Christopher Brimley updated September 21, 2011

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  • Re-creating Horseshoe Curve in HO

    by Doug Geiger, MMR

    Photos by the author

    At sunset, we witness several trains traversing Horseshoe Curve. Altoona Reservoir is built on a door, which drops down to the left for access. Pistons ease its descent.
    Model Railroading - June 2001 - Page 40

    Most modelers choose to duplicate their favorite prototype railroad by using specific locomotives and rolling stock, but running through imagined scenes. A few copy actual prototype buildings but fail to follow actual twists and turns of specific track arrangements. But for a few modelers, duplicating scenery, track, buildings, rolling stock and locomotives is the challenge they excel at. One such individual is Lloyd Larson. His duplication of the famous Pennsylvania Railroads Horseshoe Curve in western Pennsylvania is an outstanding example of the prototype modelers art form.

    A modeler since the late 1960s, Lloyd enjoyed modeling the logging practices of the Northern Pacific in the Northwest. This HO-scale layout was in a garage environment and was completely freelanced. However, by the late 1970s, family and a growing business forced the end of his model railroading. Then after his four sons left home and the business became established, model railroading again took hold. The hobby had changed drastically in those intervening years, with more emphasis on prototype modeling and many more methods and materials available for scenery (like foam instead of lichen).

    After building a large addition to their home (including a basement), a large space became available for a layout. Lloyd had also recently acquired one of Don Balls early color books on the Pennsylvania Railroad. After seeing the vast variety of motive power the Pennsy used, Lloyd was hooked on the PRR. So the die was cast to fill that large vacant space with an HO-scale Pennsy layout. But a freelanced Pennsy would just not do, only a duplication of Horseshoe Curve (the railroads most well known feature) would give justice to that variety.

    The Layout

    The layout matches well the many curves, scenes and buildings of the region around the Curve. The grades follow the 1 1/2% of the real trackage arrangements. Of course, the mainline is four-track, which provides ample opportunity for big-time mainline railroading. Beginning at Altoona, Lloyd has captured Alto Tower, Brickyard Curve, Horseshoe Curve (with the early park and gift shop), McGinleys Curve, MG Tower (named since it is at Mid-Grade), AG Curve and finally the triple bores through Tunnel Hill. He has set the layout in the late 1930s to the early 1950s, which includes rolling stock from the war years (like troop trains).

    The layout room is 55' b y 33', but it is not completely filled with track. Wide aisles and a finished room appearance (carpet, walls and ceiling) enhance the beauty of the layout. Approximately half of the layout is finished (the prototype PRR section), with the other half still in benchwork and planning stages. The unfinished part is to be completely freelanced and will follow no particular prototype, other than having PRR equipment running through it. Thus, the complete layout can provide Lloyd with the enjoyment of matching specific scenes and trackage over Horseshoe Curve with the flexibility that comes with freelance modeling.

    An experimental PRR T-1 steam locomotive passes the Horseshoe Curve monument. Lloyd models the era before the famous K-4 was put on display at the Curve.
    Model Railroading - June 2001 - Page 41

    There is a high scenery-to-track ratio in the finished part to provide the illusion that the trains must battle nature to pass through the region. The 48" radius curves enable even the largest steam locomotive or articulated diesel to travel easily across the layout. The large curves also provide a nice view of full-sized passenger train consists snaking around the many curves. Spline roadbed provides the foundation for most of the trackwork. All the mainline curves are super-elevated as per the prototype. There are even track pans strategically placed at several locations on the mainline to provide all those thirsty steam locomotives with on-demand water (simulated, of course).

    The layout is set in the fall, which enables Lloyd to add bright and brilliant foliage. His techniques for scenery are quite varied and employ a variety of materials. Much of the scenery base is foam with burlap added for texture. Plaster rocks using rubber molds are used to model the rugged Pennsylvania terrain. The background hills are done with black fleece material, which has had ground foam added for texture and is spray painted for shadows.

    The backdrop is quite unusual on the layout since it is translucent! Light bulbs are behind this backdrop. Cloud stencils made from styrene are then glued or taped to the backs of the sheets and provide a very soft effect for clouds. The sheets simulate well the hazy, soft atmospheric effect, which is common in western Pennsylvania. Lloyd uses sheets of white polypropylene plastic from truck cargo liners fastened on a wooden framework. The seams are difficult to work with, so he has tried a variety of joint techniques, with 3M invisible tape being the most current.

    Alto Tower controls movements at Altoona. The scratchbuilt structure features complete interior. Lloyd has used perspective to make the town recede into the background.
    Model Railroading - June 2001 - Page 42

    There is approximately two feet of space behind much of the backdrop, which enables him to add additional lighting effects. When the overhead lights are dimmed, Lloyd can simulate a beautiful sunset and moonlight by using red and blue light bulbs behind the translucent backdrops. There is even a thunderstorm sequence with lightning behind the town of Altoona...and a moon over a section of the Curve!

    The trees are made using a variety of natural and artificial materials. Sumac and sagebrush branches make for great natural bark textures. Foam adds leaves and the fall colors. Commercial trees are used, too. The variety of trees and ground litter and clutter are beautiful and set the stage for the trains to travel through.

    The buildings are constructed primarily of styrene. Many are scratchbuilt to match particular prototype buildings. Some have interiors that duplicate the real buildings. At least 50% of the structures are specific for the copied scene being replicated. The remainder are kits, both modified and straight from the box. Many buildings have lights, both interior and exterior. There are also lights along many of the city streets in Altoona. Lloyd has strayed from some of the conventional modeling wisdom and uses innovative methods in his buildings. For example, the windows on many of the background structures are just black electricians tape applied directly to the painted styrene walls! And the insulators on all those telephone poles are done with green glitter paint.

    Motive Power, Rolling Stock and Train Control

    The city of Altoona is represented with a portion of the main business district. Wolf Furniture is a copy of the actual building in Altoona.
    Model Railroading - June 2001 - Page 43

    Since one of the attractions for modeling the PRR was its variety of motive power and rolling stock, Lloyd has many representatives of Pennsy power. From steam locomotives to early diesels, they can be found on the layout. Most have been custom painted and weathered to match particular engines.

    Many of the passenger consists match particular trains of the period modeled. Both brass and plastic cars are used to fill out those trains; some even have interiors, complete with passengers. The freight cars are a variety of Westerfield, Sunshine and Bowser superdetailed craftsman kits. Lloyd likes rolling stock almost as much as scenery. He weathers everything (including the struc tures) with an airbrush and chalks. Even tea leaves and coffee grounds are sometimes used for weathering techniques!

    Trains are currently controlled using conventional DC from a central control board, but plans are underway to convert the layout to DCC (manufacturer yet unchosen). A wireless system will most likely be selected. After all, being able to follow a train through the great scenery makes one appreciate it all the more. Like many modelers, Lloyd likes wiring least of all but tolerates it. Currently, a PBL Foreground Sound System provides some of the DC control, so the DCC will most probably be sound-equipped. Operations on the layout are strictly for the enjoyment of seeing trains run, not to match prototype movements. But with DCC, that may change.

    Conclusion

    Tunnel Hill was pierced by a set of twin bores (Gallitzin on the right, Allegheny on the left). The blowers pushed a column of air in front of the locomotive so that the engine crews would not suffocate from smoke or fumes. The passenger car is the Ferdinand Magellan, a favorite of President Roosevelt.
    Model Railroading - June 2001 - Page 44 Model Railroading - June 2001 - Page 45

    Most of the layout is Lloyd Larsons work, but he holds a regular "work" session for three to four local modelers each week. He has also been a mentor for a local budding model railroading youth, showing him how to wire, lay track and do scenery. Almost every scene on the layout has a story behind it. Ask Lloyd about a particular building or vehicle and he can recite an in-depth (usually hilarious) story which makes the scene believable and convincing.

    The social aspect of the hobby is very important to Lloyd, but he still finds the time for modeling. In fact, he became the National Model Railroad Associations Master Model Railroader (MMR) #288 in 1999. He is also a member of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society and belongs to both the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) and the NMRAs Layout Design SIG. Going to national NMRA conventions is also a high light in Lloyds hobby. The clinics he has presented at National are both entertaining and educational.

    With his fresh approach to many areas of the hobbys proven techniques, he uses uncommon materials in many of his projects. In just ten years, he has created a magnificent representation of one of railroadings most famous landmarks, the Pennsylvania Railroads Horseshoe Curve. And all from just a casual reading of a book on the PRR.

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