Christopher Brimley updated November 21, 2011


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  • Lehigh Alliance of Rail Carriers

    by Bill Brown & Art Fahie

    Photos By Art Fahie

    The engineer of switcher #39 (made by Stewart) stops to share some early morning coffee with the crew of the yard maintenance shed. The vehicles are Mini-Metals from Classic Metal Works.
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    Syracuse, New York, is more than the home of the New York State Fair, it is also home for a group of some of the finest modelers Ive ever had a chance to meet. An area rich in rail history, this historical upstate city boasts more highly detailed model railroads, and more skilled modelers than any other area I've visited...the modelers are enthusiastic, and the work they've amassed is some of the best in the country.

    This will be the first of three articles over the coming year that will feature the residents of this upstate New York community, and this railroad is special in more than the modeling behind it. With the population of our hobby aging, the father-and-son team of Bill and Steven Brown has used our great hobby to not only build great models, but to maintain a relationship that many of us would envy. This is the story of their Lehigh Alliance of Rail Carriers as told by Bill Brown.


    Some of my greatest childhood memories are of helping my dad put up the Christmas-tree train. Model railroading has been in my blood all my life thanks to that early encouragement from my father. Many years later, in the winter of 1995, my wife Judy and I found ourselves with a six-year-old son of our own who had also developed an intense interest in railroads, along with a strong curiosity about those many boxes marked trains that sat idle on my shelves after a job change and family relocation. This, combined with a new home with a large basement, gave me the perfect opportunity to contemplate my sixth layout. I knew that this would be the railroad that would climax many years of practice in the hobby, and I valued what could become a great source of bonding with my young son Steven.


    I wanted this railroad to be based on a prototype from a specific era. I had grown to really enjoy railfanning some of the remnants of the eastern "Fallen Flag" railroads and researching their history and heritage. Growing up near the Lehigh River valley and gorge of eastern Pennsylvania in the late 60s and early 70s provided the ideal setting on which to base a home layout. I have always had a fascination with steam, but Steven naturally has an equal passion for diesels, and to him the more modern the better. I wanted to capture the flavor of Lehigh River railroading, but Steven was not satisfied with limiting the plan to the two carriers that monopolized the area the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Their colors were not bold enough and even I had to admit that other eastern railroads offered color schemes much more exciting to the eye. Since this was to be a father/son endeavor, history would have to be altered and reality stretched to allow us to incorporate our varied interests and operating scenarios into a railroad that would satisfy each of us. The result is our LARC - the Lehigh Alliance of Rail Carriers.


    The dictionary defines lark as "something done solely for fun or adventure," and that certainly describes the historical alterations and creativity we have employed to make this venture meaningful for both of us. Our LARC assumes that back in the '60s five eastern railroads pooled their resources to provide services that would continue to connect the coal regions of the Lehigh River valley with the outside world, thus negating the necessity for the formation of Conrail. With a board of directors committed to nostalgia, the LARC still maintains some steam presence into our time period, the early 1970s. The LARC proudly displays the heralds of its component railroads: the colorful Reading, Delaware & Hudson and Erie-Lackawanna as well as the CNJ and LV. Though purists would frown upon these deviations from the history books, "Hey, this is OUR planet," is our often-used expression to excuse the liberties we have taken. Most of our first- and second-generation diesels satisfy Steven, so he grudgingly complies and hides his more modern engines before we unlock the doors to any visitors. He may find watching his Acela zoom through the Lehigh Gorge an inspiring sight, but there is only so far a father can bend in the name of good parenting!


    A pair of Alcos is hard at work at the Ace Metal crossing. By giving each town its own distinctive look, the railroad actually gives the impression that it is traveling between actual locations. The vertical nature of Bills kitbashed Hardwood Furniture Co. (by Walthers) just illustrates how far you can go to make believable and unique scenes from standard model railroad structures.
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    For operations the layout is a point-to-point plan, but the ends connect for continuous running when one just wants to sit back and "watch 'em run." The base of operations on the LARC is the old CNJ yard at Nesquehoning Junction in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Carloads are received from the Jersey ports through Easton and Bethlehem on the eastern end of the layout, and from distant points through Sayre on the western end. These goods as well as those from local shippers are classified at Jim Thorpe and delivered to businesses around the layout. A typical operating session with friends lasts around two-and-a-half hours. We employ a switchlist system that pairs an engineer that runs the train with a brakeman who throws the turnouts, does the uncoupling, and throws the manual signals that keep invaders out of their block on the mostly single-track mainline. One major maneuver involves the shipment of coal from Hazleton on the upper level to Penn Haven Junction and on through Easton on its way to port in Newark, NJ. The Packer mines are located on a 6' section that detaches when we join in with our local modular group, the Central New York Modelers of Distinction. Digitrax Digital Command Control powers the LARC with many engines equipped with SoundTraxx decoders.


    The general plan of the LARC includes many of the towns that actually appear along the Lehigh Valley and Jersey Central mainlines. Some towns bear no resemblance to the real thing, but others were modeled after pictures taken on various railfanning trips. Many of those photos are displayed around the layout room for visitors to compare with the modeled scene. The town of Jim Thorpe has been recreated pretty true to form along with some of the spots in the Lehigh River gorge such as The Narrows and the Rockport Tunnel. The CNJ yard has a strong resemblance to the real thing as it appeared years ago, including the old engine house that is long gone but has been reconstructed from pictures. The CNJ station at Jim Thorpe is a scratchbuilt structure modeled after the prototype along with Asa Packer Park, the Hooven Mercantile Building, and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Building, all very popular tourist attractions in this historical area. The future will see the addition of the Carbon County Courthouse, home of the famous Molly Maquire trials. Yet another dramatic scene is the purely fictional deep and treacherous Elvira Gulch, named after the equally treacherous character in The Wizard of Oz.


    When you can get this close with a camera, the modeling better be good! Check out the highly detailed trackwork...this is the kind of flawless trackwork that not only looks works great too.
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    The 30' x 14' layout is built along the walls with two peninsulas and an upper shelf. The framework is of L-girders with the scenery formed with hardshell over carved foam insulation, screen and cardboard forms. The desired effect is that the trains should pass through very dramatic scenery with very few flat areas. The backdrop is mostly hand painted but also incorporates some commercially made portions along with some digital photography. This combination gives a sense of distance to the mountainous area.

    The mainline stretches for close to 100' with six distinct switching areas with many sidings and businesses that accommodate some pretty elaborate switching possibilities. Just like the prototype the steep grades offer a challenge, reaching 2.5% on the mainline with a short 5% rise to the upper shelf. The minimum radius on the mainline is 24" with #6 and #8 turnouts. Some of the sidings in industrial areas use 18" curvature with #4 turnouts.

    The many rock faces were created using both commercial and homemade molds, and painted with a technique that has evolved over the years using acrylic paints and washes. Some of the most convincing homemade molds were produced by painting liquid latex onto pieces of jagged coal that were picked along the actual right of way in the Lehigh River gorge.

    Eastern Pennsylvania has much greenery, and the LARC is covered with thousands of homemade trees, many made by covering natural Goldenrod with ground foam after soaking them in matte medium and painting them. The city of Sayre, Pennsylvania, features a downtown scene with streetlights made from tubing, clear beads and other inexpensive jewelry parts picked up at the local craft store.


    Construction of the LARC has been a great experience as our son Steven has grown. I am very fortunate that my wife is also deeply interested in railroading and more than supports the layout and the many railfanning excursions that have been taken as part of family vacations. Model railroading has taught Steven responsibility from an early age, and provided the foundation for many educational endeavors. Through the layout Steven has gained a historical perspective of how railroads helped shape the modern world, and how changes in the world effected the rise and fall of the railroads. The hobby has kindled a special interest in electricity that has resulted in a working knowledge far beyond that of most 14-year-olds. Railroading for the Browns has been passed from generation to generation, and has truly been a family affair that has provided many hours of joy.

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