A "San Juan Central" for Pacific Narrow Gauge Prototypes

titus's picture

With Blackstone Model's "Diamond Stack" freelance 2-8-0 on the horizon, it seems that having a small HOn3 narrow gauge layout which doesn't feature a Colorado prototype is becoming much more approachable for the average modeller.  Looking back, the canonical entry point for HOn3 railroads was easily Malcom Furlow's San Juan Central.  But even for it's time it was rife with issues: sharp curves, steep grades, and a poorly designed yard (Montrose).  Layout design has changed some since then, so I've been thinking about this lately -- what would the SJC look like if it was designed by today's standards and targeted a more pacific west narrow gauge prototype?

The original SJC was around 90 ft.² and was designed to be movable (movable here being different than portable).  Both of these seem like good attributes to keep around, though if the track radius were to be brought up to a modern standard, the layout size might be more in the area of 140 to 150 ft.² which potentially seems permissible.  For reference, the average bedroom is around 99 ft.² and the average single car garage 264 ft.²  A likely more relevant figure would be how many ft.² a single model railroad can complete in a given year but I've never seen any real discussion of this and it probably varies too widely based on the individual anyways.

Possible prototypes for such a layout include:  North Pacific Coast Railway, Ilwaco Railway & Navigation Co., Columbia & Puget Sound, or the Nevada County Narrow Gauge.  With traffic possibilities being some mix of passenger, general freight, coal, logs, cut lumber, fish/seafood, sheet/cattle, some type of agriculture (cranberries for example).  Imagine a smaller, HOn3 version of something like Paul Scoles' Pelican Bay Railway & Navigation Co., Boone Morisson's North Coast Narrow Gauge (MR March 2001), or even Vic Dowd's Lorigan Lumber Co. (MR July 98).

What many will agree to that fundamentally sets the SJC apart was it's use of vertical scenery; and from what I hear from those who completed the layout, it looked a lot better than it ran.  This importance of vertical scenery could meet the prototypes above in the form of waterfront or very tall trees.

The two tricky bits seem to be that of every free/protolance railroad:  1.) How to identify which signature scenes are important and 2.) How to compress those into a reasonable amount of space which still keeps the "feel" of the prototype(s)?  A third and somewhat intangible objective is woven into the middle of those two: tie all of the pieces together into a layout which has impact and drama (excitement).

This post is more or less thinking out loud, but the biggest difficulty I seem to be at right now is keeping things small.  It's easier in one sense to make a huge layout that's nice.  It seems like it's pulling teeth to make a small one that is.

So, what is the canonical, "small" narrow gauge layout of the past 10 years?  Is there a new standard for small narrow gauge layouts that railroaders should be looking at to move up from the beginner's layout?  What really makes a small layout stand-out?

M.F. Back in the day did

M.F. Back in the day did great scenery (but a bit more along the lines of "Disney" scenery then I care for). In some respects he really was the follow up to John Allen. However on things he did work on he paid little to know attention to reality (buy this I mean looking/operating like a real railroad) and he was not very good at track planing.

But did I mention is scenery was nice?

Personally I never understood how much attention he got in the hobby back in the day, but he may have been the ultimate expression of a modeler using "artistic license" vs reality based. He was definitely into Model Railroading as an art form (to the point of caricature)  And the way he just kind of fell off the face of the earth was strange also.

-Doug M


The "story" behind the scene

The "story" behind the scene is what's important.  Finding the story is as much fun as modeling the railroad.

Add the Austin & Northwestern Railway to your list of HOn3 roads.  The A&NW was a narrow gauge railroad from 1882 to 1891.


Along the way you will discover interesting, though not significant stories.  For example, the lower 6 feet of the Marble Falls station was painted with mixture of paint and sand to keep the loafers from leaning against the station.


Putting the "San Juan " to Middle or South America - in Nn3


I read this article and the comments. Me, I am into Nn3 and since only the D&RGW steam engines as well as those passenger cars and the freight/caboose of those Colorado roads are for sale in Nn3, I decided not to model another Colorado NG scene. There are just too many of them around in all scales.

But what to do with these given models? Well, cut out the name D&RGW/C&S/RG/RGS and apply new ones. I shall letter mine as "Rio Barbara", name the (only) station "Puenta  Barbara" and built it on a heavy rock outcropping from the steep mountain side into the river Barbara. Since the bridges all went out after huge floodings, they rebuilt the line and stayed on the rocky side of the river (north) instead of the south side with huge swamps, bogs and tropical forests (it´s close to the equator ).

The trains from the West shall enter with the engine heading the train, while those from the East will have to pass the mainline switch, reverse and push their trains into the station. Leaving the station will be vice versa.

I think this will be quite a challenge of operation, lots of switching and once a week a paddle steamer will arrive and depart the next day.

Am open for comments.



If you try to approach Malcolm Furlow through the operations/prototype/serious paperwork /serious history/serious track planning lens, you will never understand him nor the work that he did - nor why that work gets so much recognition.

You have to start with the understanding that Malcolm is first and foremost an artist who chose model railroading as his medium of expression, and he did a phenomenal job doing it.   In a lot of ways he was a bit of the Bob Ross of model railroading, he made it look easy, and produced scenes that are the entire back story to the railroad without any exposition whatsoever.  No histories, no operating schemas, no grand stories written in the text; just track, buildings, and a collection of scenes that together and alone tell the story, no further explanations necessary.  For those who cannot figure things out without the full dissertation behind the railroad ["I'm modeling the New York Central between Albany South and Albany North on December 2nd, 1934 from 12:08 to 15:62 but NOT 15:63"] his approach is very frustrating indeed - what do you mean, you can have a layout without all those other parts???

Malcolm left the spotlight after he became frustrated with the  Koester crowd - that's the easiest way I can put it, from what I can collect reading what Sam Posey wrote in "Playing with Trains."  And by frustrated, I mean, tired of having people show up on his lawn in the dead of night to argue with him about how his way was wrong and detrimental to the hobby.  Now you have Reverse Runnings like the one Joe wrote last month about the Era Police, repeating the common [almost rhetorical, at this point] question "has it all become Too Serious?"...

If you want the full story, I'd suggest picking up a copy of "Playing With Trains."  It's a really enjoyable reading; you'll pick up on things you may not have noticed before.

Now about the San Juan Central, I've read in places that Malcolm didn't necessarily use any of the track planning guides most people use; he started with a sketch of an idea that looked good in his head, ignoring things like even curve radius, and built it.  The result is the San Juan Central and the railroads that appeared after it.  They're the sort of work that frustrates the logical sequential mind where everything has to be connected to a sublying plot, but if you are willing to unhinge yourself from that anchor, you may find his work to be a real joy, intellectually.  

Now there may be many who gripe about his lack of adherence to "reality," the lack of "proper railroading background" to his premise, but consider this: In a span of about 3 years, or perhaps even only 6 months, from when he started the San Juan to when he sent in his first submissions, he went from a virtual nobody with seemingly little experience at all with the hobby to John Allen successor/protege. He published articles month after month on end in the most serious of model railroading publications, he gave clinics, he produced a whole line of publications to support others in their pursuit of the hobby, he became as well known around our kitchen tables as any of the well established Old Guard.  And he made it look easy, by and large due to his background - the same background John Allen claims.  Engineering and fine drafting may make perfect structures and perfectly sound designs, but it is art that makes perfectly weathered images of what may very well appear to be a real scene - even if only on a planet imagined by Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll - that all together conveys a complete experience.  You've just found that steamer trunk full of old photographs, and alas, there's no text on a single one about where they came form or what is in the pictures, they're just pictures with no "historical" analysis...

He left the spotlight because quite frankly, he get a lot more appreciation from the art community than he ever did from the model railroading community, and they pay him Very Well for his efforts.  They don't line up to tell him how he's doing it wrong and how to do it right; they line up and hand him money for what he puts on canvas, be it 2D or 3D or whatever medium he decides to work in. 

For a more detailed biography, you might look here: http://www.tracksahead.net/Travel/TA6-Trip4.htm  Program 613 is a ways down, but it's a very good read, and it may clarify things for you.


Hah Hah....I like that Benny...

"The Koester crowd" But you know now that you have offended the proto police and will incur their fierce wrath now!



Reading Benny's comments one has to think about the original post's premise.

Layout design has changed some since then, so I've been thinking about this lately -- what would the SJC look like if it was designed by today's standards and targeted a more pacific west narrow gauge prototype?

That may be missing the point or possibly require a rephrasing of the question.  I would maintain that today's standards are not that far from the standards then and while layout design has changed it is not that much different.  The SJC was not prototypical because it wasn't intended to be prototypical.  So from that standpoint, a "modern" redesign would not necessarily "improve" the design if the original intent was maintained.  It may be the real question is how do you convert the SJC to a prototypical layout or what prototypical design fits in that footprint.  It may be better just to scrap the whole design and start over with a clear prototypical premise.

Dave Husman

Modeling the Wilmington & Northern Branch in 1900-1905

Iron men and wooden cars.

Geared Steam's picture

Fixed link

I'm not sure why Benny but I clicked your link and got a "404 not found"

Although my link appears to be same, it worked for me? 


Anyway I am interested in Malcom Furlow and I enjoyed the SJC. To me it was less a "Disney" like railroad than his last model railroads he built. But regardless he was "hot" when I decided to rejoin the hobby. Admittedly mostly an armchair modeler for I had no room to build much. I had went from reading John Allens work as a pre-teen to seeing Malcolm in Model Railroader in the 90's. I thought "wow" the hobby has come a long way. (John Olsen also caught my attention as well)

Regardless of how some view his modeling, it was interesting to look at, unlike many layouts I view that are /were "prototypical" ,,,,,,which in many cases, (sorry) very boring to look because usually the scenery is not done well or they lack anything interesting. But I admit I not a "foamer" when I see a modern day trains. They all look the same to me.  

...don't take My word for it!


"The Koester crowd" But you know now that you have offended the proto police and will incur their fierce wrath now!


Oh, I'm just the messenger this time...

Sam Posey, Playing with Trains, pg 150-151

        "Scenes like this, and the creative impulses that went with them, had put Malcolm in direct conflict with Tony Koester in the struggle for what model railroading should be all about.  Bob Hayden had remarked, sensibly, that there was more than one hobby here and one approach was just as legitimate as another, but as I listened to Malcolm, I wondered if I would take the chance of putting him in a room alone with Tony.  Tony's total commitment to realism was equaled only by Malcolm's utter disdain for it.  "Accuracy is a crutch," he said to me and went on to describe a modeler who told him his embankments were too steep to be prototypically correct.  "Can you imagine that?"  he asked me, getting angry once again over an incident that had happened more than ten years ago.

        Malcolm's extreme modeling was a lightning rod for people who thought the hobby should be about trains, not personal expression.  He has had people call him crazy to his face.  He has received hate mail.  When he was living in Texas, people would come to his house and wait outside his door for a chance to argue with him.  He said, "It's as if I was violating the Holy Grail of model railroading."

      When he had turned to painting, it had been a relief to leave all that animosity behind, but now that he was attempting a comeback in model railroad, he worried that the opposition had become stronger.  he told me darkly that Tony and his legions of operators had gained the upper hand.  "The operators will wreck it," he said, "because they don't offer people anything to look at.  Scenery --- that's what attracts people, gets them excited.  The operators want to allude to model railroading as an art form, but when the art part actually comes up they practically run for the door."

I'm not really saying anything new when I say "The Koester crowd." 

Thanks Geared, for the link repair...though neither link now works for me...Let me try it again...


If that link does not work, start here:

http://www.tracksahead.net/Travel, click on "Western US", then "Arizona & New Mexico, 2004."  Scroll down to 613.

 Again, as I said before, if you really want to understand the San Juan Central, one should start by understanding about the builder.  Take the passages above in conjunction with this passage below:

"Looking back, the canonical entry point for HOn3 railroads was easily Malcom Furlow's San Juan Central. But even for it's time it was rife with issues: sharp curves, steep grades, and a poorly designed yard (Montrose). Layout design has changed some since then, so I've been thinking about this lately -- what would the SJC look like if it was designed by today's standards and targeted a more pacific west narrow gauge prototype?

Such a railroad would have never existed.  The reason the San Juan Central is what it is, is because Malcolm designed it that way.  Malcolm had no more or less access to prototype information and the design tomes in the 80's as we do now; he simply chose not to use that information, and I suspect he never would - and in the face of the original, I dare say Malcolm proved such information is quite simply unnecessary.  Those sharp curves and steep grades is just what makes the pictures as dramatic as they appear - it's not an optical illusion!

There was a layout tour in one of these magazine [It might have indeed been MRH!] a little ways back about a railroad that is in essence a replication of the original San Juan, but the builder went ahead and applied these construction philosophies to the original -better curves, better grades - and the end railroad is indeed gorgeous to look at too. The track plan is a fun arrangement, but if you were to embark on the project, I wouldn't be so bold as to dismiss the original in the manner that you have.  It all goes back to understanding the artist...

If you haven't picked up a copy of 'Playing with Trains," every self-respecting model railroader should.  Sam Posey has really done a good job of putting our hobby - the people - into one book.

It is one thing to not follow

It is one thing to not follow a prototype. It is another thing to ignore such practical matters as grades and curves. For most folks the hobby is about running a train. If you build a layout that can not practically be ran then this is a badly designed railroad as far as many folks (I would say most) are concerned.

Also keep in mind that contrary to some of the things said here M.F. was a big name before he did the S J C.  He did something I think he called the Rio Chama or some such. The RC was his personal layout as far as I remember where the SJC was a project layout. The RC was an interesting layout to look at in photos, But what little could be determined about his personal layout it was a strange track plan that seamed to have curves way to tight and grades way to steep. The SJC was a much much improved track plan compared to the RC.  

Back in the late 70's and early 80s MF was very popular.  However he did have folks that did not like his style. Keep in mind that the SJC was a much much more realistic layout then his personal layout was.  His personal layout had some amazing sceans but they where way way out there in that they depicted a world that can not exist with hills and buildings that are impossible. So while it was beautiful it was not realistic. Kind of like comparing the Lord of the Rings to a story about real events. Is one better then the other? No. But some folks may like one better then the other, depending what they like.

But frankly JA and the G&D was a much more realistic looking layout that had a much more functional track plan. Not saying this is bad, just say it is so do not dump on me. 

Personally I was a fan of MF. I personally would not have used that much modelers license in my modeling. But to each there own, This is why not everyone is modeling the C&O

Still the truth is he did not model a railroad as much as he made a caricature of one. A pretty caricature, but a caricature non the less.

As for the comment about TK, I question that a bit. The SJC pretty much the last thing that I recall MF doing was started in 1983. And IIRC TK started his Trains of Thought  in or around that time.  But he was just another person with a column at the time. He did not really start becoming a "force" in the hobby that soon.  It is not like TK staged a palace coupe

Now as for personal interactions between the two, who knows.  But I would personally give little credit to the "Tony is the root of all evil" type comments. I think these are a result of his being a very visible target and a vocal proponent of prototype modeling.   I have never figured out what those that do not want to model "prototype" have against TK. But man do you see a LOT of comments with very outspoken anti TK points of view. 

If you don't want to model a prototype or if you want to do a MF type caricature. Go for it. IF you do as good a job as MF I am sure someone will publish you.  On the other hand I don't see the point of bashing TK all the time.

And while I like Sam P (I am a big race fan) The fact is the books is called playing with trains so I think the author may have a bit of a bias there.

So I say live and let live. Neither side is "right" as there is no right or wrong in this hobby. Do what ever YOU like. 

But the fact is that MF was about the "look" and to him everything else be it prototype or reality or practical things like being able to actually run the trains is secondary. On the other Hand TK is a huge supporter of Prototype based modeling. So these two ARE about polar opposites.  Still I do not think that either of them should be bashed. So live and let live, and lets leave off with the TK is the root of all evil because he says you should model based on Prototype. Personally I have talked with TK a bit here and there at conventions and such and I have read most if not all of what he has written and I do not ever recall him suggesting that His way and "prototype" is the ONLY way. It is just HIS way. I would no more expect TK to write something about MF's style of modeling then I would expect MF to write an article about how to faithfully model a prototype scene to exact scale. This does not make either of them wrong or right.

So can we cut back the bashing a bit?


Doug M

wp8thsub's picture

Some Context

As for the comment about TK, I question that a bit. The SJC pretty much the last thing that I recall MF doing was started in 1983. And IIRC TK started his Trains of Thought  in or around that time.  But he was just another person with a column at the time. He did not really start becoming a "force" in the hobby that soon.  It is not like TK staged a palace [coup.]

Note that Koester was editor of Railroad Model Craftsman before that, and was instrumental in popularizing his friend Allen McClelland's V&O layout along with various ideas on design and modeling philosophy.  He was a known quantity in the hobby long before he started the "Trains of Thought" column in MR.

It is one thing to not follow a prototype. It is another thing to ignore such practical matters as grades and curves.

Yes, this.  Furlow's Rio Chama home layout was 3-D art that was reputed to never run well due to the overly tight curves, too-steep grades, and questionable trackwork.  It may have been interesting visually, but unlike John Allen's G&D wasn't much of an example to follow for a satisfying home layout, unless you didn't care if it ran or not.  There are stories that the SJC project layout also had issues with construction quality that interfered with reliable operation.  I can't independently confirm that, and the SJC survives today - plus it's been restored.

The SJC might not be the best starting point for a layout having another theme, as by the time you iron out all the bugs in the design with regard to curves and grades you might as well start over.  Most modelers do want their creations to run instead of being artistic but non-functional static displays.  That being said, however, there have been plenty of narrow gauge layouts inspired by the SJC, and some have turned up in the pages of the "Narrow Gauge & Short Line Gazette."

Rob Spangler  MRH Blog

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