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Garden railroading in Hawaii

By Eric Mueller | December 18, 2022

This tropical line is a family affair

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Garden railroading in Hawaii: model sugar cane train

Garden railroading in Hawaii: In late 2013, my wife set in motion a scheme that eventually became the Oberammergau, Ogden & Olomana Railroad – the Triple O. A few books, a GR subscription, and a year of study later, and we broke ground on what has become a family project to bring a stylized piece of Hawaiiana into our backyard.

I would need to balance this being a family project against my own desire to build a railroad that would, in time, be representative of Hawaii’s railroads between 1880 and 1920. I came up with three rules:

1. Get trains running and keep them running. I assumed family support would rapidly erode if the iron horses remained in boxes. Construction choices, to include excavating a gulch after we laid the track, had to include this directive.

2. All may join a project, none must remain on a project. I deemphasized efficiency in favor of maximizing participation and thus interest. At one point, for instance, I stopped excavating the gulch I mentioned when the kids started using toy trucks for the job. Efficient? No. Fun? You bet! At the same time, given their ages, I did not want the kids to resent the work, so I allow them to wander off to other activities whenever they are ready.

3. Leave room to grow the project. I sought to avoid construction choices that would render the evolution of the Triple O into a “sugar cane road” impractical. This rule helps to prioritize “what’s next” based upon my own (hopefully) improving skillsets and my kids’ maturing abilities and interests.

I covered most of my deliberations and practical progress on the GR Forum in a thread entitled “Progress on the Triple O.”

This all-hands emphasis has had multiple benefits. First and foremost, the whole family has sweat in the project. My father-in-law provided invaluable experience – and not a few tools – to get me over the hump in building the hollow tile retaining wall and in overcoming some challenges using concrete for texturing mountains.

Speaking of mountains, these are a combination of salvaged lava rock, hollow tile, and concrete rubble held together with concrete and construction adhesive. My older two kids thoroughly enjoyed digging in and getting dirty setting materials in place and painting concrete to look like lava rocks! As the garden came together, my in-laws donated simple structures and two bridges. Much the delight of the kids, the latter items necessitated more digging, concreting, and painting!

The main challenge, as it turned out, was, and continues to be, logistics. Like Benjamin Dillingham and his Oahu Railway & Land Co. (OR&L), we began the project alone. It took me some time to connect to the limited local model railroad community, and there is no local connection to trains beyond the remnants of the OR&L. This meant that when I hired a neighbor to fill the garden, despite sharing multiple photos, instead of a dirt fill with a pile of rocks for ballast, I got 6” of rocks spread over the entire dirt surface. Hobby stores on O’ahu carry limited model railroad supplies, so we have learned the art of repurposing, scavenging, and improvising to slowly grow our railroad. We have also benefited from fellow large scale enthusiasts willing to send us their scrap bin overflow for the price of postage. I am grateful that my 1980s vintage LGB has proven equal to the task, patiently awaiting a trip to the continent or a large combined order for periodic repair parts.

The other challenge has been planting. Just about anything grows in Hawaii. Just about nothing seems to grow along our railway. Although we live on the “wet” side of the island, the rain typically falls well mauka (toward the hills) of us, leaving our yard hot and dry…until it isn’t. When the clouds dump short of the Ko’olau Range, the deluge can drown plants that like dry feet. Over three years, countless annuals have gone to mulch, thyme has fried, sedum rotted, and succulents succumbed. We have learned through trial and error with the soil and the plants to discover what works. Our strongest growers include rosemary, which we topiaried into a tunnel in one place and trimmed to “trees” elsewhere, and roses. We have also successfully incorporated native plants, which, if not always to scale, keep the Triple O green, add a sense of a living world, and provide bursts of tropical color!

We have experimented with multiple materials to scratchbuild most of our structures. We have found “popsicle sticks on foam core” works best. It stands up to the climate well, and it has allowed the kids to be active participants in the design and construction. We build to a nominal 1:24 scale for ease of measurements and to fit with our Playmobil figurines. We let nature take its course as far as weathering goes, and we generally let visitors’ imaginations fill in the details we cannot craft.

With the Triple O in its seventh year, I can definitively claim it serves as a unifying element for the family. It has delivered drinks to thirsty guests, served as a creative outlet for kids and grandparents, offered me a chance to develop some skill with tools, and provided a laboratory for the kids for topics ranging from civil engineering to guppy cultivation. The road has successfully linked past to present, too. The old trains have spurred my parents to reminisce about which train arrived around a Christmas tree when and of riding the rails during their own childhoods, and they have restored to memory tales from my wife’s family of riding plantation era Hawaii’s once extensive rail network. For now, it is sufficient the kaa ahi iki (little fire coaches) of the Triple O serve to bind one family, three land masses, and four generations across place and time. We have only one regret: We did not break ground sooner!

In closing, you can enter this hobby with young children and on a budget. Keep it simple, keep it fun, and let it grow with the kids. You will be surprised where those brass rails will take you. Oh, and the next time you book travel to Hawai’i, tell your agent, “Hey! I’d like to go on the Triple O!”

Railway at a glance
Name: Oberammergau, Ogden & Olomana RR (The Triple O)
Size of railroad: smallish
Scale: 1:24-ish Playmobile scale
Gauge: 3 foot
Era: 1880-1920
Theme: Hawaii-inspired; the Oahu Railway & Land Co. serves as a loose guide but Alpine and Wild West days do occur!
Age: Seven years; broke ground May 2014; first train ran in January 2015.
Motive power: various; mostly 1980s vintage LGB
Length of main line: ~100 feet
Maximum gradient: 0.5-1%
Type of track: LGB sectional; railclamps where needed
• Minimum radius: 2 ft.
Structures: many handmade by my father-in-law; 1980s vintage Pola locomotive shed and water tower; various toys, esp. Playmobile, as suits our fancy at that time
Control system: DC analog
•Website: Construction documented on the GR site under “Progress on the Triple O.”

Plants on the Triple O

Kailua, Hawaii, USDA Hardiness Zone: 10

Blue daze or dwarf morning glory (Evolvulus glomeratus)
Dwarf lily (Lilium candidum sp.)
Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes)
‘Ala’alawainui wahine (Plectranthus parviflorus)
Roses (Rosaceae sp.)
Rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’ (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Tuscan Blue’)
Yellow daisies (Rudbeckia fulgida var.)
Sedum (Sedum sp.)
‘Akulikuli or sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum)
Rabbit ears (name unknown, possibly Sempervivum sp.)
Pohinahina (Vitex rotundifolia)
“Pokey tree” (name unknown)

model steam locomotive on garden railway
It’s a busy Day at the Pu'u'oma'o Yards. Photo by Eric Mueller
model steam locomotive on garden railway
Two adults and four children pose near a garden railway

The author and his family. The Triple O involves the entire family.

Two adults and four children pose near a garden railway
boy working with foam and craft sticks

Foam, craft sticks, and cans will eventually become the M&K Sugar Co. Mill. Photo by Eric Mueller

boy working with foam and craft sticks
close up of model steam engine
Kolea pulls a kitbashed shorty out of the tunnel complex. Photo by Eric Mueller
close up of model steam engine
Garden railroading in Hawaii: model sugar cane train

Komaka Iki (Little Thomas) heads back to the fields for more cane. Photo by Eric Mueller

Garden railroading in Hawaii: model sugar cane train
pink rose over a garden railway

A Maui rose blooms over a MOW train. Photo by Eric Mueller

pink rose over a garden railway
girl works in garden railway with stones

Salvaged lava stones will become a new mountain. Photo by Eric Mueller

girl works in garden railway with stones
girl building wooden rolling stock

Building wood sugar cane cars. Photo by Eric Mueller

girl building wooden rolling stock
model steam engine crossing wood trestle
Olomana crosse a scratchbuilt trestle. Photo by Eric Mueller
model steam engine crossing wood trestle
model MOW train set

Hobbyists have been kind enough to send the Mueller family hobby materials for the cost of postage. A MOW set was assembled from donated parts. Photo by Eric Mueller

model MOW train set
overview of garden railroad and family

This overview shows the entire railroad (and family). Photo by Eric Mueller

overview of garden railroad and family

About the author:
Eric is a retired Naval Reserve Officer and current civil servant. His wife, Melissa, is a social worker now working as a full-time mother of four. When not tinkering with the Triple O or exploring Hawai’i with his family, Eric fences, scubs dives, sings in the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church Choir, and helps preserve the memories of Hawaiians that served in the U.S. Civil War. Melissa has learned to be more careful about giving him permission to start ambitious projects.

 

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