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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
New Boston and Donnels Creek:

Planning the New New Boston and Donnels Creek Railway, Part 3

This is, obviously, a follow-up to our second article on planning the new New Boston & Donnels Creek Rail Road. No, we haven't broken ground yet. But we may soon.

In the meantime, I needed to do some more site evaluation and preparation.

Checking the Grade - From the edge of our back deck/porch to the privacy fence at the back of the lot is 100'. I knew there was a "drop" between the two, but I thought I should figure out how much it was before I started digging holes.

At first, I considered buying a laser level. After all, they're cool, and I can think of a lot of things I could use it for that I'm currently doing with levels and steel tape measures. Well, not really, but they're cool. Then I realized none of the levels that would shoot a 100'-foot beam even in near darkness was anywhere near affordable. Well, there was one - a Craftsman that was theoretically on sale for ~$50 and was theoretically available at an Ace hardware store near work.

So I popped over on my lunch hour to see what they had. They didn't have the one in stock I wanted, and the one they did have (for the same price) wouldn't do what I wanted. So I started looking at the $4 alternative - line levels. These are little levels you clip onto a cord that you stretch tight and use the same way you would use a 100-foot level. I'm sure a laser level would be more precise, but I didn't need fraction-of-an-inch precision.

Looking for string, I started to get some twine that I knew wouldn't have much give, but for the same amount I could get a nice nylon cord. I didn't necessarily want the nylon for this purpose, because it stretches, but I thought I'd get more use out of it in the long run.

So I tied one end of the cord high on the fence and walked the other end up to the porch. I pulled it tight, wrapped it around a porch post and clipped the little level on. Then I moved that end of the string up and down on the porch until the line was level and tied it on. Then I pulled it really, really tight (remember, nylon cord stretches) and re-measured. When I was satisfied that the nylon cord was sagging no more than an inch or so, I took my steel tape measure out across the yard, pushing the level along with me. At every ten feet of lateral movement, I measured from the ground to the cord. As I suspected, the drop was steepest near the house, about 10" for 10'. But overall, I calculated an average of 6" drop for every ten feet I got closer to the fence.

Very low-tech, very "old-school," and very cheap, but it did the job.

Despite a much lower 'cool factor,' this $4 line level served my purpose as well as the $50+ laser level would have. Click for bigger photo. The line level balancing on its tightrope between the porch and back fence.  Click for bigger photo.

Come to think of it, I've seen a lot of garden railway articles and books that tell you to measure the grade of your railroad by buying a long transparent hose and filling it with water, then holding up both ends and waiting until the water stops slopping back and forth to get a true level. If you don't have a laser level and you have a lot of obstacles between the two points you want to measure, the hose solution may still may be a great way to do this. But if there's a clear path between the points you want to measure, a line level is definitely a simpler solution.

Over the 100' length, the back yard had a 60" drop - enough to make any track that goes from the fenceline to the porch problematic. But there's very little side-to-side drop along the fence line. If I had infinite funds and time, I could actually put in a big loop that would be 24" off the ground near the porch and high enough to walk under at the back fence. But I don't have infinite funds and time.

Speaking of infinite funds and time, Sears is now e-mailing me every day to let me know that the laser level I was looking at and never really needed is now on sale for $47. Next time I move, I may need one, who knows? In the meantime, I can afford to wait for the price to come down.

Flip or Flop - In consideration of the grade measurement, I've determined that I need to "flop" the designs I put in the part two article. I will have to move the "mountain" to a slightly different location. Otherwise if I make it anywhere near tall enough to compensate for the slope of the yard, it will block the view from the most likely viewing positions.

Top layer of NB&DC waterfall/mountain as conceived April, 24, 2017.  Click for bigger photo.
Second from top layer of NB&DC waterfall/mountain as conceived April, 12, 2017.  Click for bigger photo.
Top Layer, about 6'x8', using mostly 4'-diameter curves.
Middle Layer, about 9'x10', using mostly 5'-diameter curves.
Third from top of NB&DC waterfall/mountain as conceived April, 24, 2017.  Click for bigger photo.
Bottom Layer, about 13'x15', using mostly 8'-diameter curves, with room for 10'-diameter curves too be added around the outside at a later time. .

Once again, the dark dotted lines represent the joists which run "lengthwise." They support the frame, which is represented by the lighter dotted lines. The really light dotted lines represent framework that is attached between other frame pieces but not supported by the joists.

Now the question is, how much of the "master plan" do I try to do in the first pass. I COULD just do the top layer as a proof-of concept. That was my first thought. On the other hand, we plan to rent a post-hole digger, and it would make sense to get the best value out of that time by digging all the post holes at once. So maybe I should do the lower layer in the first pass. But that's a lot of post holes, and for them to be useful, I would need to put all the posts in them right away and start fastening the joists together to keep them stable. And that's a LOT of lumber.

As of this writing, I'm thinking about maybe doing the middle layer first, with the idea of adding the higher layer later this year, and the lower layer next year. With the notion that the lowest level will be about 24" off the ground, the middle level will need to be about 36" off the ground. I don't want to go any lower than than for the lower level, since any extensions I make from that level toward the house will essentially be at ground level in a few yards, and I've had my share of ground-level railroads.

Based on my plan for the middle level, I'll need two 12' posts, each cut in half, five 10' posts, each cut in half, and a minimum of 120 board feet of 2"x6" for the joists and supports. If I want to put decking on it, that could go up to 160 board feet, though I'd be inclined not to deck the middle, since the top layer will be going there.

Based on Home Depot's prices today:

  • 4"x4"x12' posts (2 at $14.07@) - $28.14
  • 4"x4"x10' posts (5 at $12.07@) - $60.35
  • 120' of 2"x6" for joists and supports (ten 2"x6"x12' boards at $10.07@) - $100.70

So, without decking, the frame would be $189.29.

2"x6" decking would add about $150, but that could be added later. Why not 5/4 decking, the kind they sell for recreational decks? Because the 2"x6" is only about 10% more if you buy it in 12' lengths, and the 2"x6" pressure treated wood decking Home Depot sells is ground-rated, which means you could dump dirt and plants right on it if you so pleased. I'll probably use a membrane of some sort just because I'm anal-retentive about that sort of thing.

For cost comparison, you could consider the cost of a 10'x9' deck (although a true deck would cost you more because you'd probably want 2"x8" or 2"x10" joists). My top layer will be more like a 6'x8' deck and the posts will already be installed, so it will be much less money. We won't talk about the lower layer. :-)

Right now, I'm still going back and forth on some things, such as whether I should use hardware cloth or decking. But I think I'm narrowing my choices.

If I hold off on doing the lower level until I've gone through one winter, that gives me time to evaluate whether this is the best way to go. If nothing else, there's no compelling reason I couldn't make the lower level a little wider to accommodate a loop based on 10'-diameter curves (which could later be extended out over the future big pond).

We have started to accumulate the lumber for the raised garden beds - if we try to get it all at once, we will blow out the shocks on the van. So I have several more trips to make before we rent the post hole digger. Proposed location of railroad and raised vegetable garden beds as of April 25, 2017.  Click for bigger picture. I may cut some of the lumber in the meantime to get it ready, too.

The drawing to the right shows how I imagine the general relationships among the various gardens to work out. No, it's not mind-blowing at the moment, but you have to start somewhere. You'll notice that we have reduced the vegetable gardens from four to three. Shelia feels like that will be enough for now, and we can easily add more later if we decide to.

About Curves and "Easements" - By the way, when I say "mostly" 4', 5', or 8'-diameter curves, I mean to substitute larger curves on the transitions between the straightaway and the curve to provide a sort of easement effect. That helps keep the locomotive from lurching into the curves, as they do on tinplate lines.

On the old New Boston and Donnels Creek, I used 20'-diameter curves to "ease into" my 10'-diameter curves. I also used 5'-diameter curves to "ease into" my 4'-diameter curves. This was possible with AristoCraft track because their 20', 10', 5', and 4'-diameter track curves all curved 30 degrees. So substituting wider curves wherever there was a transition between a curve and a straight piece was a "piece of cake." It made the "oval" a little wider and a little longer, but everything fit nicely (imagine an egg shape with two of the more pointy ends). You can't use 8'-diameter curves as a direct substitution this way, because they turn only 22.5 degrees.

Why am I being vague about exactly how I plan to do this? Because I left some of my track at the old house and some of the track I brought with me is in need of repair, so I'm not exactly sure what pieces I have available. Of course, if I was just starting out and had money for all new track, that wouldn't be an issue, but I prefer to work with what I have.

What About That Big Side Yard?

Yes, I know that "site preparation" isn't technically part of planning, but often I get into planning mode, then something comes up that reminds me of some other physical activity I need to perform before I can start implementing the core part of my plan. In this case, I was continuing to think about the fact that we have such a large yard and so little privacy in it.

Our whole lot, showing the side yard that the county owns about a quarter of.  Click for bigger photo.The area shown above is about an acre overall. The picture to the right includes the "side yard," which is .4 acres in size, but is officially only .3 acres because the county zoned that part of the lot differently. The county technically "owns" a 25'-deep strip on the east side of the property and a 17'-deep strip on the south side of the property. They ostensibly seized that much land because they might want to widen either of those barely-traveled roads in the future. That will never happen, of course. But they used that as an excuse to keep previous owners from ever selling off the side yard as a building lot.

So we have almost an extra half acre to mow and maintain. Also, as mentioned before, we have no privacy to speak of in our actual "back yard," since there is nothing blocking the view from either street. A privacy fence might be an option, but out in the country, a large privacy fence actually draws attention - "What are they hiding back there?"

Clark Soil & Water Conservation District of Clark County, Ohio, to the rescue, sort of. Every spring, they have a "tree and shrub sale" to supply area farmers with seedlings for windbreaks and soil conservation. I ordered fourteen spruce trees to plant near the corner and provide a little screening from passers-by. Fourteen may seem like a lot, but not when you have that much ground to cover. Plus some percentage of the "bare-root" seedlings don't make it, no matter how careful you are.

I ordered seven Norway Spruce, seven Blue Spruce, and three Red Oak. The Norway and Blue Spruce photos below are of grown specimens from's Landscape Trees page, included so you can recognize them when you see them around your part of the world.

  • Norway Spruce take on a very nice Christmas tree shape naturally when they are young. Unless they are crowded by other trees or truncated to avoid endangering power lines, they will hold a conical shape until they are about fifty foot tall, at which time it's time to take them down anyway. They have shallow roots, and eventually - in this part of Ohio at least, there comes a "perfect storm" when the ground is saturated with water, then high winds come along. You can recognize this phenomenon when it occurs, because, when the tree comes down, the whole root system comes out of the ground at once, forming a near-perfect disk of dirt, root and sod, perpendicular to the ground and 12' to 15' across. For that reason, you should never plant Norway Spruce within 50 foot of any structure.

    Why plant something that is all but doomed to fail within the next 60 years? Because it will serve a purpose in the meantime, and all trees used in landscaping have issues eventually. For example, most pines start losing their conical shape by the time they're thirty feet tall. And many do it by the time they're fifteen or twenty. The accompanying loss of their lower branches means that they become useless as screens or windbreaks.

    Based on my current age, I don't expect the Norway Spruce to be a problem in my lifetime. But with my luck I'll live to be 111 years old and have to deal with them after all. (Tell you what, if I ever have a one-hundred-and-eleventieth birthday, you'e invited.)

  • Blue Spruce root more deeply and are much more resistant to drought or blowing over than Norway Spruce, but in my experiece, they also grow more slowly. So if future homeowners or future bad weather ever start taking the Norway Spruce down, the Blue Spruce will provide plenty of screening all by themselves. In case you wondered, I also made a point of not planting the Blue Spruce close to the house or any big trees.

  • The Red Oak is to hopefully shade the back deck in summer evenings. A huge maple fulfilled that function at one time, but it was cut down years before we bought the property and only the stump remains. I have attempted to start a Red Oak seedling very close to the stump (maybe too close), and the others where they may eventually shade my railroad without shading the vegetable garden. I don't have high hopes for them, since the ground is fairly alkaline, and the only oaks I've ever succeeded in growing in similar soil were Pin Oaks (a less desirable plant, because they hold their leaves all winter and dump them in the spring just after you have everything else cleaned up). But for a few $, we'll give Red Oaks another try.

When I went down to pick up my trees, though, I was in for a surprise. The CS&WD orders the trees and shrubs in bulk and sorts them out into plastic bags for each order, but they almost always wind up with more trees than orders. I bought a few "extras" for $5, and then they threw in a lot more just because I seemed knowledgeable and they figured they would be going to a good home (little did they know). So I came home, not only with Blue and Norway spruce, but also three Douglass Firs, three Redbud starts, and three Butterfly bush starts. In addition, when I got into the plastic bags containing my Blue and Norway spruce, I discovered that I had some extra of those as well.

The Butterfly bushes went near the house, two of the Redbuds went on the property corners, and one of them went into the back yard. But where to plant all the conifer starts? I put the Douglass Firs out on the southwest corner, and lined the Norway Spruce out from that, twenty foot apart, and back from the "easement" line so the county couldn't complain. (Also, there was a power line on the west side of the property that I wanted to avoid - I've seen too many Norway spruces butchered to keep the branches away from the wires.)

Back from the Norway spruce, also twenty feet apart and twenty feet from the Norway Spruce, went the Blue Spruce, staggered so they will eventually block the view through the gaps between the Norway Spruce. I didn't plant a full row of Blue Spruce, though, since I didn't want any growing up too close to the Crimson King Maple - neither species takes kindly to crowding. Nor did I want any spruces blocking our view of the Crimson King's beautiful foilage from our back porch.

Side yard showing approximage placement of spruce and fir seedlings. Click for bigger photo.Why twenty feet apart? Because if all of the spruces survive and grow at a normal rate, they'll each be nearly 10' in diameter within 15-25 years.

In the meantime, I know not to expect a perfect "screen" for at least a decade, but having something to break up the view into the back and side yards should help keep everybody driving past from seeing everything we have going on in the yard. And you have to start somewhere. This is a pretty cheap way to get started.

With all the extra seedlings, I had enough to plant trees most of the way around the edges of the "side lot" that face the roads. The little graphic to the right is not accurate, really; it's just to show you approximately where I planted all of those little trees.

I also expect a few of the seedlings to fail, of course, and I may transplant survivors from the outside edges to fill the gap. Right now they just look like rows of sticks, of course. And we haven't had any rain at all since we planted them. Such dry stretches were a rarity for Aprils in Ohio until the last several years (thanks, global climate change), but that results in me spending a great deal of time watering each evening. Since I also put grass seed over most of the bare spots left where the swimming pool used to be, I'm watering there, too.

We'll see how it goes. In the meantime, I'm the only person mowing grass in our yard - I learned the hard way that putting sticks next to the little trees doesn't really keep other folks from mowing down a whole row at a time anyway.

A Note About Operations

After I published the first in this series, a friend asked me if I was going to have the ability to operate trains on my railroad (such as switching cars, delivering cars to industries, etc.). Or was I just going to do what a mutual friend calls "roundy-roundy"? I will confess this - the very top RR will just be "roundy-roundy." I will try to put a couple turnouts and industries on the middle railroad to keep it interesting. But the "bottom" railroad, the one that will average 24" off the ground is intended to have operational capabilities, perhaps something along the lines described in our article "Planning Your Garden Railroad for Operations." (Go to that article if you want to see the kind of thing I'm thinking about making provision for eventually.) I even want to install a working turntable, and - when the cost of track comes down - a wye at the other end of the mainline. Again, I will be taking inventory of what I have before I come up with a final track plan, though.

That said, most of our open railroads over the years have attracted mostly non-railroaders, including a lot of folks who are just curious about whether trains work at all outside. And for those events, especially, our Christmas-themed open railroads, the ability to do unattended running (i.e. "roundy-roundy") has been critical.

If and when we get enough track, turnouts, stations, and industries installed to do more realistic operation, you are invited to bring your trains over and run them, as long as you warn us first and bring lots of pizza.

P.S. Last year - due to the move - we did not have a Christmas-themed open railroad, but if we get enough trains running on enough track to do it again this year, we will do our best.


As I write this, there is talk of the White House slapping a tariff on Canadian "soft" (building) lumber, as much as 25%. Which will almost certainly cause all lumber costs (including pressure treated wood) to jump by 10% or more in the near future. Maybe I'll do some calculations and make another lumber run tonight before the price jumps.

In the meantime, I think I've narrowed things down as much as I can in preparation for the next step - physically installing the garden beds and the foundation for my RR's first stage.

Click to visit our tips for planning a garden railroadHopefully the post hole digger will work the way it's supposed to, and things will go swimmingly. In the meantime, if you're planning your own garden railroad, check out our planning articles by clicking on the picture to the right.

Enjoy your hobbies, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family in the coming season.


Click to go to articleProceed to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 4" - Well, the rented post-hole digger fell through, so we dug our vegetable garden with a manual post-hole digger (the scissors kind). In addition, I stake out where the railroad was going to be. Twice. And tweaked the plans again. Sorry about the redo's, but sometimes just walking around the yard trying to visualize things makes me reconsider something that seemed "settled" only a few days before.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering as of late May, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 2" - More plans. We've moved on from the 2"x6" roadbed-on-posts to a sort of "train-table-outside" plan. Our goals include low-maintenance, high interest, and high reliability. We're also trying to get around having a thousand dollars' worth of dirt hauled into the back yard. If you want to get some idea of what our planning process looks like, reading these through in sequence may help. Or it may drive you crazy.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering in early April, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 1" - If you're subscribed to our newsletter, you know that we moved just after Thanksgiving in 2016, leaving behind most of the track, a few of the bird feeders, and one Bachmann train set for the new owners. We also left behind a high-maintenance garden that we do not intend to replicate at the new place. This is the first chapter of a new chapter in our lives, which we hope will include a lot of "lessons learned." But first, some serious landscaping had to take place.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering in March, 2017.

Click to go to home page of the New Boston and Donnels' Creek RR, Paul Race's home railroad. Return to the New Boston and Donnels Creek RR Page - This is the page describing Paul Race's progress and frequent rework on his own garden railroad, started on a shoe-string budget in 1998, later expanded, and later refurbished several times as issues arose. Issues that Paul hopes to avoid by building the next iteration above ground.

Return to the Family Garden Trains Home PageReturn to Family Garden Trains' Home Page - The home page with links to all the other stuff, including design guidelines, construction techiques, structure tips, free graphics, and more.

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