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

Breaking Ground on the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR

Note: This article series is NOT instructional. You know what I mean, the kind of articles people write after they've done something several times and gotten the bugs out. The kind that make it look easy and make the authors look smart. This series is actually just to chronicle the choices I made and their results when I determined not to repeat all of my old mistakes on my next iteration.

Unfortunately, as it will be seen, it also demonstrates the kind of snafu that can hold up even a well-planned project (much less one of mine). Over the years, I've discovered that our readers would rather have "full disclosure" than another article series showing how a professional builder with forty railroads' experience and $15,000 worth of tools adds another notch to his belt.

The Scot poet Robert Burns is often quoted as writing "The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray." But what he actually wrote - in the Scottish dialict of his time was "The best laid plans of mice and men oft gang aglee." I think that's a more inciteful statement, because it implies, not only that "what can go wrong will go wrong," but that the things that go wrong take a perverse pleasure in doing so!

Every few weeks, I hear from fellow garden railroaders whose railroads have "gang aglee." Things like washouts in back yards that never showed the least inclination to flood before, carpenter bees turning the train shed into swiss cheese, retaining walls that should have lasted decades collapsing, and so on. Stuff happens. And often the most interesting stuff happens when you're in the installation phase.

This is, obviously, a follow-up to our fourth article on planning the new New Boston & Donnels Creek Rail Road. It shows what happened when I re-staked out the part I hoped to get built this year and started using my trusty "idiot tool" (a Craftsman post-hole digger I bought in 2001 and used to fix a problem caused by my neighbor's badly-installed privacy fence - that story is here).

You'll remember that I had decided to go with a sort of three-layered wedding cake design for this iteration of the railroad, using pressure-treated wood instead of a dirt pile to support everything.

You'll also remember that I had determined to start with the "middle" layer of my "wedding cake," with the idea that I could use my "lessons learned" from that experience to tweak the other two if necessary. The whole story of these plans starts here and includes parts Two and Three, and Four.

Well, what with needed maintenance and repairs on the "new" house, a trip out of town, and a day job, I didn't start digging holes for the new railroad until July 11, 2017. That evening after work and supper, I went out and started staking and digging.

I started digging for the hole nearest the piece of conduit with live electrical wires that was sticking up, and which I plan to tap for electrical service for my railroad. (That conduit used to serve an inground swimming pool which is no longer there.)

Because of its proximity to the conduit, that was the one post hole I had to get "right." I realize that my maps and diagrams are probably confusing. They confuse me sometimes. I have made a version that JUST shows where the posts will need to go.

The drawing on the left below shows the middle layer, with the yellow boxes representing the tall posts (~6' high) and the brown boxes representing the medium posts (~3' high). All of the post holes are the same depth, of course (24").

The little red circle shows which post is next to the conduit and, therefore, which hole I needed to dig first.

The picture on the right shows the top layer, with the red circle indicating the same post, so you can hopefully see how it will fit over the top of the middle layer. (No, the illustrations are not to the same scale, in case you wondered.) If I just wanted to build a "starter" or "test" railroad," I could easily use the same plan, but use posts that only stuck up 2' or so.

The 'middle layer' of my future 'wedding cake' railroad, showing where I needed to drill post holes.  The yellow posts will stick up 6' from the ground. The brown posts will stick up 3' from the ground.  But the post holes all need to be the same depth - 24 inches. The top layer' of my future 'wedding cake' railroad, showing the four tall posts that will essentially be the core of the new railroad infrastructure.
Middle Layer Map, Showing the
Location of the Posts
Top Layer Map, Showing the Location of the Posts

As it is, each railroad table will almost meet state code requiements for a deck. It's overkill, I admit, but I wanted to be very confident in its stability (after 17 years of owning a railroad where nature continually moved things around or raised and lowered them willy-nilly).

By the way, if you are working in an area where there is no frost heave, or where the frost line is so deep you can't even imagine digging this many holes this deep, you might be able to set the ends of the posts right on the ground (instead of in it) and build a frame of ground-rated 2"x6" boards around the bottom, in addition to the joists and frames for the railroad layers. In a warm climate, they should all just sit there. In a bitterly cold climate, add diagonal bracing. If the thing is properly braced, the whole thing should rise and fall together. I'd experiment with a small version first, of course.

Buried conduit that used to serve the swimming pool.  I moved my plans over a few inches to avoid chopping through it.  Click for bigger photo.On starting the first hole I had planned, I discovered that it went right over the conduit, so I moved that hole (and eventually all the other ones) about six inches west (further from the house).

By the way, this is one reason I wanted to dig this part by hand, even if I had rented a power tool for the rest of the holes - I certainly didn't want to cut through anything like this then have to reconnect it a foot underground.

Using the post hole digger, I dug down 24" theoretically the "frost line" in the area. Then I took one of the straight 2"x6"x12' boards I had bought from Home Depot and laid out the other four holes that needed to be in exactly a straight line.

Half the post-holes for my railroad completed. Click for bigger photo.After I had completed five holes (out of the 16 I would eventually need), it was getting too dark to continue, so I called it a night. I worked on other things until the following Saturday (July 15, 2017) and started again. The photo to the right shows the area for this years' installment of the railroad after about half of the holes were dug. The orange flags show where the short posts will go. The yellow flags show where the tall posts will go (all the flags were "donated" by utility companies when they kept digging up the front yard of our old house.)

I resumed a few days later, and was going "gangbusters" when I noticed that one of the handles on my trusty, guaranteed-for-life Craftsman post-hole digger was getting a little more flexible than it used to be. With three and one-half holes to go, the thing broke. That's okay, it's a Craftsman, right? Well, there's a "catch." Or several.

Ignore This Section if you Love Sears

When I was a small child in the country, Sears mail order was how we got almost everything. They botched almost every order and took forever to fix things. Usually their "customer service representatives" hinted that they knew you were lying to them about the missing or damaged or wrong items, but they'd "do you a favor" and pretend they believed you. Of course they let you know they were "doing you a favor" this time, but we'd better not try that sort of scam again or it would put a black mark on our record.

Later a Sears store went up in our neighborhood, and shopping in person was often just as frustrating - the sales guy would recommend the wrong thing, or you'd have to special-order what you needed, and it would come in damaged and they would try to make you pay for it anyway or some such.

Dad never said "Sears" when describing the company or the local store. He called them "Dirty Word's". As in "I'm going over to Dirty Word's to get them to replace this Craftsman screwdriver that just broke."

Well, the first thing I did was to get on the Sears web site and try to find a Craftsman post hole digger in stock. The closest one was 110 miles round trip. And for some reason, I couldn't order it online.

On three of my calls to Sears "customer service," I was routed immediately and incorrectly to the appliance repair department (apparently they have no customer service department for anything else anymore). None of the repondents spoke English clearly enough to be understood through the "Voice Over IP" connection Sears used (that digital thing that sometimes makes people sound like they're shouting into a rain barrel). Every sentence had to be repeated two or three times.

Two of the people told me I would have to hang up and try again and maybe I'd be routed to the right place (this was after waiting on hold for 20 and 15 minutes respectively). A third gave me the "customer service" number for Craftsman.

Now I was getting somewhere. After waiting on hold on that line, I finally found myself talking to a real person whose first language was English. Unfortunately, his second language was "I-don't-give-a-****." He told me that since I bought the tool in a Sears store, he couldn't help me. I would have to go back to Sears. I asked if he knew why I couldn't order one online and he told me it wasn't his problem. I would have to talk to Sears.

I called Sears back and tried to get into a queue that WASN'T for appliance repair. Again, I got into the appliance repair department with a non-English speaker, but this person actually tried to help me, in her way. She told me she was going to check on things for me. About twenty-five mintues later, she got back on the line and told me that she had called all the Sears stores in my region and figured out where the closest one was (the one that was a 110-mile round trip). Which I had already figured out before I picked up the phone the first time. I asked her if she knew why I couldn't order one online. And she didn't know.

Finally I called our neighborhood Sears, and the sales guy told me to bring the old tool in and he could order me a new one. Fine. I went in and he got on his computer, then he discovered that he couldn't order them online. He asked the store manager what he could do. She told him that he COULD order me another brand. An American brand called "Bully," that was on the Sears web page. Okay, this year, I only needed it to drill three and a half more holes. And it arrived.

The good thing about the Bully tool was that it would dig holes that were an inch wider than the Craftsman would dig. With the Craftsman, I often wound up having to widen the post holes because they were so small that if you had them off-center at all your posts wouldn't line up.

The bad thing about the Bully tool (before I even got it) was that it would not have a free replacement policy.

The tool took several days to arrive. It was not as well-made as the Craftsman, clumsy spot-welding was apparent several places, and the blades were so blunt it wouldn't even cut through sod - I have to dig the sod and the first several inches of the hole out with a ditch shovel before it will even start working. But what can you do? And I wonder why "Dirty Word's" is on the verge of bankruptcy.

And of course, life goes on, so it took me a couple more weeks to get back to the holes. And when I did, I kept going, and started setting posts. So that's another article.

Best of luck, all,

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


Click to go to articleProceed to "Framing the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek RR, Part 1" - Once I started dropping posts in the holes and screwing things together, I didn't want to stop before I had the basic frame built (for one thing, the wood warps less once it's fastened in place). Now the folks driving down the street past our house (we're on a corner lot) probably wonder if I'm building an elaborate chicken coop, but that's fine with me. I still need to make a few more lumber runs and do a lot more cutting and sawing, but having the basic frame in place should make the next bits a lot easier.

Click on the photo to see our status as of August 10, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn 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 " target=new>

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 3" - We have still not broken ground. In part because we plan to rent a post-hole digger and dig the post holes for our raised vegetable garden and the first phase of the garden railroad at the same time, and we don't have enough lumber on hand yet. (If we didn't break it down into multiple trips, we'd be blowing out the shocks on our minivan.) In the meantime, we used a line level to see if the slope of the back yard was as bad as we thought it was (it's worse), and we did other site preparation, including planting a whole bunch of spruce tree seedlings to eventually give us some privacy in our side and back yard. Plus, I'm still wavering a little on the "where-to-start-first" issue.

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