Bridging the gap
A Georgia Northeastern Railroad locomotive, GP9 #6576, rumbles across the Etowah River Bridge as a fisherman is focused on catching his dinner.
Bridges on model railroads are normally a signature scene on the layout, and model railroaders spend a lot of time and effort making them look realistic. The Etowah River Bridge scene on my layout has been photographed many times, and was the lead photo in Great Model Railroads 2020, The Blue Ridge Mountain Route article last year. In this blog I’ll highlight the steps I took to achieve the scene you see in the photo above.
The bridge scene was planned and designed from the beginning of the layout. When building the benchwork, I cut a 1” deep notch in the 1X4 frame to lower the area where I was placing the water feature. I wanted approximately 3 inches from the bottom of the rail to the top of the water to give sufficient height for the abutments and plenty of clearance for the bridge above the water. I used a piece of 1” thick wood to provide a stable base for the water feature. I have read that model railroaders can have issues if they pour the epoxy for the water directly on a piece of extruded foam, so that is why I used a sturdy piece of wood. The foam base for the layout was cut and sloped towards the river to create embankments. I added a 1” piece of foam to fill the gap between the wood base for the water and the 2” foam cap. It was not critical to fill all the gaps as the following steps will smooth and cover them. Once the foam was glued in place the entire scene was painted with latex earth colored paint.
I wanted to be able to test and operate the layout for a while before completing the river scene, so I made a temporary bridge using a 1X2. I painted it black so that it did not look out of place when I had guests over to operate on the layout. I laid the track on the bridge and used white glue to secure it to the wood. The temporary bridge stayed in place for several months and allowed me to operate the layout before I began the next steps for the permanent bridge.
The bridge I chose for the Etowah River location was the ExactRail 72’ Deck Plate Girder Bridge with cable handrails. I also purchased AIM Products Board Formed Concrete Bridge Abutments (#110-556), designed to fit the ExactRail bridge. One item modelers frequently overlook are the bridge shoes, which support the bridge on the abutments. I ordered Micro Engineering (80-034) bridge shoes that look prototypical for the bridge. With all the products on hand, I removed the temporary bridge and track. Next, I cut away the foam to accommodate the abutments. Since I had the track approaching the bridge in place, it was easy to shim and adjust the abutments so that I had a smooth transition with the track onto the bridge. Once I was pleased with the test fit, I glued the abutments in place and used plaster sheets to smooth the land forms and fill in the gaps, bringing the plaster all the way down to the base for the water. The rails for the bridge were cut to length and glued to the bridge using Walthers Goo. As a final step for the bridge, I weathered it and the abutments with weathering powders.
I added scenery materials along the shoreline with Georgia clay and small rocks, as the water product will cover some of the shoreline. I used caulk along the front and rear edge seams of the wood base for the water to seal up any gaps. This step is necessary to prevent the epoxy from leaking out when the water product is poured. I painted the area for the water a mossy green which is very similar to the color I used for the fascia. Along the banks of the river I used brown paint to represent the shallow areas and blended it into the green. Once I was satisfied with the color of the river, I used Magic Water by Unreal Details for the water. The product is a two part epoxy that never cracks, shrinks, or discolors, and provides a smooth as glass surface. I mixed up a batch of the Magic Water, following the instructions, and poured the river approximately 1/8” deep. I let the Magic Water dry overnight and checked it in the morning. Unfortunately a gnat landed in the water as it was drying and got stuck. It was right in the middle of the river and very visible. I tried to remove it, but it just made a mess of the water and left a hole where the insect was removed. Argh! Time to try pouring the river again. I patched the hole, painted the river bottom again, and mixed up another batch of Magic Water. This time after pouring the river I covered the area with a plastic wrap “tent” to prevent any other insects from being attracted to the water. The second attempt came out great, and no bugs this time!
Next, I installed plaster rock casting and blended them into the embankments with Sculptamold. I painted the rock outcroppings with a gray wash and then used a clay colored paint for the rest of the river embankment. Finally, I added Heki Wildgrass, SuperTrees, various other scenery products, and a photo backdrop that was edited to match up with the river to complete the scene.
The finished scene is one of the highlights of my layout. The trains look great running over the bridge, and it is a favorite spot to do some railfannning and take photos. I hope that my techniques give you some I ideas to create your own signature bridge scene.
Until next time, stay safe and keep model railroading.