The Chesapeake Bay and Western Model Railroad

Chesapeake Bay and Western Railway

(See the Slide Show of the Chesapeake Bay and Western at the bottom of the page!)

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Chesapeake Bay and Western Model Railroad Layout in Grafton, Virginia recently. Not to be confused with the Chesapeake Western Railway, the CB&W is a fantastic freelanced HO model railroad utilizing almost every bit of space in a large 2-story building, which the club leases from a local landowner. The layout serves as a hobby haven for more than 40 serious model railroaders, who devote extensive amounts of time, energy and money planning, building, modeling, remodeling and operating the railroad. The club members have frequent shows, which are free and open to the public. Many people come from miles around the Hampton Roads area to see the nicely detailed scenery and train operations.

The history of the Chesapeake Bay and Western Railroad, though fictitious, seems very realistic. The railroad originated from a small narrow gauge logging line called the Davis Timber Company built by the wealthy landowner, Col. Wendell J. Davis in 1884. The short line originally hauled timber, but after a brake failure and an accidental derailment by one of the loaded log trains, a large vein of coal was discovered and subsequently mined. The company became even more profitable by hauling the “black gold” to northern industrial areas and eventually the rails were converted to standard gauge. After the Colonel’s untimely death, the railroad merged with 2 others in the area and became the Chesapeake Bay and Western Railroad. Ultimately it expanded from the East Coast to St. Louis. As times changed, coal service decreased to about a third of what it was and became supplanted partly by intermodal service and general freight. It boasted an active passenger service at one time, but this went away with the advent of Amtrak. Nevertheless, the CB&W remains very much alive and profitable moving into a new era of modern railroading. (The above is just a summary. A more detailed and much more colorful history of the railroad can be found on the CB&W website.)

The Chesapeake Bay Railroaders Club has been building this railroad for the past 26 years and remains busy at least 3 days a week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Many of the club members are specialized in one function or another. For example, some of the members specialize in the electrical setup and operations; some specialize in scenery or architecture, some in track-laying, etc. The club thus represents a dedicated community of people each bringing his own knowledge and background to blend into the development of a masterpiece that would be too large and too complicated for any one person to accomplish.

The excellent organization and structure of the club keeps everything running smoothly. Every scene must be planned and sketched in detail and approved before the first track is laid. The money used to pay the lease and to build and operate the railroad comes from member dues ($25/mo for each member) and public donations. The train shows are usually free, but there are places to put in donations if you wish.

I was impressed with the operation of the layout during the train show. The dispatch room is large enough for two people to sit and is situated in the center of the building on the first floor. All trains are controlled using Digitrax DCC with walkaround throttles. The trains run smoothly even at slow speeds and each locomotive is equipped with sound as well. The chief dispatchers, who sit, you guessed it, in the dispatch room, monitor and direct the trains controlled by multiple other operators at track-side, communicating by wireless headphones. This assures smooth operation, prevents clog-ups in the yards and prevents crashes on the mainline. They are able to run rather long trains – up to 37 or more cars – using 2 to 4 engines for each consist. Most of the grades are 1-2%. The large helix is located in a central portion of the building through a large opening cut in the ceiling and is able to carry long trains from one floor to another with ease.

Most of the backdrops are hand painted and serve the scenery well. Many of the scenes are very detailed. Lighting and electronics also complement the layout, especially in the cities where there are multiple lamposts and nightlights. They even have operating signals and traffic lights. There are quite a few water scenes as you might expect, including one with a barge being loaded with freight cars at one of the docks. There are a few areas that haven’t been completed yet, but very few.

The best part of the layout is the friendliness, the camaraderie and the enthusiasm of all the club members. I enjoyed talking with many of them during my visit - including the President, Richard Andrews, one of the dispatchers, Adam Kemp, and many of the track-side operators – a great group of guys. They were very proud of their layout as they should be, but besides that, they were obviously having a lot of fun. And that, my fellow railroaders, is what it’s all about!

Check out the CB&W website for information on when their next show will be. They would love to have you visit and see what they've done. If you live close enough, you may even want to join up!

Chesapeake Bay & Western Railroad Layout from Greg Warth on Vimeo.

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