Trip Report, Part 2: A step back in time

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series documenting SACOM members’ trip to Michigan in Oct. 2021.

It’s quite difficult to describe the level of perfection Mike Burgett has achieved on his HO scale representation of C&O Clifton Forge Division, which is set in 1965. Burgett occasionally opens his layout to visitors and SACOM was privileged to be invited back in October. Mike, a Division Engineer of Signals at Canadian National, has spent many years and a lot of effort by himself, and a team of friends, building his amazing layout.

Upon arriving at Mike’s residence, he gave us a tour of the facilities that were above ground. He has recreated a interlocking tower, “ND Cabin” in a custom-built room in his garage. On the layout, a camera was placed inside this tower which sends its signal a TV mounted within faux window to give the tower operator the feeling of actually being in a tower, controlling the junction. An authentic control machine actually lines trains through the crossing. While no real trains run across the N&W, a computer program simulates trains which show up on the control machine and must be lined through by the operator in coordination with C&O traffic in the area. The tower is equipped with period-specific equipment to communicate and control trains and their movements.

Mike in recent years built and addition on his home to enlarge his basement and added a room above ground. Mike has turned this room into his dispatch center. His attention to details shines here, as it does everywhere else. The ceiling tiles, floor tiles, light fixtures, and other furniture are exactly what would have been used in a dispatcher’s office during that time period. He’s custom built a fully operative CTC machine, complete with simulated sounds of relays clicking has the dispatch lines trains across the railroad. Replicated forms used by personnel at the time are used just as if it were the real C&O in 1965.

After the tour of the upstairs facilities, Mike had cooked a homemade meal that included meatloaf, salad, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cooked apples… all made with recipes that were used in C&O’s dining cars. The food was absolutely delicious with most getting seconds!

Following lunch, new visitors were given a brief orientation on how his railroad operates, signals, and familiarization with a timetable filled specifically with information on how to operate trains on his layout. After orientation, everyone that was going to be operating drew a random number from a cup and that was your seniority to bid on jobs (trains). There was job board just outside the layout area where members could “mark up” for their desired jobs. Passenger trains, coal drags, locals, and an extra board were all up for grabs.

In following with Mike’s unwavering commitment to details, just before going downstairs, he told all participants that once we went down, it was 1965. If we were to engage in discussions of politics, it was to be about Lyndon B. Johnson and Goldwater, his opponent.

Those of us who had never operated on his layout were paired with a person who was experienced so we wouldn’t be “flying blind.” Many of us were simply awestruck at the level of details Mike has built into his layout. All signals functioned prototypically, some mainline switches had time-delayed locks that couldn’t be opened without first contacting the dispatcher. Trackwork was perfect, ballast looked completely prototypical, structures were correct to the true prototype (except were available space was the limiting factor).

Before crews hit the road, we bid on jobs which included coal drags (off the extra board), manifests, passenger trains, and locals that needed switch industries. There is fast clock that governs when trains are called and when passenger trains are expected to reach stations and when they can leave in some cases. A crew caller has wall with blocks with operator’s names listed on them. In that time period, crew callers used these blocks to keep track of what crews were on what trains and this tradition is continued on Mike’s railroad.

Not everyone got a train right off the bat, so many took the opportunity to socialize with Mike’s regular crew and study the details and operations. For those that only run trains in a loop would feel out-of-place at Mike’s as most trains don’t necessarily traverse the entire layout. Some operations require frequent contact with the dispatcher, especially locals. Telephone handsets are mounted around the layout and this is how crews communicate with the dispatcher.

We were fortunate enough to spend two-days operating on this amazing layout. The depth of realism on Mike’s layout is completely unparalleled for model railroading and it’s exactly that that makes it one of the most fun and interesting layouts in the world. “If the Smithsonian had a model train layout… this would be it,” Jesse Smith said of the experience. It is hard to describe in words the experience he has created. It really is something that needs to be experienced in person.

A westbound passenger train prepares for a station stop at White Sulphur Springs. (Photo by Jesse Smith)

SACOM sends our deepest appreciation to Mike for inviting members of our organization to come and run trains on his outstanding model railroad.

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