Steam up on the Backyard Railroad

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From Popular Mechanics, August 1945

Happy railroad "tycoon" lowers spout from model water tower to replenish tank in engine's tender

The Kings of the model railroad fraternity are the "live steam" enthusiasts who can fire up the boilers of their tiny scale model locomotives, whistle for a clear track and move out on the rails just as if they were operating on a full-sized railroad.

Back Yard Railroad 1945-08 p033 02.PNG

Smoke pours from the stack, steam pops the safety valve and cinders fly back in your eyes just like the real thing. A bucket of coal will keep one of the baby engines moving all day. Some are equipped with the engineer's seat on the tender and foot bars that project from the sides of the cab. Passengers are carried on seats placed on sturdy scale model flatcars.

These models are no toys. Built on a scale of 1/4 inch, 1/2 inch, 3/4 inch or one inch to the foot, they are working replicas of actual locomotives in all details except the number of boiler tubes. Instead of scores of tubes, one of the midget boilers may contain only a dozen to 20 tubes. Steam and water can't be scaled down with efficiency. Starting with cold water, it takes about eight minutes to raise steam in one of the engines. The average working pressure is 100 pounds per square inch.

At present there are in the neighborhood of 1000 live steam model locomotives in the United States. Some of them have taken years to build. Two enthusiasts have been at work for 10 years on a 1/2-inch scale live steam model of a Hudson type locomotive of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, scaling down their own drawings from the original blueprints.

Most of the live steamer enthusiasts who already have built their engines have had to make their own patterns and castings. After the war it is expected that full sets of castings and other parts will be made up into kits ready for finishing and assembling.

Part of the fun of railroading with live steam is the fact that you can't buy such engines or rolling stock. Each unit has to be made by hand, down to the last coupling pin, and the finish of the workmanship is a pretty good indication of the skill and patience of the builder. A small lathe and a small drill press with a milling attachment are necessary tools.

Clubs such as the Southern California Live Steamers with 37 members and 15 working engines have been formed for this kind of model railroading. Members swap engineering data, use each others' tools and cooperate in building elaborate track systems. Live steaming is essentially an out-of-doors hobby.

A 1/2-inch scale model live steam locomotive weights about 40 pounds and uses a 2-1/2 inch gauge track. It is capable of pulling a load of several hundred pounds. A one-inch scale locomotive may weigh 300 pounds, operates on 4-3/4 inch track and can pull a ton or more. The boiler capacity of one one-inch scale size locomotive is 1-1/3 gallons of water. Its tender carries four gallons in its tanks plus 10 pounds of coal. It has an electric headlight, a two-tone steam whistle, a working injector, water glass and steam gauge in the cab, safety valves and a standard set of operating controls that are reached by means of a hole in the roof of the cab.

A good example of a complete live steam railroad system is the "Colorado Central" built and operated by R. B. Jackson of Beverly Hills, Calif. Everything is built to a scale of one inch to the foot. The ballasted roadbed makes a circuit of his backyard, spanning a fish pond by means of a girder bridge, maintaining grade over a low spot near the vegetable garden by means of a wooden trestle and using a cut to get through a miniature mountain at the end of the yard.

At the model railway town of "Cactusmelsgud," an abbreviation for "cactus smells good," Jackson has installed a long passing track, a turntable, a water tank and a tool shed that contains a handcar that can be pushed out on the main line and operated. Scaled-down hand-operated switches control the passing track and the turntable.

Jackson is currently working on a typical freight and passenger station that will be complete down to 6000 shingles on the roof and a set of miniature telegraph instruments in the office. The spout of his water tank is operated by a standard set of pull chains.

The rolling stock of the "Colorado Central," in addition to an eight wheeler and tender, includes two gondolas, two flatcars and a caboose. The interior of the caboose is fitted with seats, a coal-burning stove, lavatory, oil lamps and overhead bunks. Its doors open, its windows operate and its hand brakes function.

Model railroad men insist that their miniature equipment must operate exactly as if it were full size, if practical at the small scales they use. Jackson is finishing the construction of a set of semaphore signals and, in keeping with the model railroaders' ideal, he is making each part in exact imitation of a real semaphore. The small red and green light lenses, for instance, are made from the glass of real railroad signals cut and ground to shape, even to the tiny concentric Fresnel rings on the inside surface of each lens.

Engineer Billy Jones of Southern Pacific's "Daylight" operates a full-sized locomotive at work and a one-third-sized duplicate at his Los Gatos, Calif., ranch as a hobby. Jones' model engine is of the 2-6-2 Prairie type and operates over 2000 feed of 18-inch gauge track. It's an oiler burner, 22 feet long, weighs 4-1/2 tons and has started 200,000 pounds of load on a level track. It develops 250 horsepower under 125 pounds working pressure. True to tradition, a gold plated spike was driven in the final tie of Jones' "Wild Cat Railroad" at the dedication ceremony of the system.

The largest rolling stock of all in the hands of railroad enthusiasts is the full-sized narrow gauge steamer, tender and passenger car operated by Ward Kimball over three-foot trackage on his San Gabriel, Calif., ranch. The engine was the pride of a Nevada railroad almost a century ago. Kimball and his friends reconditioned the engine and operate it on week ends. They call it the Grizzly Flats Railroad.

The smaller live steam models, however, from one inch to the foot and down are more versatile. They can operate for many scale miles per day over a backyard system and can pound along the right-of-way at scale speeds of 100 miles per hour. The sound effects that are made by a tiny live steamer are the same as the sounds that issue from a big transcontinental locomotive, right down to the rumbling over the switch points and clicking on the rails.

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