Creating The
Sutton-Palmer Model Railroad

Part 1, Imagineering a Model Railorad.
Part 2, The Background for the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.
Part 3, The Sutton-Palmer Railroad.
Part 4, Operations on the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.
Part 5, Some Variations on the operation of the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.
Part 6, A Story from Earl, The winter of 46-47
Return to Model Railroading in Alaska
Part 3, The Sutton-Palmer Railroad.

Please remember that the actual reopening and business entities are all imaginary even though the places and some of the history are real.

After acquiring the Coal Reserves in the Moose and Granite Creek water sheds, the Alaska Energy Corporation (AEC) was faced with problem of transporting the coal to market.  This was soon solved through an agreement with the Alaska Railroad to lease the track North of mile 4.6 to the end of track on the Palmer Branch.  From the end of track in Palmer to Sutton, the unused right of way along the Matanuska River would have to be rebuilt by the AEC.  The AEC then created a separate corporation known as the Sutton-Palmer Railroad Corporation (SPRC) for the purpose of building and operating the Railroad.  Within a few months the locals knew the Railroad simply as the SP.

Part 2, The Background for the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.

One of the original goals of the Alaska Railroad was the coal fields in the Sutton and Chickaloon areas.  These coal fields were a major source of coal for the US Navy fleet until the conversion to diesel powered ships.  Eventually in the mid 60's, the need for coal had dropped off, land slides in the 64 earthquake blocked some track along the Matanuska River, closing the branch North of Palmer.  While there have been several half hearted attempts to reopen the mines, none have been successful. 

In the Spring of 2003, a new cooperation was formed to consolidate and acquire the coal reserves along the North side of the Matanuska River and in between the Moose and Granite Creek water sheds.  This corporation was formed on April 1, 2003 and is known as the Alaska Energy Corporation (AEC). The AEC stated that it will be reopening the inactive Jonesville and Eska mines and they will be shipping 2000 tons of coal per day within a year.  When in full operation this project is expected to employ 43 persons.  The coal was to be trucked in oversize trucks from Sutton, down the Glenn Highway to the site of a Gravel Pit near mile 3.8 of the Alaska Railroad's Palmer Branch for reload into railroad cars.  This caused an immediate uproar from Palmer as it's residents did not want to hear the rumble of large trucks day and night hauling coal to the railroad.  As a result of public outcry, the DOT refused to issue a blanket Special Road Use Permit  to the AEC  and that the AEC would have to get a permit for each individual load.

At this point, the project was in Jeopardy of failing as had all previous attempts to reopen the mines.  In an effort to save their investment, the AEC had to become creative to find a satisfactory solution to get their coal to market.  The solution was to reopen part of the old Chickaloon branch to Sutton and while this may seem simple on the surface, there are several things to consider what will make an interesting railroad to operate.

Part 1, Imagineering a Model Railroad.

From November, 2003 through March, 2004 I presented a series on creating and operating an imaginary railroad, called the Knik River Railroad.  I received several compliments on this series and requests to follow it up with another similar series.  Before doing another series, I would suggest to you that you try to create an imaginary Model Railroad yourself.  It is really not that hard, and only takes a little Imagineering.  So what is imagineering, simply using your imagination to engineer something that could be, or could have been.

Look around where you live, or someplace that you have been and would like to build a model of it.  Just think about that wonderful place you visited and think that it would be a great place for a railroad. Then think about how a railroad could be built at that place, this is where imagineering comes in. On the Knik River Railroad all I did was put the railroad on top of existing roads and then create a scenario around that and what is physically in place.  Please keep in mind that in a model, that insurmountable object such as a mountain range, large river or such, can be conquered with a short tunnel, a bridge or simply going through a scenic barrier.  You don't have to model every mile of a railroad to make it believable and to have it operable.  Model only short sections of the overall route, which can be used to represent long sections, even as much as hundreds of miles.  When modeling an imaginary railroad, the use of readily available kits may be used to create easy to build scenes.

So think about some place that you would like to see a railroad which you can model.  Study the lay of the land by visual observation, use Topographic Maps or whatever.  Use your imagineering to draw in your railroad grade and if you encounter that insurmountable object, use your modelers license to get over it.  Give it a shot and see what you can come up with.

So, let's take a look at what I can come up with for an another imaginary railroad which you can model.  Please remember that the actual reopening and business entities are imaginary even though the places and some of the history are real.

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The Overall map of the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.  The red line in the upper right is the conveyer coming from the mines to the loader at Sutton.

By January of 2004, the AEC had hired Otto Gage, a well qualified Engineering/Manager to construct and manage the SP.  By break-up in 2004, Otto had heavy equipment on site and the clearing of the old grade heading North along the Matanuska River was well underway.  New Welded 120 Lb. rail was relayed from the Fair Grounds, through Palmer, including several sidings and a new siding track.  Some of the old 70 Lb. rail was reused for the new Engine Service facility.  North of Arctic Ave. in Palmer, new 120 Lb. welded rail was laid and by the first of July, the sounds of train whistles were once again heard in Sutton.  The residents of Sutton were so glad to see trains rolling in their community once again, that they put on one of the grandest Fourth-of-July celebrations in the State.

The track layout in the city of Palmer as well as the Engine House and Team Track.

From Sutton to the mines, the old railroad grade had reached a horrifying seven percent, far to steep for the economical or safe operation of trains in todays world.  Otto found a simple and effective solution to this challenge with the use of a conveyer belt running down the hill to a Flood Loader at Sutton.  At the upper end, several conveyer branches were built to serve shafts at Jonesville and Eska. 

The track layout at Sutton and the loader site.  The red line is the conveyer belt coming from the mines.

The 100 ton hopper cars are provided by the Alaska Railroad and are interchanged with the SP who then delivers the cars to just up grade from the loader.  The power then moves down to a cut of loaded cars below the loader and returns to the ARR Interchange track.  The empty cars which were left up-grade from the loader are then rolled down hill through the loader.

Part 4,  Operations on the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.

I would like to continue with some suggestions on how the Sutton-Palmer Railraod might be operated.   Let's start with simplest operation, the principal purpose for the railroad and that is to haul coal from the Coal Loader at Sutton, to an interchange with the Alaska Railroad.  Let me start by saying that there are many variations on how this operation can be run and most likely would be determined by the capital available at start-up.  The power for example would most likely be determined by budget and what locomotives were available on the market at the time of start-up.  To give this imaginary story a starting point, let's assume that two GP40 rebuilds are the motive power,  that they are operating in a back to back configuration and with no facility for turning, are always facing in the same direction. 

To help you through the following discussion on the operation of the railroad, I would invite you to refer to the maps in Figure1, 2 and 3 above.

Please remember that the actual reopening and business entities are all imaginary even though the places and some of the history are real.

Coming on duty at the Engine House located in Palmer, the two man crew makes a check of the power and moves south to the interchange to pick-up the empty Coal Hoppers.  The power is coupled on the North end of a 20 car cut of empty coal Hoppers, the air is pumped up and the train slowly proceeds Northward through Palmer to the banks of the Matanuska River.  The track along the river is subject to landslides and this restricts the train speed to a maximum of 20 MPH.  The trip to the Loader at Sutton is 12.4 miles from Palmer and usually takes about 55 minutes if uneventful.  Arriving at Sutton, the train crew pulls into the Upper Loader track and stops.  Then several car brakes are tied down and the power is cut away, pulls ahead onto the escape track, then makes a reverse movement and couples onto the South end of the train.  Once the air is again pumped up, the crew backs the train up two engine lengths, throws the switch and slowly pulls ahead through the loader to begins the loading process which will take approximately one hour.  Once the loading is complete, the crew will slowly ease the train Southward and return to Palmer.  On arriving in Palmer, the crew will spot the cars on the interchange track, then return the power to the Engine House.  Under normal conditions, this process takes between four and a half and five hours.

Looking at the scenario that I described above, as a real life operation on a small railroad, the two man train crew would most likely spent the next several hours to the end of their shift doing other duties around the railroad.  These could include engine maintenance, track work or even weed control along the track.  If on the other hand, our small railroad were to have developed other local industries, the crew would now spend time switching these industries.

Looking at the above scenario as a model railroad, the single purpose operation in my estimation would become quite boring.  Unless we wanted to limit our model to something small, the development or addition of more industries would almost be a necessity.  So, let's see what we can do to provide more operation and interest to our railroad, while keeping it in the flavor of local area that we are modeling.  First of all, let's look at an industry at the site of the old Mat-Maid plant in Palmer.  This could easily be a new manufacturing plant producing whatever's, requiring 2 to 3 cars a day.  A little further South, is the Matnuska Electric Association's yard where a car load of new telephone poles arrives every few days.  A little farther South is the old National Lumber siding and a one mile spur going to the Palmer Airport, the location of a steel fabrication plant.   This is also the location of the new Spenard Builders Supply which if a siding were installed, could receive loads of lumber and other building supplies.  About a mile further South is the site of the new Fair Grounds station which may eventually become the Palmer Commuter Station.  Looking at the Sutton end, this would be a great place for a saw mill shipping several car loads of cut lumber every day.   While there is one located in Palmer just north of the depot, let's not neglect the possibilities of the simple team track which could be located almost anyplace.

Part 5, Some Variations on the operation of the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.
Now I would like to continue by describing a somewhat expanded scenario by utilizing the Sutton-Palmer (SP) train crews operating as far South as Matanuska Junction to interchange cars with the Alaska Railroad.  So, what would this gain either railroad?  First of all, it would save the Alaska Railroad the expense of having to service the branch from Anchorage, or having to park a train at Matanuska Jct. while cars from the train are moved to Palmer.  In other words, the Interchange cars to the SP could be set-out by a North bound ARR train and the cars from the SP could be picked up by a South bound ARR train at Matanuska Jct.  The SP crews would also assume service to all industries except for gravel on the Branch.  This would save the ARR money, but would mean that the SP crews would be operating longer hours as well as on ARR track, possibly at the same time as the ARR Gravel Trains.  To make this happen, would require that the track between Matanuska Jct. and Palmer be made Track Warrant control.  The SP crews would have to get a Track Warrant from the ARR Dispatcher before departing Palmer for Matanuska Juct. or to switch South of Palmer.  This would also mean that the ARR Gravel trains would now require a Track Warrant on the Palmer Branch.  If the ARR makes good on it's Commuter plans and initiates Commuter service to the New Fairgrounds Station, also known as South Palmer Station, this would add even more congestion to the scenario.

From a Modelers stand point this would add quite a bit of operation and would in my opinion add a lot to the operation of a relatively simple train railroad.  Just who said that a Short Line Railroad can't be interesting.

Another area where variations could be made to the scenario is in the Motive Power.  While I described using rebuilt GP40's, there are many other locomotives which could be substituted.  For example there would be no reason  why most any GP locomotive could be used, as well as larger SW's.  If one were to back date the time period, Alco RS series or many other similar locomotives would fit right in.  If one were to reduce the train size to say ten cars, a single unit would be most applicable.

Bob Almeida's Matanuska South Central Railroad.

Another Model Railroad which could be set-up to simulate the SP, would be the 44 by 142 inch Mooselip Railroad shown in Figure 6 above.  Yes I know, Mooselip is an oval built around a town, with a passing siding on each side and several industrial sidings.  By applying a mountainous center divider and using Coal Mining buildings on one side, and a small town on the other side, a SP could be created.  For pictures of the Mooselip RR, please visit the Mooselip Web-Page.  As with the MSCRR above,  the operation possibilities are many.

From what I have presented above, please don't feel that a SP Railroad needs to be an island in the middle of the room.  For those who may be blessed with a larger room to build a Railroad, please let your imagination be your guide.  Again what I hope is that I have given you some food for thought, something to think about.

Marty Quaas
Model Railroading in Alaska

Mat-Maid Plant
MEA  Yard
National Lumber
Airport Branch
  South Palmer
Commuter Station

AS&G Loader
Wilder Pit
and Loader
Coal Mines
Buffalo Mine
Railroad Grade
Matanuska Junction
Alaska Railroad
Palmer Branch
Palmer Branch
Part 6   The following story is by Earl who worked on the line between Palmer and Sutton through the winter of 1946, 1947:

The winter of 1946-47 if you check the weather records was very cold. One time the only thing that would start was the motor car by using a hand crank. It had a model A engine. We had a crew of 6. The main job in the winter was keeping the track clear of rocks between Palmer and Moose Creek. When the wind blew and it blew a lot down on the river it would bring down lots of small rocks on the tracks. You had to watch out for rocks coming down the steep banks when you were clearing the tracks. I got hit more than once. One time there was a big rock that was blocking the tract. It went from rail to rail across the track. I used something like 5 sticks of dynamite on top of the rock to break it up so we could get it off the tracks. We also used dynamite to break up ice that would build up over the track. Keeping the track open was no easy task.

The train would stop at Moose Creek for water and lunch. We had a dining room in the building next to the section house. There was a cook, his wife and mother-in-law that lived in that building. We had some good meals there. I used to like to watch the steam engine go up the grade from Sutton to Jonesville. If there was a lot of snow on the track only the engine would go up the grade and then sometimes it would not make it and have to back down and take another run. If I remember right the most it could push up the grade was 5 empty coal cars. Once it got all the cars up there they would bring all the loaded coal cars down at once with brake men on the hand brakes. Once I was told that the brakes failed and there was one long whistle which was the signal for every one to jump off. Everyone got off except the fireman. The lady at the Alpine Inn told me she seen express trains in the states but nothing like this one when it went by the Inn. The fifth coal car then derailed and tore up ties for half a mile.

If the wind had not blown over night, (only a few rocks down) the foreman used to send me from Moose Creek to Palmer on a three wheeler and they would go to Sutton. The train was supposed to get to Moose Creek at about 2 PM. One time around 10 AM I was going along about to go around the bend and then straight into Palmer when here came the train around the bend at a good clip. I got stopped and started to run forward but turned around and grabbed the three wheeler and just got it off the tracks when the train went roaring by. It seems that it was the engineer's wife's birthday and he wanted to get back early that day. I told them that they should let me know when they are running early. We almost lost the three wheeler. Another time I was taking the three wheeler to Parmer and I started hitting very hard snow drifts over the track. I would push the three wheeler over the drift and go on to the next one. The only problem was that the drifts keep getting bigger and bigger. About four or five foot high. I finally got to the Palmer depot and went in and told them to send the train back to Anchorage that there was no way the train was going to get through today. I was told that the engine has a plow in front and it could plow through the drifts. No way, I said. Send out the rotary. He said OK but I better be right or I would get fired. I talked to the rotary crew the next day when they got to Moose Creek. They said that they had to go through a lot of big drifts and they thought they would be able to plow right through to Moose Creek but when they hit the first drift it about knocked them to the floor. That was about the hardest drifts they had ever seen. I know when pushing the three wheeler over the drifts it was leaving no tracks. I would jump up and down and it was like jumping on a rock.

Like I said keeping the track open in that river bed is no easy task. I am sending along a picture of me when I was 16 (oh to be that young again).  The picture was taken about a mile or two from the section house at Moose Creek going to Sutton.
In Part 4, I described a possible scenario for the operation of the Sutton-Palmer Railroad, now I would like to suggest some variations to the Railroad and it's Operation.  To help you follow this discussion, I would invite you to use the map shown here. Please remember that the actual reopening and business entities are all imaginary even though the places and some of the history are real
Now, let's look at a couple simple examples of Model Railroads which could be used to create a model of the Sutton-Palmer Railroad.  The first while very simplistic, would be Bob Almeida's, Matanuska South Central Railroad, shown in Figure 5 above.  Measuring 30 by 60 inches, the MSCRR could be used as a Coal Mining Railroad as that is what it was made for.  While the MSCRR is limited in additional industries, there is a short track which can be used for receiving supplies to the mine or for use as a Team Track.  For pictures of this railroad, I would invite you to visit the MSC Web-Page.  With just a little imagination, any number of operation schemes can be worked out and applied to the MSCRR.
The Mooselip Display Railroad