference. When no one is looking I can run other stuff, but at its heart it will be a little part of Wales right here.

Third, it has to be a raised railway. I don't mean raised a foot from the ground like some layouts are shown in magazines, and I don't mean on posts like some dedicated live steam lines are. I mean a full garden, raised 2-3 feet from the ground, in nice stonework. This makes access easier for maintenance, and it also means that due to the height of things you can't see everything. This is important, as if you can sit and see over the whole layout you lose the adventure of the train disappearing and you also lose the feeling of isolation from different areas of the garden with their own independent vignettes.

Fourth, it has to be a green garden railway. That means lots of greenery here and there. I joke with my wife that I might just cover the whole thing in moss and leave it at that. I hate weeding, but if she wants to do the work she can install plants. Otherwise, it will look like a green explosion with low maintenance plants and trees that add color and texture but not a time commitment. I am not a gardener and don't really want to spend time on all that, but I do know that some plants stay green year round and they would be perfect for the railway. And it doesn't really matter to me if the plants are too large to be in scale with the trains. That isn't the point. The emphasis will be a background of green for the trains.

Fifth and finally, it has to be track powered. I plan to run live steam, battery, and electrically powered trains. Not all at once, mind you, but all just the same. I might go to a train show and buy an engine and want to run it that day. Not wait a month or a year until I have it converted to battery power. Or, my wife might want to see something run and I don't want to charge the batteries first. I will someday own live steamers and they will run too, but above all track power must be an option. Track cleaning will certainly be required, but I am okay with that. I plan to use nickle silver or stainless steel rail, which costs more, but are better for track powered layouts. Since I won't need much track, costs will be modest.

The big question on my mind for years was: IS ALL THIS EVEN POSSIBLE? Frankly, I wasn't sure. Some layouts have one or more of these items but none have all of them. And the whole raised stone structure is quite rare here in the USA except where it was done up a foot or so just to elevate it from the ground, never the full 2-3 feet. Then I saw an article about the Isle of Shoals Tramway and I realized that it was exactly what I was dreaming of. It had nearly everything I wanted (it didn't use track power, but that is an easy change) and I decided to reach out to Rich to see if I could visit and study his garden first hand. I wanted to pick his brain, explore his creation, and use it as a feasibility study for my own future line. And I am happy to report it exceeded my expectations! 

Rich was a generous host and showed my wife and I all around his garden. While I had read at least two articles about it (it was featured most recently in the December 2018 magazine) there were lots of things that jumped out at me. His structures really had to be seen to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into them. Many had interior details and lighting, and he had some ingenious ways of accomplishing both. His buildings feature stones he "cast" himself out of Bondo and cut into shape, colored, attached to the exteriors of the buildings, and then weathered. His windows have real glass. His roofing featured realistic weathering and small scale rail to accurately represent the seams on the real roofs.

His rolling stock was exquisite. All scratchbuilt, using some castings and a lot of ingenuity, everything was perfect. Lines were straight, interiors were fully furnished the hard way (ex: he stamped his own texture onto the cushion seats in the coaches instead of buying fabric of the correct pattern) and with lights and hand done graphics, they were works of art in their own way. And, built to the British methods of using laminated cardstock for the substructures with lots of details recycled from the smaller scales or other places. Nothing was overdone, and nothing was out of place. He might not have had dozens of cars purchased off the shelf of a hobby store, but what he had was distinctly unique for his line.

One take away that I never fully appreciated from his magazine was the importance of height in creating isolated scenes. While his layout is large (20' x 32'), it doesn't strike me as that because all I could see at one time was a small area. The large plants in the center mounds create effective view blocks and at times there was nothing to see but the area I was standing. The train would puff into view and roll through and then disappear, and that would be that. He had a small rural country station area, two ends that featured track rounding curves with a station halt at one and nothing at the other, and some meandering curved track on the back side with a switch leading to the "operating pit." This is accessed from one side and is a nice spot inside it all to relax and watch the trains run.

As most steam locomotives are, Rich's engine proved a little temperamental while we were trying to run it. However, we managed many laps with his train slowly trundling round and around. It was perfect weather on a perfect day and I couldn't imagine something more enjoyable then to go out to the garden and run a train and observe the nature around you. The simplicity of track power or battery power to allow you to just set a train on and let it go is there, but steam will always be the purest form of the hobby. Rich confided that he does have a battery powered engine on order for times when he just wants to relax and run a train.

I am happy to report that Rich and I are of the same mind in nearly all of our approaches to the hobby. More importantly, his garden railway has demonstrated that while our ideas are definitely not mainstream or easy they do lead to wonderful results. The raised garden structure took an immense amount of time and effort for Rich to build (I will just contract it out) but it certainly enhanced the experience of the garden. He kindly gave me one of his own bricks which I will incorporate into my own structure someday. His green wall of simple plants which he rarely tends proves that you don't need a lot of gardening skills to have a nice garden. He trains ran extremely well and the theme of Welsh narrow gauge came through in every aspect of the line, from the equipment to the buildings to the details to the trackwork.

I went there as a curious visitor and left there as a friend of Rich's. I can't wait to go back again, perhaps with my own trains, and see even more of the layout. Thank you Rich for a wonderful experience!

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