Former FMCA president Charlie Atkinson’s passion for model railroading led him to build his own movable display.
By Charlie Atkinson, L10327
They say you can’t take it with you, and for a while it seemed they were right. I have been an avid model railroader for more than 50 years. When my wife, Marcia, and I retired, we began spending up to five months each year in the South. In addition, my FMCA duties during the past eight years took up considerable time. As a result, my model railroading activities were severely restricted.
When we bought our current motorhome in 1994, I jokingly told Marcia there was so much space in the basement of the coach that I could build a model railroad in it. Our 36-foot Country Coach Intrigue has the most unobstructed basement storage of any motorhome I had ever seen. As luck would have it, early in 1995 the coach’s entry door was upgraded and replaced. When the new door arrived, it was packed in a very nice 3/8-inch plywood box that was 7 feet long, 30 inches wide, and 12 inches deep. I asked the guys who installed the door what they were going to do with the box. They said they would probably pitch it, so I asked them to pitch it in one of the coach’s basement compartments.
After we arrived at our Florida winter home, I got to work. I cut the box down to 3 inches high, split it down the middle, and inserted a 10-inch splice in it. Then I framed it with one-by-fours and put one-by-two runners on the bottom. Now I had a nice plywood tray that was 7 feet long, 40 inches wide, and 3 inches deep. I cut Styrofoam plastic foam insulation to fit the tray, and glued it to the bottom.
The next task was to design a layout. Being an HO-scale (87:1) modeler, I knew that I couldn’t fit much HO-sized layout into that space, so I started designing an N-scale layout to see what would fit. N scale is 160:1, or approximately half the size of HO. After a relatively short period of time I came up with a layout that I felt would achieve my goal: to have fun running it. So, it was off to the hobby shop and on to the Internet to purchase items for my first attempt at N-scale modeling.
I drew my track plan on the Styrofoam, glued a cork roadbed, and then laid the track. I glued down and ballasted the track so that it would remain firmly in place. I positioned the wiring carefully so that any wires and other electrical devices were protected by the one-by-two runners on the bottom. Once that was accomplished, I started running trains on the track, but the rest of the layout was still bare.
Now the question became, “How am I going to carry this thing in the basement of the motorhome?” One storage compartment is 45 inches wide by 27 inches high and nearly 8-1/2 feet deep. I returned to the home improvement store, where I obtained three 44-inch-long pieces of black pipe, which store employees cut and threaded on each end, and six threaded flanges, one for each end of the three pipes. I hung a pipe on either end of the compartment and one in the middle, all approximately 5 inches from the compartment’s ceiling. Now the train layout could rest atop the pipes and slide in and out of the compartment like a big drawer. It would have 2 inches of clearance on top, and leave 22 inches of storage space below.
With the layout secured in its compartment, we traveled from Florida to California and back that first year, after which I was satisfied that the track would stay put. So, I began to work on the scenery.
I decided to make the layout resemble a small, rural 1950s-1960s town in Ohio’s Hocking River Valley. I glued blocks of leftover Styrofoam on to the right places, and formed the landscape with a shaping tool. I “planted” trees and placed buildings on the layout. My layout contains many small-town features, such as a train depot, a firehouse, a church, a feed mill, and various downtown stores. I was careful to make sure the trees could fit in the clearance space in the coach, as they remain on the layout when the coach is in transit. However, I take the buildings off and carry them in a special case, because they would bounce off otherwise. I transport the rolling stock of locomotives and cars in a special carrying case as well.
I modified the upper left-hand corner of the layout so that two tracks can leave it and enter a special module I built that has a roundhouse, a turntable, and engine facilities. I built table legs with braces so that the entire layout can be taken out of the coach and operate as a freestanding unit. However, I usually just pull the layout partially out of the coach, so that one end rests on the bar in the compartment, and the other on legs. The control panel is attached to the end that protrudes from the coach, but it also can be moved to the side when the entire layout is out of the coach.
The town truly is “Anywhere, USA,” because it travels along with us. It does not have a ZIP code, because it is not at any one place long enough to have one activated! And, as you might imagine, the layout has attracted attention in quite a few campgrounds. It has two walk-around throttles, so children (and the young at heart) have a ball with it.
Thus far, the “Hocking Valley Railway” has traveled coast-to-coast (round trip) five times “” more than 50,000 miles. So, who says you can’t take it with you?