“North to Alaska” is a classic 1960 movie staring John Wayne and Ernie Kovacs, based on mining activities in Alaska. What does this movie have to do with model railroading? Well, both the model railroad and the movie are set in Alaska during the early 1900s, and are set around intense mining operations. This is the story of Richard Rands’s freelanced On30 narrow gauge Mineral & Southfork Railway.
Richard’s father Robert was an active model railroader who passed down his love for the hobby. Richard was just old enough to start appreciating model railroading when his father jumped into the business side of the hobby. Robert was an HOn3 (HO scale, narrow gauge, 3-foot) modeler and wanted good-quality, realistically sized Code 55 rail for his model railroad to represent the lighter weight used by narrow gauge railways. He submitted plans to a model manufacturer to make the rail for him. A large quantity of rail had to be purchased to make the order viable, so Robert started selling the extra stock to other hobbyists, and this was the start of Rail Craft. Other products were soon added to the Rail Craft line, and soon 12-year-old Richard was hired to assemble the packages.
ABOVE: A short freight crosses below a scratchbuilt Bollman through truss bridge as it heads toward Southfork.
That experience must have planted the seed of an idea in Richard, because after college he started his own model business, Clear Creek Models. Clear Creek produced a line of HOn3 freight cars. Shortly after opening, the company acquired the Tomalco line of track products, as well as the HO scale line of Durango Press. All of these eventually became Micro Engineering.
While Richard loved the model railroading business, he liked it more as a hobby. He retired from the business in 1997 to give himself more time to pursue his dreams of building his own narrow gauge model railroad.
ABOVE: A short two-car passenger train rounds the corner on the tallest curved trestle on the Mineral & Southfork Railway.
A Passion for Narrow Gauge
Brought up in a home where his father was an active HOn3 modeler, Richard is a passionate fan of narrow gauge. But when it came time for him to start his own railroad, he was conflicted. At issue was the poor running characteristics of most brass HOn3 steam locomotives available at the time. These expensive models, while beautiful, required a lot of work to get them to run reliably well. Considering other scales, he spent a little time in Sn3, but ended up on On30. Why? This was around the time that Bachmann released their new line of On30 equipment and Richard was impressed by these products. They were reasonably priced too, with a decent amount of detail and great running qualities.
In 2007, Richard and his wife, Donna, moved in with his parents, buying their home to be able to care for them in their twilight years. That new living arrangement gave Richard and Robert the chance to once again start building a narrow gauge model railroad together. Robert’s original HOn3 layout would serve as the base for the new On30 Mineral & Southfork.
ABOVE: Passengers have begun to arrive at the Southfork Station to await the afternoon train. Meanwhile, a local freight takes on water in between switching cars at the mills.
Building the Mineral & Southfork
The Mineral & Southfork is a freelance narrow gauge based in the fjord country of Alaska. This area has steep terrain with large valleys. The era is the early 1900s, though Richard hasn’t settled on a specific year. This allows a mix of horse-drawn wagons and early automobiles on the railroad. Hard rock mining is the main source of revenue for the railroad, with trains bringing ore from the mines to mills in Southfork. Coal is also mined near Cascade and transferred to the M&S by the 20-inch Consolidated Mining & Smelting Railway. There is no specific prototype for the variety and mix of equipment, which suits Richard’s broad taste for narrow gauge…