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The darkness changes suddenly to bright sunshine as you exit the snow shed at Lizard Head, breaking into the cool but sunny day. It’s spring 1941, and for once the sky is clear over the summit on the Rio Grande Southern. It’s said there are two seasons at Lizard Head - winter and the Fourth of July! But today a watery March sun shines on green grass poking through the remaining snow.

As engineer of today’s southbound freight, you pull back on the throttle and apply the air brake, slowing number 42 to a clanking halt alongside the depot. Today’s load is only four boxcars of ore from Placerville bound for the smelters at Durango, so the old Consolidation has made the 4% southbound grade through the valley of the Howard fork easily - for a change. Conductor John Crum swings down to hand your orders to the agent here. The fireman grabs his grease pot to attend to number 42’s valve gear, and the brakemen swing up to turn up the brake retainers for the long downhill trip.

It’s surprisingly open here at the summit; the RGS station is located in a broad valley dotted by patches of pines. Grey mountains loom behind the close-in hills; even at 10,000 feet elevation much of the scenery here is above you. Looking east, the stock pens sprawl around the end of the snow shed that covers the wye here. The RGS buildings at Lizard Head are all wooden, and are badly in need of a coat of paint. Their roofs still sport their winter coat of snow, although the puddles on the ground note the arrival of spring. The snow shed we’ve just exited is the dominant structure here; a ramshackle affair on unpainted wood with ragged holes where RGS crews have levered off boards to let the light in.

It’s a miserable place during the winter with huge snowfalls and a howling wind. Often, the station is isolated for days on end, as the railroad struggles to fight through the snow. In all this, the local section crew must brave the weather to maintain at least a minimal program of maintenance. It’s no place to linger, even in the sunshine, so you’re glad when the conductor returns. By this time the brakemen have finished turning up the retainers for the downhill run to Trout Lake. A quick whistle blast for the agent and it’s onward to Trout Lake.

The Model

That’s what it might have felt like to be an engineer on the RGS. It was a tough life for the railroad men, with long, hard hours of work and the ever-present possibility that weather or mechanical failure, would interrupt the normal running of the railroad to trap the railroaders far from home. At times, crews worked ten days straight to set the damage to rights.

Located in a harsh environment, the RGS - always on the brink of bankruptcy - could afford only the essential maintenance on it’s assets. Therefore, it was common to see ageing paint on structures, well-weathered locomotives and increasingly decrepit rolling stock. This contrasts with the beauty of the high Rockies.

RGS modellers can capitalize on the railroad’s setting to depict the various seasonal colours, particularly the golden tones of fall often seen on model layouts. Even in summer, the light grey-greens of the aspen contrast with the dark pine greens; grass dries to a light brownish colour to provide strong contrasts. But my vision of Lizard Head on the RGS is to set most of the scene in winter.



 I diverged from the prototype in several aspects; the most obvious of these was not to include the full wye and covered passing loop. This much hidden track is simply asking for trouble; besides, it’s not much fun in a train that’s “in there, somewhere!”. Instead, treating the layout diorama-style, rather like a British-style layout, offers excellent scenic possibilities

Even a compact scene like Lizard Head would never fit into a reasonable space if modelled faithfully. Selective compression is a process used to translate the great outdoors into our limited layout areas. Techniques available here include using sharper-radius curves than the prototype; reducing the size of buildings – either by omitting some features or modelling the structure in a slightly small scale than the remainder of the scene, and using smaller items toward the rear of the scene.

“Defining elements” are items that should never be compromised upon, in order to achieve the desired effect on the viewer. I believe the defining element of Lizard Head is the group of buildings at the opening of the snow shed. These rustic wooden structures are readily recognized by RGS fans and should receive particular attention to detail and workmanship. Viewers’ attention is focused here in several ways:

  • Use of “warm” colours for the structures – flaking yellow paint over brown un-painted wood, which contrasts with the cool white of the surrounding snow

  • Leading lines, such as ties lying beside the track, or ridges of snow converging on the structures to “lead” the viewers’ eyes to the desired place.

  • Grouping of details outside the structures to provide a busier, interesting look. Details might include a speeder car, snow shovels, wheelbarrows or sacks waiting to be loaded to a passing train

  • Use of figures in the vicinity of the structures; these are a sure-fire method to draw attention to a particular mini-scene

One challenge of the design as presented, is the strong “leading lines” created by the converging snow shed toward the rear of the scene. These lines tend to draw the eyes deeper into the scene until – wham! – the back scene intervenes.

This effect can be mitigated by concentrating details in the foreground of the scene, and keeping elements located deeper in the layout simpler, with muted colours and less contrast. Leading lines can also be broken up by planting a taller tree or two right beside the snow shed. These provide a vertical element that “interrupts” the horizontal lines of the snow shed, diluting the leading-line effect.

A final alternative is to draw attention to the foreground using a spot of brighter colour. A red truck, fitted out as a snow-plough and located in front of the snow shed, provides a startling contrast to the white snow, and draws attention toward the foreground. Be sure that these attention-getters receive additional detailing, as they are sure to be closely inspected by viewers!

Construction Techniques

The layout was built using fairly typical construction methods, which can be seen in the diagram below.

Achieving the best from the unique setting of a snow-bound Lizard Head calls for a few additional techniques. Expanded styrene foam is probably best suited to shape the rounded mounds of the snow drifts. This can be covered with a thin cover of water putty, then plaster mixed with a little commercial snow “sparkle” is sifted over the surface. Don’t forget to include shoveled-out pathways between the section house doors and the outdoor toilet! Down-home details such as this give the layout a lived-in look.

Painting the back scene first helps to ensure a better job via easier access. The heavy cover of snow helps to blend this into the three-dimensional scenery, as the snow drifts can be curved upward in the last two or three inches to disguise the transition. Snow texture is bonded to both the three-dimensional layout and the lower back scene to further camouflage this joint.

All that snow could be boring, so elsewhere in the scene, grass is poking through the thinning snow cover. To represent this, carefully drip some thinners onto sections of the scenery. This melts away the foam scenery to form tapered craters. This should be done with great care and in a well-ventilated location. Plant some weeds from dyed string into the holes formed by the melted foam to provide a striking contrast with the snow

Speaking of snow texture, I’ve found that plaster appears a little too fine under normal viewing conditions. It almost looks unfinished, as if the terrain awaits a good coat of paint. For  Lizard Head Pass, I found a powdered white styrene product that stays a nice bright white and has a coarser grain than plaster. You might also use baking soda or white tile grout. Just don’t use flour, unless you want to provide a free feed for the neighbourhood mice (bitter experience speaking here!!). Finally, sprinkle a little Taurus Products “sparkle” over the completed snow to provide highlights.

You might also include a section of layout with only patches of snow, to provide a different feel and texture. Scenery here is more traditional with natural dirt ground cover, weeds and an abundance of puddles formed from gloss medium.

A convincing effect requires the integration of all elements. The layout fascia should be painted a cool neutral shade to support the tones used in the model. A grey-green colour helps to re-inforce the cooler tones within the scene.


The Lizard Head snow shed is a huge structure, which we’ve selectively compressed to avoid over-powering the scene. The snow shed also offers an ideal way to take trains off-scene, because the wall of the snow shed doesn’t have to parallel the track. A useful trick is that the track within the snow shed doesn’t have to follow the walls – you might curve a track out to staging although the snow shed parallels the back scene.

Lizard Head’s buildings are all from wood and showed little paint in prototype photos. Dark tones are essential here, with ample evidence of moisture working it’s way up the vertical board walls. Roofs can be made from sheet foam carved to a mounded shape and covered with scenic snow. Parts of some roofs can be left bare to show the snow melting off; gloss medium “puddles” should be aligned with building eaves to represent the coming of spring. Spare snow shovels on the porch are a nice final touch.

This layout is all about colour contrast; the bright white snow against the dark stained wood, red boxcars and sooty black locomotives. Fluorescent lighting with blue filters can be used to throw a cool light over the scene. It’s surprising how effective this is to give your viewers that “cold” feeling. Warmer incandescent spot lighting can be used for accents - say upon the section house and hand car shed at the throat of the snow shed, and on the section of layout with less snow. Best of all, a great night scene can be created with soft blue lighting and the warm glow of incandescent lamps inside the buildings.

Track Plan and Operation

The prototype Lizard Head was never more than a whistle stop on the railroad; the harsh climate ensured that no town ever existed here. The pass at Lizard Head formed a summit with steep grades in both directions , particularly on the Ophir (north) side where a 4% grade ruled. Railroad activities were based around using the wye to turn helpers released at the top of the grade, and a passing loop inside the snow shed itself.

Helper locomotives stationed out of Rico to the south were used to assist northbound trains over the line. The locomotives would help northbound trains up to Lizard Head where they were cut off. Usually, the helpers were then turned on the wye and headed light down-grade.

Rico-based helpers were also used for southbound trains. In this case, the helper would run light to Ames, then join a loaded train until Lizard Head. The helper was then released to run ahead of the loaded train, in order to spare the lightly-built RGS trestles.

This helper operation forms the basis of Lizard Head’s operation, if constructed as a stand-alone layout. Command control should be considered to simplify the task of adding and cutting off the helper engines. Switching at Lizard Head was mainly limited to snow trains, or setting out defective cars.

Lizard Head is better suited to those who wish to run trains rather than switch. Dispatching also is minimal, as the prototype only ran a handful of trains each week! But if you prefer to build a handful of highly-detailed structures in a striking setting, and to watch your beloved Rio Grande Southern scratch built, highly detailed rolling stock roll past from the comfortable of your armchair, perhaps Lizard Head is for you...

Summing it up

Lizard Head in the winter offers an interesting variation on the theme of seasonal modelling. With supporting elements such as trees and rocks muted by the anonymity of snow cover, the scenery is not difficult to do well. These elements also won’t detract from the parade of passing trains (although the reality was more like one train per day).

Locating the scene in the depth of winter should strike a chord with fans of 'The Southern' who will easily recognize the setting at the mouth of the snow shed, which always provided a great location for photography.