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The Suffolk Northern is an Appalachian coal road, routed generally like the C&O, but with major influences from N&W and B&O as well.  It runs from the Hampton Roads area of tidewater Virginia, to Cincinnati and Toledo.  Coal moves both directions out of the mountains, to the Great Lakes as well as to the Atlantic.  There is also a fair amount of merchandise bridge traffic, as the SNR attempts to keep its revenue base diversified by tapping the import/export trade between the Atlantic and the industrial midwest. 

The layout is set in 1952 and covers the segment from the Virginia piedmont to the Kanawha River - about 150 miles of railroad.  The visible mainline is about 2.5 miles, so the layout is pretty compact, but we cram a good bit of action into it.   The trackplan is a folded dogbone, with stacked staging loops at the ends.  Lower staging is Amherst (a crew-change point in west-central Va., like Gladstone on the C&O), and upper staging is Gallipolis, Oh. (the equivalent of Portsmouth on the N&W). Since rivers and lakes are at higher elevation than the ocean, a good rule of thumb to remember is that 
"West Is Up".  

The major industrial area is St Amour, W.Va., which approximates St. Albans, in the Kanawha valley near Charleston.   The major service facility is Yaeger Yard in Segway, Va. (basically Covington/Clifton Forge, Va. on the C&O), and is a division point between the foothills to the east and the mountains to the west.  Road freights behind steam usually change engines at Segway, as each division has its own specific engine types and assignments.  The ruling grade westbound is 3-1/8 %, so road trains physically require helpers out of Segway - Mallets front and rear.  That was the #1 goal I had in mind when I laid out my parameters for a railroad, while daydreaming in college.  And with DCC, helpers can operate with a second crew, just like life.  Only a few trains rate helpers though, since it's pretty dramatic.  

The original layout was started in 1993 in a previous house, which included the major sections at each end, and the loops.  The east end of the yard, and the towns in the middle, are the "new" portions (2000). The classic story is that I convinced my wife to look at this house before I realized that the R/E agent's description of "full basement" meant "full height basement."   By the time I discovered that the extra couple thousand square feet of house to the east was actually on a slab, it was too late - she was sold on it.  So I folded my design into two basement rooms after downsizing the boiler 4:1, and am probably glad for it.   The main rooms total approximately 15x30, or 450SF, with the staging and dispatcher's office located in the laundry room next door.

The layout was begun before our sons were born, and has actually been operating since 1995. Now that the boys are grown I'm finally able to put some time into scenery. I just ask the sightseer to take it all with a grain of salt, and realize: 

          • If it's ugly, it's a placeholder;  
          • If it looks incomplete, that's 'cuz it's not done yet;  and 
          • If it's thoroughly implausible, remember it's all just a backdrop to operations!  

The DCC system is NCE.  My old friend Darren Williamson gets credit for the DCC design and selection, conversion of dozens of locomotives to Tsunami sound, and 20 years of lobbying to get me to accept the digital fate.  

For 30 years, up until about 2010, my "crew" stayed pretty tight.  We designed our layouts around each other's interests, and it's only been since our old friend Roger Rassche's death in that year, and Brian Field's a few years later, that I've started to operate other layouts and invite new folks to mine.   Fortunately I've met a wealth of terrific modelers in the years since, whom I'm proud to say have become a great group of friends, and a willing extra board from which to assemble crews.  Plus most of them have dynamite layouts I get to go play on as well.  

The main goal on the SNR is to provide an interesting gameboard where good friends can enjoy the fun of prototype (-ish) operations with the group.  In this realm, modelbuilding and scenery are not ends in themselves, but the support for that goal.    


  1. Been working my way through the entire blog. I can't believe no one has commented! You've created an empire that's generated personal satisfaction, friendships, humor and a neat experience for your crew. Well done.

  2. Well a quality comment such as this one is worth waiting for. 🙂 Also I do hear back quite a lot via email, esp. when a post gets broadcast. Thanks much - very glad you're enjoying it!