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© October 25, 2005 

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A Grand Occasion:
The 2005 Grand Scales Convention


Two 5” scale 15” gauge steam locomotives, GSP&P 2-8-0 #13 (completed in 2000) and the just-restored Joshua Tree & Southern Shay #6, pass at the convention grounds at the Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad in Reedley, CA.

Article and Photos by Ed Kelley

An event held just outside of Fresno, California in the town of Reedley saw the gathering of people from across the globe with one common interest: Grand Scale trains; something most people don’t even know the definition of!   While hobbyist live steam has existed for more than a century, it started small.  At that time, however, the McGarigles of Niagara Falls, New York and other companies had begun mass-producing larger, scaled-down steam for use as amusement park rides, the earliest known installment of such being at Coney Island in New York City.  While these may have been somewhat simple and far from the intricate “nut-and-bolt” models of Grand Scale builders today, it was these trains of 12” and 15” gauges and the like that were the first true “Grand Scale” trains (click images to enlarge).

The just-completed Redwood Valley Railway #7 made its public debut at the Convention and was a huge hit. It also participated in the “Rent-An-Engine” program.


Avery special guest at the convention was the 1901 Porter “Marie E”, owned by famed Disney animator Ollie Johnston and recently rebuilt at Hillcrest for its new owner.


Joshua Tree & Southern Shay #6 with Phil Reader, John Zitrick, and Chris Allan. This once-homely engine was recently restored by Ken Kukuk.


In the 1950s, Erich Thomsen of Oakland, California and Bill Daney of Pueblo, Colorado brought a new standard to “Grand Scale” modeling: the standards for modeling 5-1/2” scale equipment on 15” gauge track.  By representing a narrow-gauge (3’) prototype, 5-1/2” scale brought bigger equipment well suited for commercial operations such as Thomsen’s Redwood Valley Railway in Berkeley’s Tilden Park.  Ever since, dozens have modeled live steam and diesel locomotives in the larger gauges (12”, 15”, etc.)
On September 30th and October 1-2, 2005, the time had come for the 2005 Grand Scales Convention, hosted on the grounds of Sean and Melissa Bautista’s Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm and the 15” gauge Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad.  The event was the third grand gathering of members from the tight-knit Grand Scale community that was brought together from around the world largely due to the event’s organizers.

Less than a decade ago, Greg Robinson, a volunteer on the 15” gauge Orland Newville & Pacific Railroad in Northern California, and his wife Susan decided to begin a publication focusing exclusively on the large scale live steam railroads dubbed “Grand Scale”; those with a track gauge of 12” gauge and larger (with 24” usually serving as the upper threshold for the classification).  The original publication was homebound, but the execution of the idea and the content within made the Grand Scales Quarterly an instant hit, with numerous international subscriptions. 

Guest engineer Michael Campbell takes the Redwood Valley Railway’s ten-wheeler, #11, around for a spin. Convention attendees had the opportunity to purchase blocks of throttle time on many resident and visiting engines. The Redwood Valley Railway was represented by #11 as well as their just-completed 2-6-2 #7.

The wood-fired “One-Spot”, built with a Stanley Steamer engine, also represented the Glenwood South Park & Pacific Railroad. It was the first locomotive built for the private line in the 1960s.


Ken Kukuk’s most recent masterpiece, 2-8-0 #13, was another participant in the “Rent-An-Engine” program

The old format for GSQ soon gave way to a slick glossy-cover magazine, and the Robinsons soon made the first a handful of informative and entertaining Grand Scale and live steam videos; Big Little Railways Continued.  In its still relatively short existence, the Grand Scales Quarterly has played a major role in joining together the scattered groups of people around the world involved with 12”-24” gauge railroading.  Two major ‘creations’ from Robinson & Associates in particular have helped to do so, the Grand Scales tours and the Grand Scales Conventions.
In 2000, a group of Grand Scale railroaders gathered to tour both the public and private Grand Scale railways of Northern California over the course of a week.  The positive reception of the tour lead to additional trips to the Midwest and two to the United Kingdom.  The Midwest tour in October of 2001 ended at Little A-Merrick-A and the Whiskey River Railway at Marshall, Wisconsin, at the first Grand Scale Convention. The event included seminars, vendor booths, and the opportunity for guests to rent throttle time on one of the Whiskey River’s 16” gauge steam locomotives.  The success of the convention brought a second one in 2003, this time held at the Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm in Reedley, the location of the 15” gauge Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad and the Hillcrest Shops; the foremost manufacturer of 5-1/2” scale locomotives and rolling stock.  When it came time for another convention two years later, it was chosen to once again be hosted at Hillcrest.  It was to be a grand event.
The 2005 convention was the first to see a full-scale locomotive under steam, and a most unique one at that.  Hillcrest Shops crew recently completed the restoration of the “Marie E”, a 1901 Porter that had been rescued by Disney animator Ollie Johnston after a career hauling coal outside of Puyallup, Washington.  Johnston and friends restored the “Marie E” (named for his wife, Marie Estelle Johnson) and built a railroad on his and fellow animator/friend Frank Thomas’ vacation homes in Julian, California.  Johnson sold the locomotive to Pixar animator John Lassetter who, after its restoration, arranged with Disney brass to have the locomotive brought to Disneyland for the last surviving of the “Nine Old Men” of Disney animation to run around the Magic Kingdom. 

The smallest true 5” scale steamer at the convention was 0-4-0 #18, built by Chris Allan with help from the Hillcrest Shops.


The Hillcrest & Wahtoke’s Davenport-based diesel, #57


This battery-electric was built by Rod Plaisted for his backyard “Clayton & Bay Point” in the Bay Area. This is its second visit to a Grand Scale convention.

The Hillcrest crew and friends laid about 1,000 feet of 3’ track at Hillcrest to run the “Marie E” during the convention, which John Lassetter was generous enough to have participated in the event.  The highlight of the convention, however, was a special appearance by Lassetter himself at a presentation on the history, restoration, and travels of the little Porter held over dinner by Hillcrest Shops owner Sean Baustista.
While the not-even-Grand Scale “Marie E” was certainly one of the main attractions, there were other equally notable visiting engines.  The biggest hit was the Redwood Valley Railway’s recently-completed 2-6-2 #7 “Oak”, a project begun more than a decade and a half ago by the late Erich Thomsen.  Featuring a steel cab and pilot, his stunning Prairie was intended to depict a turn-of-the-century narrow-gauge locomotive “reshopped” in the 1920s or 30s.  While Thomsen did not live to see its completion, he would no doubt be proud of his crew and daughter Ellen Thomsen, who continues to run this most successful operation in Berkeley’s Tilden Park.

The Joshua Tree & Southern, whose long-dormant 15” gauge is making a steady and impressive comeback from the modest loopline that existed in years past, was represented by their recently-restored 2-truck Shay #6.  This once homely little Shay was originally built in 1971 by member Tom Coffey and stored in a shed at Joshua Tree for about two decades before receiving a “makeover” by Ken Kukuk, who is also responsible for the construction of Glenwood South Park & Pacific Shay #7.

This 12-5/8” scale locomotive was built in the 1890s by the McGarigles of Niagara Falls, NY under Herschell-Spillman, and is believed to have been the first locomotive to run at Playland in Rye Beach, NY. It was easily the oldest locomotive at the convention.


Another unique piece of 3’ equipment at the Convention was this narrow-gauge Model T firetruck, being stored at Hillcrest for its new owner who recently purchased it.


Glenwood South Park & Pacific #5, brought from Santa Cruz County, unfortunately was sidelined and unfortunately did not operate during the event.


1901 narrow-gauge Porter “Marie E.” brought a bit of Disney Magic to the convention. It spent many years chugging around Disney animator Ollie Johnston’s “Deer Lake Park & Julian Railroad”.




There were other notable visitors as well.  In addition to the just completed #7, the Redwood Valley also brought along 4-6-0 #11 “Sequoia” from the Bay Area.  The private Glenwood South Park & Pacific in Santa Cruz County brought Mogul #5 (which, unfortunately, was sidelined and did not run during the convention) and the “One Spot”, the wood-fired, vertical-boilered “Climax” built as the first locomotive in the line using a Stanley Steamer engine.  Current “regulars” at Hillcrest, Chris Allan’s 0-4-0 #18 (and 4-wheel caboose), as well as GSP&P 2-8-0 #13, were also present; as were Rod Plaisted’s two battery-electric locomotives from his private “Clayton & Bay Point Railroad” and the newly-completed railtruck from the private Coyote Valley Railway.  Hillcrest’s relatively new diesel #57 was also out and about.
Of course, the popular seminars returned for the 2005 convention, this time held not at the Opera House in downtown Reedley but on the property under a large arcade.  The presentations covered various aspects of Grand Scale railroading such as track and rolling stock construction, organizational politics, NIMBYs, running commercial operations, etc.  Some of the most well-known figures in the field shared their knowledge with fellow experts and novices alike throughout the weekend.
Another notable program at the Convention was the opportunity to “Rent-An-Engine”.  Throttle time was sold at $55 for a full run on the line (lasting about a half hour), and there was no limit on the amount of blocks that could be purchased (or on which locomotives) by any given person.  At the last minute, the new RVRy #7 was added to the “Rent-An-Engine” roster to replace the GSP&P #5.  Having not even made its first public run on its home road, it was a special opportunity to be had.  Part of the profits from each $55 session of throttle time “rented” on the Joshua Tree & Southern #6 went to help fund the construction of the roundhouse to serve as its future home at Joshua Tree.  The JT&S Museum’s “blockhead” campaign was launched to purchase the cement bricks to complete this keystone structure in what will become a most impressive Grand Scale railroad when complete.

The third Grand Scales Convention was a great success and a fabulous time was had by all.  Most of the visiting engines returned home, as did the many tired exhibitors and participants after the big weekend.  An enormous “thank you” goes out to Greg and Susan Robinson, the Hillcrest crew, John Lassetter, and all others who helped make the convention the fine event that it was. 

The Hillcrest & Wahtoke Railroad is located at the Hillcrest Christmas Tree Farm on N. Reed Ave. in Reedley, CA and runs for the public on weekends during pumpkin and Christmas Tree seasons each year.  Runs in 2005 will start the Saturday after Thanksgiving.


Article and Photos by Ed Kelley
This material may not be published, rewritten,
or redistributed without written permission.

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