Little Creek Mine: An On30 Micro Layout

The bench work of my new On30 project railroad

For years I’ve wanted to build a proper micro train layout of my own that can be easily packed up and carried with me. Inspiration came 15 years ago when I discovered the micro layout website, The original author, Carl Arendt, passed away back in 2011 but his website has remained, being kept up by one of the main contributors of the site. After showcasing hundreds of micro train layouts, Arendt coined a loose definition of what’s considered a ‘micro’ train layout.

According to Carl, “Micro layouts are small model railroads, usually less than three or four square feet in area, that nonetheless have a clear purpose and excellent operating capability.”

In other words, a micro train layout is supposed to be small, self contained, operational, and does more than simply look good sitting on a shelf. A diorama is a not a micro train layout, and neither is a module that is incapable of operating self-sufficiently. A collection of random models that have no relation to each other also does not constitute a micro layout.

It’s this definition that makes micro train layouts challenging to build. The advantages of micro train layouts is that they cost less to build than larger model railroads, they fit into small spaces, and by focusing on a specific theme or operation the railroad takes on a character of it’s own. The end result is usually a small layout of high quality that reflects the tastes and skills of it’s builder.

Micro layouts are also a great way to get started in the hobby because their low cost and small size are an excellent learning project. The learning curve for smart design is a steep one though, but a lot of what a rookie learns on a micro layout can be translated to larger projects in the future. Finally, people looking to experiment in a new scale or a different prototype should consider a micro train layout because it’s a smaller commitment. If the experiment fails, learn from it and move on.

Progress of a Theme

When I decided to build a micro train layout, one of the first things I explored was a theme. Some things I considered included:

  • Engine terminal and shop
  • Streetcar station
  • Sawmill
  • Urban industrial park
  • CNJ’s Bronx Terminal
  • WWI trench railroad

While each of these would make for a fantastic theme to someone, I wasn’t really attached to them. The engine terminal idea I strongly considered because it would mean I could build, paint, weather, and program locomotives AND have an attractive place to display and play with them. The sawmill was a close second, but it’s difficult to trick viewers into thinking there’s a sawmill large enough in four square feet to require railroad services.

What finally made the decision was my insistence of going with O scale rather than HO or N. 1:48 scale models have more details and are large enough for people at train shows to easily see and photograph. The theme I settled on was a small mine and camp served by a narrow gauge railroad. The intention was that this scene would be just one mine out of several going up a gulch.

The railroad’s purpose would be to take car loads of ore and excess rock out of the gulch. The ore will go to a mill for processing while the excess rock would be dumped at the mouth of the gulch. On return trips the railroad would bring supplies up the steep gulch, including timber, coal, explosives, tools, and whatever else miners required to bore deeper into the hill and extract the ore.

The final piece of the theme was to connect this to a place and era I’m interested in. For that, I turned my attention to the Black Hills of South Dakota. While there are more famous railroads that served the area such as the Deadwood Central, the CNW, and the CBQ, there were a variety of smaller tramways in the region that served a few small mines and brought the ore either directly to a mill, or to the common-carrier ROW to be shipped to the nearest mill.

Prototype or Freelance?

The lack of specific information on individual mining tramways makes research on individual routes. Like a lot of logging railroads, tracks serving mines were often temporary or hastily built, being shut down or moved every few years. The character of these railroads mean their physical remains after nearly a century are all but erased.

This makes modeling a specific prototype almost impossible. However, in sticking with a realistic theme I also can’t go completely freelance and keep any historical authenticity to the train layout. Ideally, I’d love to have a highly productive 5-stamp mill that requires several trains a day to carry purified gold out of the gulch. The reality is that gold ore, especially ore in the Black Hills, has pretty poor concentration. The only way mines made any profit was by extracting the ore as rocks then collectively bringing them to a handful of larger mills that could physically, then chemically, isolate the gold from the rock.

Early image of the J.B. Haggin at work in the mines of South Dakota.

A railroad, even a small one with a single locomotive, was a major expense for a mining company. Anytime a tramway was built, it would serve multiple mines along it’s route, collecting the ore and distributing supplies. It wasn’t until the Homestake Gold Mine really expanded Lead that a lot of the smaller mines were abandoned or absorbed into the company. Homestake had it’s own tram network, the most extensive in the world in fact, but they used compressed air and early battery locomotives deep in tunnels.

The little porter steam engine I want to use would represent a turn of the century (1900, that is) mining operation. Railroads in the Black Hills then were less than 20 years old, the first locomotive being the J.B. Haggin which arrived in 1879 to serve the Homestake, lasted until about 1901. It’s right about then that the little steamers were being retired and replaced with more modern locomotives for underground work.

Prototypical modeling and freelancing represent opposite ends on a wide spectrum, and so like most modelers I find that a proto-freelance approach is the best compromise. I can take enough artistic license to build an operational micro layout while staying true to my chosen theme.


Speaking of compromise, my chosen gauge for this project is On30. The reason for this, instead of On2 or On20, or something that was more typical for the region, is that On30 is readily available. Specifically, Bachmann’s old 0-4-0 porter model makes for a fantastic representative of mining steamers that were used all over the continent prior to world war I. I’ve also got a pile of On30 axles that will allow me to make at least a dozen different 4-wheel cars.

My locomotive of choice.

Dimensional, the little porter is the perfect size for a layout that’s only about 15 inches wide. The 6-7 inch radius curves are tight, but the 0-4-0 is more than capable of navigating those radii. Being a small, cheap model that faithfully represents the motive power in that period of time for small mining operations, the On30 porter is just about ideal for my needs.

The other option I considered is HOn30. Being about half the size, it would be possible to model a larger mine or multiple mines. However, I’ve found that the MiniTrains I’ve got are not as detailed as I’d like and the more accurate 0-4-0 porter model kit that I could buy from Japan has become unavailable since COVID hit the country. Even if I could buy the model, there’s no guarantee I’d be getting it any time soon. HOn30 I think has a lot of potential and is something to explore in the future, but for now I’ll stick with the larger, more familiar On30.

It took a bit of searching on Ebay but I’ve finally located an 0-4-0 porter for a reasonable price. Once I purchased the engine, that pretty much sealed the deal for me. One other thing I’d like to mention is that hand laying track in On30 is pretty straightforward. I can use the same tools for hand laying HO scale track, except the ties, spikes, and even the rail can be bigger.

Next Steps

This theme is still being tweaked but I can finally start moving ahead with the project. Knowing that I’d be meeting a certain space requirements, I took the opportunity to build bench work from a bunch of scrap wood back in September. What I managed to put together then was a fantastic, self-contained model train bench-work that can easily and safely transport everything needed to run at a train show as a self-contained unit.

The goal here will be to pack it up the night before a train show along with a tool-bag and a lunch-box and set up within 30 minutes of the doors opening. It’s common to show up the day prior and set up a train layout, but that means spending the night in a hotel. Keeping the whole layout compact enough that it only takes up half of an eight foot table means I can use this layout in the future to showcase my 3D printing skills and models.

While the bench work is complete, the trackplan is not. That and the bench work will be the next subjects to discuss.

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