Friday, March 26, 2021

"I'm finding my thrill in modeling Tank Hill"

"I'm finding my thrill in modeling Tank Hill" with apologies to Fats Domino....

Scenery has always been a dark mystery to me in 65 years of model railroading. I love researching and building structures and rolling stock but modeling a setting on a layout has always been sort of a mock up to suggest the setting.  I'm now 77 years old and I guess it is time to delve into those dark arts and do a little better at setting the section of a railroad I model in a more believable/realistic scene. In the past I have considered myself a follower of minimalist impressionism or perhaps cubism and my efforts on Port Costa are still in that stage. 

In my little Port Costa world, I cannot even close accurately model the east end beyond the roundhouse and support buildings as the 2 tracks of mainline and strait ward siding curve to the left . On the east end i am taking extreme liberties with the actual track plan to start the Molocco line curving to the right instead of continuing eastwards on through the Martinez flying junction, the bridge and the branch junction at Avon for the San Ramon branch. This will in fact be just a stub crossing over and behind my workbench. If I should live so long I might create a dummy Avon and have a place for a module with the Walnut Creek depot highly compressed.  Such are the fantasies that I amuse myself with. 

Now on the west end, we have the steep hillside around which the trackage curves across from the site of the ferry piers. On the hillside just above beyond the hand car and tool sheds was the huge final Port Costa water tank. The 1920's Sanborn map I have lists it as a 175,000 gallon tank. Ron Pleis in his research found it to be a 41 foot diameter tank mounted on a timber structure that was built to fit the sharp slope (I estimate about a 40' slope angle). The road to the wooden viaduct that crossed the tracks to the old station site, ferry piers and original town of Port Costa (built on pilings out in the Carquinez strait and burning down several times) wound around the back side of the tank. The final tank was preceded by several smaller tanks that fed the steam engines and ferries in the days before the double track Carquinez strait lift bridge was built. 

This is a portion of a 1959 photo from the Contra Costa County Historical association collection enhanced as much as I can with limited photoshop skills.

The tank was not that high (I estimate about 20 feet high) just vast. It was a huge black object whose shadow prevented most photographs showing any of the wooden support structure underneath by keeping in dark shadows.  The hillside is the modeling challenge.  Compounded is fact that you cannot see the trackside slope directly on my model of Port Costa. I have some mirrors set up right now. I am also looking at mounting a remote video camera such as used on drones and home security systems. This will allow me to monitor the trackage and see my modeling efforts in direct image rather than mirror image.


I am planning to build the tank and hillside as a removable scenic module about 30 inches long and 12-15 inches wide. All structures and vertical objects on the layout must be removeable as I have not finalized and laid the mainline and other strait side trackage. As it is removable it will be constructed primarily of sheet foam. I have been out to Port Costa recently and taken photos of the hillside. One of the concrete footings for the water tank is visible. Photos from about the 1950's show more of a rocky slope than it is today covered with thicker vegetation.  I understand the hill has burned several times and the houses on the upper slope are now gone.

Currently I have a 41 foot cylinder of cardboard and black construction paper standing in for the tank which will be another modeling project sometime soon (like many other projects including the turntable.)

I was fortunate to remember that about 20 years ago I had purchase two 2 X 4 foot sheets of 2 inch thick very dense foam used for architectural and display models. I have played around with this material and found it very easy to cut and shape with a cheap snap off box cutter knife fully extended. It cuts beautifully smooth even at an angle and can be shaped into the contours of the slope. I also had a lot of Scenic Woodlands Styrofoam riser and flat shape material I had used on my old Padstow layout for the Padstow town bluffs above the train station and yard. They would also have been used to form the pier and quay sides had I ever gone that far with the Padstow concept.  Another Woodland Scenic product I am playing with is 10 inch wide 3 foot long strips of heavy foil material covered on one side with a fuzzy scenic coating.  These can be cut and  shaped as needed into rocky and dirt covered steep slopes. They are easily sprayed with spray can camouflage colors and will be dressed up with the usual California desiccated weed foliage. 


So the tank hill(side) game is afoot. The photos included in this longer than usual diatribel illustrate where I am with current efforts. The mirrors are obvious.

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