La Canada Valley Railroad

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Number 515: The Commuter's Special

Ricky Johnston at the throttle. Reading to left, Gregg and Ann Thomas, Kenny Johnston, Ted and Frank Thomas. Photo by Ollie Johnston.

by Oliver M. Johnston

Southern California Live Steamers, Inc.

The Miniature Locomotive, November-December 1952

"Gotta catch the Old Five-fifteen," used to be a familiar saying of the commuter leaving work. Well, you can still catch the 515 once or twice a month on the La Canada Valley Line. it won't shuttle you to or from work, but it will take you on a scenic little ride with a variety of real railroading experiences.

There are certain things that every railroader likes about trains and tracks--the sound of a steam engine blasting its way up a canyon or roaring across an open trestle--the clatter of wheels over a switch, or the sight of a lonely spur taking off from the main line and curving away into the distance. These, to mention only a few, are some of the realistic touches I wanted to see in my La Canada Valley R.R. Needless to say, it talks easier than it gets built, but I can truthfully say I had little or no idea of how much work I was getting into starting a railroad from scratch. However, most backyard railroad presidents seem to be endowed with a little bit of that old pioneering spirit that drove the early day Huntingtons, etc., to such great achievements. In your case it may just be laying track through your wife's flower bed, nevertheless there is, I am sure, some of that same satisfaction of conquering a new frontier.

Reefer with scored sides to simulate boards. Door handles work on crank principal like the big ones. Photo by Ollie Johnston.

My railroad map called for about 1000 feet of track, several switches and a couple of bridges, one of them a 25 foot redwood trestle. The railroad took nearly three years to bring to its present state of completion. When I first started, I had a former D. & R. G. W. surveyor help me stake out the grades. There was very little of the line that did not require cut or fill. But to someone not familiar with pick and shovel work this didn't look too tough. I figured it was just a matter of getting in there and doing it. I thought it might even be fun to exercise again. Thirty or forty feed of track in a weekend didn't seem out of the question at all. This bubble soon burst and I was just glad that I wasn't a little one inch scale human trying to conquer these new frontiers. By the time I had laid a couple of hundred feet of track I realized what a project I had started -- and with a 100 ft. cut through granite that was supposed to be decomposed still to go. This little job wore the pick right down to the handle. The trestle with 19 bents was a shop job and more to my liking. I still have a Y and a passing track to lay.

The engine, which is the pride of my layout, was built for me by Laurence Hiney, one of the top live steam authorities in our Southern California Live Steamers Club. I had no previous machine tool experience; so my contribution to the engine was mainly in a blacksmith capacity. In the two years we worked on the engine, I developed a liking for machine work and a great admiration for the fine work done by Hiney. I was always carting around the front truck or siderod to bore my friends with, at work.

R.B. Jackson on the locomotive. The passengers are Bill Cox, Laurence Hiney and sons Leland and Harlan. Photo by Ollie Johnston.

At present my rolling stock consists of:

  • the above mentioned engine, a 1 inch scale Pacific
  • One 41-1/2 inch all metal gondola (Espee lettering)
  • One 50-1/2 inch all metal gondola (D.&R.G.W. lettering yet to go on)
  • Two flat cars 41-1/2 inch and 50-1/2 inch long, with detail unfinished
  • One 41-1/2 inch all wood reefer (Santa Fe lettering)

The engine is coal fired with a 7 inch by 10 inch firebox. It weights about 250 pounds, with the water at operating level. The overall length of the engine is 53 inches and the tender, which holds 5 gallons of water is 36 inches long. The engine is an excellent steamer and has pulled as many as twelve adults. Laurence Hiney's son, Leland, hookup up a 50 pound spring between the tender and first car in an attempt to test the tractive effort. It was set up on the same principle as a drawbar spring. WIth a load of eight people the spring was completely compressed on several of the grades. We hope to make an accurate test soon.

On the engine, as well as the track, Hiney and I followed the advice and proven theories of Dick Jackson of the Colorado Central. There is no doubt but that he saved us many hours work and helped us get a better result.

Another particularly valuable source of information for me has been Roger Broggie and Eddie Seargant of the Walt Disney shops. Many contributions for my railroad have come out of Walt's shop.

Marie Johnston on the 515 pull a load of ten cars. Photo by Ollie Johnston.

At present I have about 920 feet of track. This includes a small oval within a big one with about 70 feet of tangent. There is a 90 foot spur which runs into the garage under my workbench. This is a temporary roundhouse. We load our passengers on the small loop and round the sharpest curve (30 foot radius) to get on the main loop. Shortly after we hit the main line we cross a 6 foot steel channel bridge. From there we curve in under a tunnel of live oaks on a five foot fill and start up the longest grade. This grade hits a maximum of 3% and is about 120 feet long. About half way up the grade we start into a cut which reaches a depth of around 4 feet at the summit. Here one of my hopes was fulfilled, for with a good load behind her the "515" really blasts her way up this canyon. The cut, which is S shaped ends about 70 feet later at the start of the 25 foot redwood trestle. The track follows along the side of a gentle slope for some distance at this point. From here you look out across La Canada Valley up to Mt. Wilson. It is quite a spectacular view, especially in the winter when the mountains are covered with snow. Then comes about 25 feet of 4-1/2% grade across the driveway. This is the steepest climb, but it quickly tapers off and drops back down on an easy S curve to the small loop switch.

The ties (all 6000 of them) were soaked in creosote. They are about 7/8 inch square and rabbited for the rail with 1/16 inch extra width between the rails for curves. They are laid approximately seven to the foot and nailed to the rail on a jig, the rail being rolled to the proper curve before nailing.

There is no end to the stuff you can make for your railroad. I plan to make at least one more flat car, for additional commuter business, another box car and either a combination car or caboose. When I run low on projects, I can always follow some of the suggestions of my friends, which would keep me busy 24 hours a day, such as bridging a 30 foot deep ravine at the back of our property, or building a shay so that I could lay another 400 feet of track on the front slope of our place. That last idea isn't a bad one at that -- shouldn't take more than 10 years.

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