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august 2008 railroad model craftsman

Just a few years before bankruptcy relegated the Ann Arbor Railroad to a sequence of takeovers and reorganization in the mid-1970s, Railroad Model Craftsman featured a great story about this classic Midwestern short line.  In the 1973 article, author Jim Boyd boarded the Ann Arbor Railroad’s car ferry Viking in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and journeyed across Lake Michigan to the Ann Arbor’s port facilities in Elberta, Michigan.  He then followed the route all the way to the railroad’s terminal at Toledo, Ohio.


The RMC story chronicled Jim’s experiences along the line as he observed and recorded the railroad’s operations.  From the loading and unloading of freight cars on and off the boats, to the daily trains that moved cargo across the system in coordination with the cross-lake service, Jim did a great job describing the Ann Arbor’s daily operations in the mid-1970s.


Best of all, the article featured a lot of good photos and detailed information about the railroad’s fleet of motive power and rolling stock.  It was a virtual snapshot in time, allowing modelers of both then and now to gain valuable insight on the railroad.


The story of my small N scale layout begins with the recollection of Jim’s article because my love for trains was sparked by the very scenes that Jim captured with his camera and words.


While Jim was trekking across Michigan in pursuit of the Annie (as the Ann Arbor is affectionately known by its fans), I spent many Saturday mornings watching the ferries in Elberta while traveling up north with my family.  Equally fascinating were visits to Ann Arbor and other places along the route. With each trip, scenes of the Annie were etched in my mind.


Unfortunately, many of the scenes and operations recorded in the 1973 RMC article were ultimately consigned to the history books. The railroad declared bankruptcy after defaulting on a loan to parent DT&I, resulting in significant organizational changes as the venerable operation struggled to survive in the mid-70s.


Conrail operated the route briefly in 1976-77, and then the State of Michigan purchased the line to preserve rail service in the region. Under state ownership, the line was leased to Michigan Interstate for the next 5 years.  The Michigan Interstate era introduced new hope and a new look for the railroad, with the ferry-in-the-fog paint scheme and investment in new rolling stock; but growing political unrest over subsidies finally resulted in the termination of ferry service in April of 1982, and eventually the northern end of the line was abandoned beyond Yuma.


However, much of the Ann Arbor system still exists today and the full story of this short line’s evolution is fascinating and rich with modeling potential. But those details are reserved for a larger layout and a different article at a future date. 


This article is intended to demonstrate how, by using readily available resources and materials, an average modeler can accomplish a very rewarding, era-specific layout with a modest amount of space, time and budget.



Every layout story is built upon lessons learned.  Sometimes we learn from others, while sometimes we learn from our own misadventures.  In my case, lessons came from the latter resource, which were more than abundant.


My interest in N scale began with the gift of an Atlas starter set in 1988.  Amazed by the small size and realistic appearance, I immediately started dreaming of building a huge N scale empire. And I started buying N scale equipment wherever and whenever I could, without regard to practicality or realism.  I had the train bug.


I bought stuff because I thought it looked cool, and I bought stuff because it was on sale.  I had four or five different types of locomotives with four or five different road names – none of which were remotely in the same geographic region. My early layouts had no identity, and no reason for existing other than to serve as a place to run trains.


When I realized this approach was never going to yield a gratifying layout, I decided to build a layout featuring the Pennsylvania Railroad.  My logic?  I had more Pennsy stuff than any other road name, and PRR equipment was popular and readily available!


Even though I was slowly learning some valuable lessons and my modeling skills got better and better, none of the layouts I built were truly satisfying to me.


I finally realized that while always fun and worthwhile, my modeling simply did not capture the essence of why I fell in love with trains.  I never saw a Pennsy K4 lugging heavyweight coaches through a mountain pass, nor did I ever witness long trains of keystone-clad hoppers headed for steel mills. I did, however, see a lot of glorious Annie orange traveling through the beautiful lower peninsula of Michigan. Therefore, I decided it was time to replicate some of my fond childhood memories.


So I gathered up my extensive collection of Pennsy-themed motive power and rolling stock and logged on to eBay.  With a fresh, burning desire to model the Annie, the goal was to sell all of my Pennsy transition era equipment and seek out Ann Arbor Railroad models from the late 70s and early 80s.


Research & Goals

As I sold off my collection of Pennsylvania models and looked for Ann Arbor equipment, I also ran a daily eBay search for historical documents on the Annie.  I bought some old timetables and train orders, then some ferry schedules and waybills.  In addition, I had a lot of interesting conversations with the folks who were selling these artifacts. These simple efforts resulted in learning even more about the history and operations of the railroad.


Then I happened upon an auction for a used copy of the November 1973 RMC featuring a multi-page spread on the Ann Arbor.  Needless to say, this was a must-have item, and I frantically bid into the stratosphere to ensure that I won it. Approximately $28 and one week later when the magazine arrived, I read the article over and over, marveling at the details and the pictures. Bonanza: exactly what I needed!  Inspired by Jim’s article, my goal was to recreate in N scale the prototype images that Jim had captured during his trip, but slightly modified to reflect the ownership and operator changes as of 1980.


Building a Fleet

Now all I had to do was find off-the-shelf Ann Arbor equipment in N Scale and I would be ready to go!


But as I soon learned, off-the-shelf models of the Ann Arbor in N Scale are pretty scarce.  While there are a few decent pieces of rolling stock out there, ready-to-run locomotives are basically non-existent for the timeframe I wanted to model. 


Therefore, as my desire to model the Ann Arbor in 1980 was greater than my fear of tackling custom building and painting, I took the plunge and bought undecorated models.  I also bought lots of super-detail parts and extra pieces of rolling stock to be modified.


Let me preface this portion of my story with a confession that may cause the purists to shudder: although I am very sincere in my desire to recreate the Ann Arbor’s equipment, I am not a perfectionist; I brush-painted my models, then weathered them so it was hard to see any difference; I chopped apart Micro-Trains cabooses to build my fleet of streamlined cupola hacks, accepting that the window pattern was slightly off; and I know that the DT&I compass herald was gone from the cab sides of the GP35s by 1977, but I really liked the look of that scheme, so in my version of 1980, the heralds stayed!


I built my GP35s from Atlas Classic units, substituting the appropriate Alco sideframes from Atlas U25s.  These are a simple drop-in replacement and you can get the entire truck assembly from the Atlas parts catalog. Super-detail components such as plows, sunshades and m.u. hoses came from Sunrise Enterprises. Block letter and ferry-in-the-fog decals for all my locomotive and rolling stock conversions were made by SoliDesign, along with unit number decals and number board inserts.


The RS1s are standard Atlas Classic undecorated units, with roof-mounted horns added.


As mentioned previously, I sacrilegiously destroyed several Micro-Trains cabooses by removing the square cupolas and filling in windows.  I constructed streamline cupolas from scratch, using the back side of styrene N Scale siding made by Evergreen to replicate the smooth-sided Wabash-style appearance.  


As for rolling stock, Atlas, Micro-Trains, Intermountain and Roundhouse offer a nice variety of box cars.  I purchased a large number of duplicate cars and then used an Excel spreadsheet to create an entire sheet of new road numbers.  Next I gently scraped off the old numbers, slid on the new decals and added end-reporting marks.


I used the same approach with a number of JnJ’s 3-bay hoppers, and I have been able to find Atlas 2-bay hoppers custom-painted for the Ann Arbor at various train shows.


My point is this: don’t be afraid to experiment, and always take your modeling to the point that makes you happy.  There are a lot of helpful resources out there, and with some ingenuity and effort, you can accomplish anything!


The Layout

I have subscribed to a number of quality model railroad periodicals for a long time.  Every month I am always impressed by the great modeling I see in these magazines.  However, while I certainly appreciate and respect the efforts of anyone who builds and shares their layout through the various hobby publications, I have always been overwhelmed by the number and style of large layout features.


Don’t get me wrong.  I love the large layout features.  I think it would be awesome to have a 30x60 basement and fill it with trains.  But I think the time, effort and money that are clearly necessary to build such an empire may be beyond the reach of the average modeler.


While enjoyable and inspirational, the large super-detailed layout feature story can also be intimidating for the average modeler: 500’ of track, 100 turnouts, 60 locomotives, 450 freight cars… where do you start, how much will it cost, and how long will it take?


This layout used mainly off-the-shelf materials, cost less than $1,000 and took just under six months to build from start to completion.


At 30” wide and 80” long, the layout weighs less than 25 pounds and mounts quickly and easily to two wall brackets.  Framework is 1x3 with 1” Styrofoam insulation board as the primary surface. For the river and underpass areas, 2” foam was inserted in the subgrade.


I used Atlas Code 55 sectional and flex track, with #7 turnouts for the main line and #5s for spurs.  Tortoise switch machines power the turnouts and frogs, while NJ International switch stands provide an authentic look. Bridges are from Rix, Micro-Engineering, Kato and Atlas.


Power is standard DC with block control.  The panel diagram was made in Microsoft Word, then printed on card stock and laminated before being hot-glued to the hardwood fascia. 


Structures are from Walthers and Atlas.  Roads and ground cover are Woodland Scenics, with pine trees from Peco; all deciduous trees are from Scenic Express materials.


The functional grade crossing flashers are from Berkshire Junction, activated by optic sensors hidden in between the ties on all of the crossing approaches.  An HQ sound module from Innovative Train Technology plays an automated looped recording of a crossing bell, and another HQ module plays a diesel horn on push-button command.


Additional details include Magic Line telegraph wires, utility lines made from common thread, and lots of Woodland Scenics figures. Vehicles are Mini-Metals, and they travel on roads with accurate pavement markings and authentic road signs from Blair Line.



This is a simple layout plan, with a simple approach for operation: have fun!  The design is a basic oval with a passing siding.  There are four industries to be served and an interchange track dedicated to making a connection with the outside world.  The interchange was designed for future expansion and/or for simple hand-fiddling of cars on and off the layout.


I added a car-card/waybill system, available through Micro-Mark, although it likely would have been pretty simple to make these using any type of word processing software.

Prototype or Freelance?

It is interesting to read recent articles about the relative merits of prototype versus freelance modeling.  In my case, I have chosen a very specific prototype for its motive power and rolling stock.


However, with the advance intention of demonstrating how the average modeler can use readily available materials to build a nice small layout, I specifically avoided any pretense of modeling a particular place on the Annie. So while the premise of the modeling is based on the prototype and inspired by the 1973 RMC article, the layout’s setting is freelanced and not limited by attempting to replicate real places or structures.


Therefore, I call my modeling efforts “proto-lanced” – a compromise term that I believe most accurately reflects the spirit of this layout.



Whether you choose a prototype, freelanced or “proto-lanced” style layout, inspiration and guidance toward your model railroading goals can come from many places.


Go online and search for information about your favorite railroad, as a little bit of research can pay off quite handsomely.  Do a review of old magazine articles.  I am forever indebted to the November 1973 RMC article, for without the perspective provided in that story, I would not have had the historical photos and background as a reference point for my modeling efforts.


We are very fortunate to live in a time when so many great products and materials are available.  Anyone can build a very nice layout using standard kits or ready-made models.  In addition, several companies offer fantastic detail accessories, and those who wish to customize their layout can do so now much more easily than could be done in the past.


I hope that you have enjoyed the Annie Revisited, and that you can find something interesting and helpful in this article for use on your own layout.  Now, if my calculations are correct, a car ferry should be about 4” wide and 28” long in N Scale….

N Scale Ann Arbor Layout
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Picture
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Town
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Bridge
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Grain Barn
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Main Street
Lodi Junction
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Bridge 2
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout RS1
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Town 2
N Scale Ann Arbor Bridge 3
N Scale Ann Arbor Layout Main Street Caboose
Ann Arbor Pennant Logo black flag
C&O for Progress logo
Conrail logo CRSH
Mackinac Mac logo D&M
Detroit Toledo & Ironton Logo
Manistique & Lake Superior Logo
Lake Superior & Ishpeming Logo
Norfolk & Western Logo N&W
Penn Central Logo PC
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