How To Large Scale Layouts The Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes in Proto 20.3n2

The Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes in Proto 20.3n2

By Jim Providenza | February 19, 2024

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I have always liked narrow gauge. In my early 20s I tried my hand at modeling a bit of the South Pacific Coast RR in HOn3. But truthfully, I didn’t have the skills or the time. Frankly, my first love was the 2-foot gauge Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes.

I remember talking to Bob Brown, editor of Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette [no longer published – Ed.] in early 1994. By that time, I had decided to build the SR&RL, centered around Strong, Maine, in our backyard. I will always remember Bob’s comment when I mentioned the Forster Toothpick factory in Strong. “Ah yes, the toothpick factory. That would make a great shed!” It was a bit of a wakeup call for an HO scale modeler. Construction started 10 years later, using the NMRA Standards for Proto 20.3, adapted for 2 foot gauge.

model turnout next to paper drawings
Photo 1: The SR&RL plan for a No. 9 turnout in ½” to the foot scale. The prototype model No. 9 switch is in Proto 20.3n2. Nothing like working from the prototype’s plan to get it right! Jim Providenza photo

The SR&RL in Strong was about 1,500 feet long from the F&M Branch junction switch at the north to the south siding switch at the B&M corn factory. I rebuilt an existing retaining wall, creating a 40 foot by 9-foot-wide level area. In 1:20 scale, the railroad is about 800 feet from switch to switch – only a 2:1 compression!

metal wheel in machine
Photo 2: Turning down a Bachmann metal wheel. The first step is to remove the flange. Then you start turning down the tire to the correct diameter with a new flange. Jim Providenza photo

Proto 20.3 scale uses prototype wheel and track relationships. I work from copies of prototype plans for wheels and switches (photo 1). I purchased a number of Sierra Valley Enterprises wheel sets and turn others from Bachmann wheelsets on my Unimat lathe (see photo 2). Almost all of the freight trucks are kitbashed from Bachmann arch bar trucks, cutting them apart to invert the arch bars like the SR&RL ones and shortening the truck bolsters (see photos 3 and 4). The freight cars are mostly kitbashed from Bachmann models into replicas of specific SR&RL boxcars, flatcars, and pulp rack cars.

black pieces on a white background
Photo 3: The center spring / bolster portion of a Bachmann arch bar sideframe (top) was cut out and the sideframe flipped upside down (bottom). The original bolster (top) was sectioned and then rejoined. Lots of cutting, test fitting, drilling, tapping, screwing, and epoxying required! Jim Providenza photo


underside of model flatcar
Photo 4: The modified Bachmann truck under a flatcar. The light gray epoxy shows where the center spring/bolster casting was epoxied back in place. Jim Providenza photo


Track construction started with redwood bender board cut lengthwise into nominal 2” wide strips. I brad-nailed the strips to redwood spacers, creating a continuous spline. I cut redwood ties, made from the old wood retaining wall, to prototype dimensions. I brad-nailed ties to the spline and spiked the rail to the ties using Micro Engineering medium spikes.

man standing outdoors next to in-progress garden railroad
Photo 5: Early days! This photo is from August 2008, ballasting the track at the north end of Strong with the junction switch for the F&M Branch at the left. Jim Providenza photo

I used 30mm gauge for the 2-foot gauge SR&RL. Mainline rail is Llagas Creek Code 215, which simulates the SR&RL’s 55- and 60-pound mainline rail. All other rail, including that on the F&M branch, is Micro Engineering code 148, modeling the road’s usual 35-pound rail.

view of model track with apples in a tree
Photo 6: The apples are a little riper; late season track work is in progress. Track was originally laid here in 2007. After 16 years, the spline was starting to rot out. The day after the late fall BAGRS open house I pulled the rail and then the spline. Here’s where the new spline is going – redwood bender board that has been painted with Copper Green to help preserve it. Jim Providenza photo

In photo 5 I’m starting to add decomposed granite ballast to the built-up track at the north end of Strong in 2008; photo 6 shows the first major track replacement in progress 16 years later.


model steam locomotive on garden railway with fall foliage
Photo 7: Fall colors on Thanksgiving 2013 – a little operations showcasing the No. 24. Jim Providenza photo

No. 24 started as a Bachmann 45mm gauge 2-8-0. Three and a half years later I had a 30mm gauge 2-6-2 with scratchbuilt boiler and cab and a kitbashed tender that had been shortened, narrowed, and lowered. I narrowed the engine frame and driver axles. I modified the Bachmann pilot truck and built a working swing bolster trailing truck starting with a second pilot truck (photo 7).

locomotive on trestle with greenery on garden railway
Photo 8: Late afternoon at the new siding at Salem. One of the ferns from the original garden plan survives as the focal point of the photo; to the right of the locomotive No. 9 is a bit of Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem’. Jim Providenza photo

Locomotive No. 9 is a stock Bachmann model above the frame. It is correct for the SR&RL No. 9. My friend John Rogers made the modifications to convert the running gear from 3-foot to 2-foot gauge (photo 8).

partially built model train on workbench
Photo 9: Motor 3 under construction, with .040” Evergreen sheet making up the passenger compartment. Jim Providenza photo

Motor No. 3 started as an Aristo-Craft model of a Model T maintenance-of-way vehicle. I regauged the trucks, lengthened the frame, and scratchbuilt the passenger compartment (photo 9).

The locomotives and motor are battery powered; they are equipped with Soundtraxx Tsunami2 decoders and controlled by NCE DCC through the Tam Valley Depot wireless system.


scene on garden railway with locomotive, station, and boxcar
Photo 10: Spring 2011: Along with green grasses and flowers comes the annual work of replacing ballast. Some new ties will be inserted here and there. The spline for the lead to the turntable is to the lower right. It will be another couple of years before the turntable is installed and the lead extended to it. Jim Providenza photo

The passenger and freight stations and the two section houses in Strong are scratchbuilt to scale from plans. I used polycarbonate to build the interior walls and roofs. I glued clapboard siding to the polycarbonate. I then built up the doors and windows directly on the polycarbonate (photo 10).

model locomotive on turntable
Photo 11: Locomotive No. 24 on the scratchbuilt turntable at Strong. My local Tap Plastics store cut the girder frame from polycarbonate based on plans I redrew to 1:20.3 scale. The tie rods visible along the bottom of the girder are not just for show; like the prototype, they hold the turntable together and in line. That’s Ed West (lower right) walking the turntable around. Jim Providenza photo

The Strong turntable was likewise scratchbuilt using polycarbonate (photo 11). Non-railroad structures which stay out in the garden all year are built of 1 x 8 or 2 x 8 redwood with exterior plywood roofs (photo 12). Non-railroad structures are about 80% “full size.”


view of garden railway with fall colors
Photo 12: In late October, the leaves on the maples on Depot St. are changing color. The local residents have been preparing for the coming winter and are not surprised it has started to rain this afternoon while No. 9 is switching in the yard. Jim Providenza photo

These have taken a real beating recently! Watering restrictions in northern California during the 2020-22 drought prevented me from using drip irrigation. I saved the miniature Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) along Depot Street but lost almost all the groundcover and ferns that were part of the original garden design by Nancy Norris.

The current list of plants relies heavily on native volunteers: toyon (Heteromeles arbutofolia), coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), deodora cedar (Cedrus deodara), and live oak. Groundcover is replenished with woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) supplemented by judicious plantings of strawberries and rosemary. Grasses that did survive have been divided and replanted.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a self-seeding pest, regularly removed from roadbed and roadways alike. However, with native grasses and some surviving Point Reyes manzanita (Archtostaphylos u.u. ‘Point Reyes’), it helps cover the hillside above Strong along the F&M Branch right of way. As I re-establish the garden, I’m trying new plants, including Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem’.

Modeling the people

two figures next to rail car on garden railway
Photo 13: George Phelps and Ed West have gotten out of Motor No. 3. It needs to be turned in order to head up the F&M branch after its trip from Farmington. George is kitbashed; Ed is a manufactured model. Jim Providenza photo

It was an eye-opener to discover I could model real people. At a National Garden Railway Convention years ago, I stumbled across a 1:20 figure marketed as “Fireman Ed.” I recognized Ed West from photos in my books on the SR&RL. I quickly located “The Engineer,” a model of engineer Dana Aldrich, and “The Agent,” a model of E. O. “Pansy” Newell, the last station agent at Strong, at the same vendor’s table. I have since modified several other figures to represent actual people, including a railfan, George Phelps (photo 13).


My SR&RL is designed for operation, meant to mimic how the railroad ran in the 1920s and 1930s. Strong itself was a busy place. Even as the railroad was dying in 1935, there were 13 scheduled train movements through Strong between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. There will be more than enough work to keep two train crews busy, along with Agent Newell at Strong.

Coming to a town near you

Hosting an open house for the Garden Railway National Convention in June of 2023 was a real motivator; there’s nothing like a deadline to make one get work done. Building on the momentum from the open house, I’m pushing forward to Kingfield, the second major prototype scene on the railroad. I think I can squeeze it down to about 32 feet long and 2½ feet wide, and build it over the winter. Onward!

See more from Jim Providenza

Build an HO scale weed sprayer

Operating the Santa Cruz Northern

3 thoughts on “The Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes in Proto 20.3n2

  1. Great story and wonderful modeling.
    The editor’s note mentions that “Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette” is no longer published. I just renewed my subscription for a year and received the January-February issue. No mention in the magazine about ceasing publication. Do you all know something I don’t?
    Richard Myers

  2. Great story and wonderful modeling.
    Theeditor’s note mentions that “Narrow Gauge and Shortline Gazette” is no longer published. I just renewed my subscription for a year and received the January-February issue. No mention in the magazine about ceasing publication. Do you all know something I don’t?
    Richard Myers

  3. Great all-inclusive story, Jim! I’m working on Phillips and Rangeley RR, a point-to-point line on a stone wall in 1:1 Maine.

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