The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading

  NUMBER 167


© February 05, 2011   

 ©Discover Live Steam. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.


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The Ligonier Valley Railroad


Written by Randy Ross

My earliest childhood memory is of my parents taking me to the Pennsylvania Live Steamers. (Not their current site, the original "orchard" in Paoli.) I remember being so excited that I could hardly stand it, and I'm sure I must have driven them nuts asking if we were almost there.

My father (Leslie Ross) running my uncle's (Frank Watson's) almost finished 3/4" scale
Georgia RR ten wheeler in the orchard in 1959. This was the first locomotive that Frank built.

A lot has changed in almost five decades since, but thankfully not my enthusiasm for going to live steam railroads - especially ones that I haven't been to before!

Another thing that I look forward to is the articles. While the "how to" ones can be interesting, what I really enjoy is seeing other railroads. I've seen countless articles with a tantalizing glimpse of a railroad in the background. Frankly, I have enough projects to last me three more lifetimes. I want to see the railroad!

Needless to say, I really enjoy articles, such as the recent one by Mr. Johnson (Track Extension - My five year project), from people showing their railroads. I'd like to encourage others to send in photos and diagrams of their railroads, and what better way to start than with my own.

The large clubs are easy to view on line. (In fact, I would be willing to bet that I've looked at every page of every web site of every railroad that's listed in the Live Steam Railroads link here. But you rarely get to see the average guy with a track like mine. It's impossible to know how many are even out there.

For example:  My neighbor, three driveways and about 300 yards up the road, started building a 1.5" scale shay. One day, he was at a mutual friend's house seeking some advice and our friend suggested that I would be happy to help him. He said "Randy who?" and the reply was "You know, Randy, your neighbor with the railroad".  Actually he didn't know. We lived in the same area for 20 years, but had never met, and he was building a locomotive and never knew that there was a railroad right down the street to run it on!  (add your track or check for others in your area at Live Steam Railroads).

I started work on our Ligonier Valley Railroad about 15 years ago. (The original was abandoned in 1952 and ran through Idlewild Park, one of our favorite places when our kids were little.) Naturally, I had to name our main station Idlewild.

My track plan was a simple loop about 1200 feet long. This would have been kind of boring in a flat field, but our track runs around the top of a hill and you can only see 100 feet of it at any given time. There are also some nice views including Norfolk Southern's (former Conrail, former Penn Central, former Pennsylvania) main line from Philadelphia and Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and Chicago down in the valley. There are currently around 60 trains a day on that route.

Our annual Easter egg hunt with the Norfolk Southern tracks down in the valley. Click to enlarge.

In order to keep the grades to a reasonable level (2.5% or less) I built removable bridges over the two driveways. It took longer to build these than it did to build the entire rest of the original line. Once built, installing them was not especially difficult, taking about 20 minutes. Since it usually took over an hour to fire up a locomotive, I had some time to kill and this was no big deal.

Eventually, I constructed a building for storing the rolling stock. When that was completed, I purchased a Plum Cove Studios Electric locomotive kit so I could go for a ride whenever I wished.  I just had to swing open the door to the train shed and go.

All of a sudden, getting out the Bobcat and putting in those bridges was a lot more hassle than it was worth. After a trip to Art Dum's Pisgah Central Railroad in central Pennsylvania where I observed operations on very steep grades with no problems besides limited train lengths, I decided the bridges had to go. The bottom line is that I spent a couple of years building them and then a year or more tearing them down and relocating the track lower with driveway crossings. The moral of the story is plan ahead! Also, something that seems perfectly reasonable right now may not seem so reasonable when you're 20 years older.
Here are before and after photos of my removable bridge fiasco showing the last run across the bridges before I started removing them and the first run across the driveway crossings after they were gone. There was a removable bridge over a driveway that the locomotive is sitting on in the before photo, then a bridge over a small pond and then the second removable bridge over another driveway followed by a 6 foot high wood trestle where the locomotive is in the after photo.

Another Easter egg hunt photo with a couple of replacement composite ties waiting to be installed.
There's nothing fancy about our Ligonier Valley Railroad. The original ties were scrap from a local saw mill and are now being replaced with trex type material which was obtained for free because it was defective and couldn't be sold. The rail is 3/8 by 1 inch stock, some of which came from a scrap yard, and the bridges are largely used roof trusses. But, what we lack in budget, we make up for in fun!

Naturally, once the original loop was complete, I started to look for ways to expand. Our 10 acres is plenty big enough for a railroad, but the 100 feet of elevation change makes it a real challenge!

click to view map

 Fortunately, I just happened to have a bunch of unused bridges laying out in the woods to make a reverse curve on the hillside. This will enable me to lay track along the hillside for about a thousand feet to a loop in a relatively flat area of the woods. Construction of a tunnel near the main station will allow for a second loop.

Running the railroad in a point to point fashion between these two loops will result in a round trip of over a mile. The original line has 65 foot minimum radius curves but the new track will have curves as sharp as 42 feet in radius. This is sharper than I would like, but better than nothing.

As I write this, it's 15 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground, so the railroad work is on hold until spring when I'll hopefully complete the big bridge in the woods and make some more progress on the tunnel. Here you can see the playhouse that I built for the kids a number of years ago. It just happened to turn out looking like a signal tower. What are the chances!
The motive power on the line consists of three locomotives. The "Royal Oak" is a 2.5" scale British narrow gauge 0-4-0 which can be fired on either propane or coal. Its resemblance with Percy of Thomas the Tank Engine fame makes it a favorite with the kids.  There is also a 1.5" scale Reading L-3 class ten wheeler. This was the last locomotive built by my late uncle, Frank Watson.  And then there is the Plum Cove Studios electric that I made into a freight motor which has replaced the little blue diesel pictured previously.

These will soon be joined by a 1.5" scale Erie class K-5 Pacific which you can see here under construction in my shop, along with various other projects and messes.

Hopefully, this article will prompt some others with small railroads like mine to share them with us all here on

Good Steaming!



Written by Randy Ross

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