The Chessie System from Cumberland to Pittsburgh

By Ken R. Miller/photos by the author
Originally published March 2004

Growing up in the Pittsburgh area in the late sixties and early seventies, I was exposed to a variety of railroading at a very early age. My grandfather worked for the McKeesport Connecting Railroad and we lived along the old Baltimore & Ohio mainline (before it was rerouted on the P&LE to avoid tying up traffic in McKeesport, my hometown). Sometime later, we moved to the other side of the Youghiogheny River along the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie where the newly-formed Chessie System had trackage rights. Seeing that unique bright yellow paint scheme on the locomotives as they passed by had made me into an instant Chessie System fan.

Chessie System was formed in 1972 when the Cheseapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, and Western Maryland railroads all came under common management. The C&O and B&O had been strengthening their relationship through controlling stock purchases since 1961. Chessie and Seaboard System came under common ownership in 1980 as CSX Transportation. Even though the B&O was incorporated into Chessie System, the railroad continued to exist through to 1987, when it was formally merged into the new CSX Transportation system.

Over the years, I also developed an interest in railroad photography. When I moved to Maryland after college, I re-visited the various locations along the ex-B&O line from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. I thought this would be a great area to model: the industrial surroundings of Pittsburgh, the mountainous rural setting of Sand Patch grade, and the railroad yard and maintenance facilities of Cumberland.

Map of B&O lines in the area modeled. Diagram showing the profile of the grades in relation to the tracks. The overall dimensions of the layout in the basement.

The Layout
Some of the places I wanted to highlight on the layout were Cumberland yard, Sand Patch Tunnel, Rockwood, the Low-Grade Line and High Line from Confluence to Brook Junction, McKeesport (my hometown), United States Steel National Tube Works, downtown Pittsburgh, and the P&LE Youghiogheny line. Because of space, some geographic locations could not be represented in full. My goal in constructing the layout was to recreate most of these areas as close as possible and to have the scenery give the feel of western Pennsylvania with lush tree-covered hillsides that would help divide the scenes.

I spent a lot of time developing the plan for my model railroad. I had tinkered with a design that I worked on for about five years. When I finally finished my basement in the spring of 2001, I began finalizing my plans. I do not have any computerized drawings of my layout plans because I laid out the tracks on banner paper in full scale. This helped me see how much room I had when trying to keep the minimum radius at 30 inches. To aid in laying out the tracks, I made several templates of several different radii. The full-scale layout plans also had another benefit. I used them as templates when cutting out the plywood for my sub roadbed. I started the benchwork in June 2001, using the basic L-Girder system described in the book How To Build Model Railroad Benchwork by Lynn Wescott.

I only made one change to my plans, which actually worked out to be an improvement. I had been working on how to fit a mine lead behind the curve at Rockwood, but was having trouble getting it to fit in the area I allowed. After I visited the actual Rockwood site and took several pictures of the area around the wye. I noticed the railroad bridge spanning the mainline and I used that as the mine lead. The result of this made the area look just like the wye with the station and bridge.

The layout runs along the wall with a pathway in the middle of the two rooms. To enter, you must duck under the highest point of the layout (it turned out not to be Sand Patch). Once the sub roadbed was complete, I began adjusting the elevation of the track making sure to keep the grades below 2%. The highest point is 9" higher than the lowest point.

In August of 2001, I began putting down the cork roadbed and the tracks in Cumberland yard. I used Atlas code 100 flex track, and their Mark III switches. I soldered all the rail joints to ensure good joints and electrical continuity. I felt comfortable with that since the temperature in the basement was rather constant and I did not worry about buckling of the track due to expansion. The double-tracked main line ended up being almost 160 feet long and I divided it into nine blocks. With great HO scale fanfare, the golden spike was driven in December of 2001.

My intent was to complete all of the track work so I could start running trains. I soldered 18-gage feeder wires to the track in each block and ran the wire to the block's terminal strip. I ran power to each terminal strip using 12-gage house wiring. Since I was eventually going to be using DCC, I wanted to make sure I did not have any voltage drops for the long wire runs. In March of 2002, I purchased a DCC system. After a lot of research, I went with NCE's Powerhouse Pro. I split the layout into three power districts. Two for the main lines, and the other for the yard, steel mill, and mine tracks.

Templates made when laying out the track in 1:1 scale on banner paper. Banner paper on the basement floor when doing the final layout of the tracks. Benchwork and subroadbed.
Benchwork and subroadbed when setting the elevations.
HO workers help commemorate the Golden Spike. HO workers help commemorate the Golden Spike.
Overall view of the layout. Overall view of the layout.  

Cumberland Yard
The first scenery done on the layout was the area around Cumberland yard. This area was completed quickly, since it is mostly a flat surface with the mainline sloping downward on the eastern end of the yard. The yard consists of eleven tracks and two fueling and sanding tracks. I painted the sides of the rails with Floquil Roof Brown to simulate rust.

The locomotive facility consists primarily of a back shop and a roundhouse that are arranged approximately like the prototypes in Cumberland. I recreated the locomotive shop sign that the Chessie System had along Virginia Avenue. Also in the area of the locomotive facility is the locomotive engineer's school and administration building. The eastern side of the yard has the car shops, which consists of a repair shop and wheel shop. In the background along the locomotive facility I recreated East Offut Street. On one of my trips to Cumberland, I took digital photos of the buildings and then scaled them appropriately, printed them, and applied them to the background. I was really pleased with how they looked as it gives some depth to the scene.

On the other side of the main line from the yard are the Amtrak station and the Baltimore Street shack, which I recreated accurately, right down to the potted plant I remembered from all my visits there.

Overview of Cumberland.
The Baltimore Street "shack." Passengers waiting at the Amtrak Cumberland station.
Night shot of the Capitol Limited making a stop in Cumberland.

Virginia Avenue near the roundhouse. The locomotive shop sign and the buildings in the background were from actual photos and scaled appropriately. The back shop and turntable at Cumberland Yard.
Chessie and Conrail power get serviced at the sand and fuel tracks.
The car shops with wheels being loaded onto a gondola.  

I began working on Rockwood in March of 2003. It ended up looking a lot more accurate than I had originally planned. I scratchbuilt the station to look like the actual structure located along the main line. I took the plans from a book of B&O standards, and used photos for further reference. From that information, I estimated the dimensions the best I could and arranged the windows and doors accordingly. I used Evergreen styrene building materials and Grandt Line windows and doors. The roof is made of cardboard a tarpaper roof made from strips of sandpaper. To complete the scene, I scattered a lot of railroad debris around like I had seen at the site.

The G&W Running Track, which passes over the main line on girder bridges, was used as the line to access the coal mine. There were mines located along this line, but a lot further north from where I am depicting it on the layout.

In the foreground, the tracks lead into the scene through Pinkerton tunnel and over the Casselman River. The actual Pinkerton tunnel is single tracked, but for ease of operation, I kept the entire main line double-tracked. I used plastic lettering to add the "PINKERTON" name to the tunnel face.

The Casselman River runs through the scene and separates the railroad maintenance area from a farm, which I was able to squeeze in between the river and the hillside. The farm contains a barn, house, and a produce stand. I made all the fences from balsa wood and hand painted all the animals in the scene.

The foreground trees in the scene are made from Scenic Express Super Trees kits. I used four different shades of Woodland Scenics green ground foam for foliage. The background trees are made from polyfiber covered in the same ground foam. In back of the scene is a painted background of rolling Pennsylvania hillsides. The combination of all these give the illusion of depth I was looking for.

The coal train passes the station in Rockwood. In the background is the bridge taking the G&W running track over the mainline to the coal mine.
A front view of the scratchbuilt station. A new crew is ready to relieve the next westbound freight. The Capitol Limited parallels the Casselman River as it heads west.
Coal train heads into the curve and passes over the Casselman River. The barn and farmhouse that borders the river. The farm road and the produce stand. The layered rock on the right is made from actual slate rock found along the road.
The coal mine and rock cliff made from castings of actual pieces of coal.
A view not seen by visitors, it is taken from underneath the layout. This is east of the station in Rockwood. This is the east portal of Pinkerton Tunnel. Pinkerton Tunnel is actually single-tracked, but for simpler operations for visitors I have it double-tracked. The other side of the tunnel on the layout will be the west portal of Shoo-Fly Tunnel.

Pittsburgh (in progress)
Currently I am in the progress of working on the downtown Pittsburgh area. Located in the middle of the scene will be the old B&O Grant Street station where the PATrain commuter run would end its daily commuter runs from Versailles. By 1975, the old B&O commuter run was the responsibility of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which named the operation "PATrain." The train ceased running in 1989.

A lot of the larger buildings were constructed from the Bachmann Spectrum series of large early-20th century buildings. The size of these buildings gives the illusion of being in a crowded city. In the foreground I included smaller essential buildings, like a hobby shop, for instance. I also included representations of some of Pittsburgh's tunnels and highways.

Details help place the scene. One of my highways includes a large green direction sign that says "PA 885 to West Homestead." The tunnels were not meant to be any specific tunnels in Pittsburgh, but they help make the scene believable. I spent a lot of time trying to lay out the city streets so they looked like they go somewhere instead of going around in a circle. I also added some custom-designed billboards for local radio stations that fit the era and location I'm trying to model.

Directly adjacent to this area is the U.S.S. National Tube Works located in McKeesport. In order to separate the mill scene from the downtown area, I placed a warehouse and will put in a model of the Duquesne-McKeesport Bridge.

Overall view of Pittsburgh. Amtrak pulls into Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh at the B&O Grant Street Station.
Chessie GP40 crosses the road as it passes the Westinghouse warehouse. Passing a KDKA billboard in Pittsburgh. The tail end of a Chessie coal drag passes a WDVE billboard outside of Pittsburgh.
  If you can look up the street and see a steel mill, you're probably in Pittsburgh.  

More to come…
No doubt, there is plenty of scenery work yet to do. But other plans include detection circuitry for each block and install B&O color position signals and P&LE block signals. This will make operation more realistic. I will also be adding fascia board along the edges of the layout to give it a more finished look. I have been working on this project for two-and-a-half years, and I don't even consider it to be half done!

Ken R. Miller, 38, is originally from McKeesport, Pa, now currently residing in Maryland. He is an electronics engineer for the Department of the Navy. He got his first electric train set at age 6 and has always been involved in some aspect of the hobby. This is his first RAILROAD.NET byline. Visit Ken's website.