Beyond Scale Model Railroads

Over the Hill Construction Co. builds model railroads with scale model construction equipment.

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When you’re excavating nice fill from a small-scale pit but it’s full of larger rocks, what can you do? Run it through a screener, such as this homemade scale model Mike Perigo and Tom Briggs built specifically for that purpose.

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It takes a certain eye for detail and a good deal of patience to build working small-scale outdoor railroads. It takes plenty of labor as well. And once the railroad is built, reduced-size maintenance tasks become a big chore in a hurry. While many model railroaders rely on muscle to shape the roadbed, apply ballast and maintain their rights of way, a pair of little-locomotive enthusiasts from Kalamazoo, Mich., created an easier way.

"When the Mid-Michigan Railroad (a 1-1/5-inch scale operation located at Cornwell's Turkeyville U.S.A. near Marshall, Mich.) wanted to expand its track, we needed to haul quite a lot of material to make the grades," Mike Perigo, one of the founding partners of Over The Hill Construction Co., says with a grin. "So we decided to build a small dump truck to make it easier." That roughly 1/3-scale International Harvester truck marked the beginning of a full-sized fabricating friendship that has grown ever tighter with time. "We knew of each other in high school," says Tom Briggs, Mike's partner in fun. "But we didn't really become friends until more recently."

Today, railroad enthusiasts associated with Over The Hill Construction have several more laborsaving pieces of equipment at their disposal. Most were designed and built by the pair. "Mike has all of the ideas," Tom says. "I just machine parts for him." Mike is quick to point out that Tom is a great sounding board for his ideas as well as an important influence on the design process. Clearly the duo works well together, because they have created an entire fleet of construction tools that ease the labor of model railroad building.

Design evolution

When Mike had the idea to build a small dump truck to facilitate moving hundreds of cubic yards of fill on scale-model construction sites, he wanted the truck to be fully functional and sufficiently heavy-duty to be reliable. He also wanted it to look like a dump truck. He likes truck styles from the 1920s and 1930s, and wanted a truck with a vintage-style cab. Since Mike was planning to build that first truck around an early 1960s International Harvester Cub Cadet 100 garden tractor chassis, he decided to pattern it after a late 1920 IH model.

In its initial configuration, the IH truck was mounted on the Cub Cadet's chassis with minimal alteration. In the end, it looked okay, but much of the dump body extended beyond the rear axle, and that overhang made the truck a little light up front when loaded to its approximate 3/4 cubic yard capacity. It also put undue strain on the former garden tractor's rear axles. In time, a weld holding one of the stock Cub Cadet hub flanges to its right axle shaft broke, creating the opportunity to change the truck's design. Tom says the truck was plenty capable, but it was geared a little too high and the hand-crank dumping mechanism proved to be a time and energy drain when they had a good crew on the job.

To alleviate the axle-overloading concerns, Mike stretched the garden tractor's original frame, moving the cast iron Cub Cadet transaxle with it. That change also required fabrication of a longer driveline and remote 3-speed transmission shifter along with new brake control rods. Since the Cub Cadet's hub flange welds were the weak link in the original truck, Mike and Tom decided to remove the load from those components by fabricating a new heavy-duty steel axle with automotive-style machined spindles, hubs and tapered roller bearings. Heavy-duty trucks in the 1920s often used chain-and-sprocket final drives, so the Cub Cadet's transaxle and the truck's drive wheels were fit with 40- and 50-tooth roller-chain sprockets respectively, which also resulted in a 20 percent speed reduction once connected.

Before being sent back out on the job, the little International truck also received a hydraulic hoist to facilitate dumping. As with the new drive train, the system is beautifully simple and completely functional. "We used a one-way system to raise the box," Tom explains. "A high-quality check valve holds it in place and gravity brings it back down when the bypass valve is opened."

The system's small gear-type hydraulic pump is engaged with a belt-tightener clutch to supply the lifting pressure. Hydraulic oil is pumped through a check valve past a closed 1,600-psi ball valve (it leads to the oil reservoir when opened) to the hydraulic cylinder mounted behind the cab. When the pump is stopped, the check valve prevents oil from flowing backward. When it is time to lower the box, the ball valve is opened to allow the oil (pushed by the weight of the raised box) to drain back into the reservoir. All of the operations are accomplished with a pair of control levers in the cab of the truck.

By the time the Mid-Michigan Railroad's expansion project was completed, the scale model International truck hauled an estimated 300 cubic yards of fill in loads of 1/2 to 1/3 cubic yard at a time. Virtually all of that was pulled from small pits and banks on the Mid-Michigan Railroad's property, but not with pick and shovel. "I was already working on a track crane to help with excavation," Mike says. "But we really needed something to load with right away."

Building a fleet

The immediate solution to the truck loading difficulty was construction of a front-end loader for another of their Cub Cadet tractors, which proved useful but still was not ideal in the pit. "Work on Mike's crane was slow, so I decided to look for the smallest tracked excavator I could find," Tom says. "I ended up with Kubota's K-008." The tiny excavator is as modern as they get, but it was designed to be able to pass through 36-inch openings. While never envisioned as a pit excavator, in small-scale terms, the machine was perfect.

With the loading end of their business streamlined, Mike and Tom noted that they had created a significant labor bottleneck once the material had been delivered to the work site. "Once we had the excavator, we put the loader to work as a bulldozer to spread the material," Mike says. Since the loader was originally mounted on a gear-driven Cub Cadet, Mike made it more dozer-friendly by installing a hydrostatic transaxle with foot control. As a dozer, the little wheel-loader-turned-leveler was capable but not ideal. "I got to where I could push out the piles and rough-form the roadbed," Tom explains. "But there was still plenty of handwork to do." The solution? A mini-dozer. Mike and Tom agreed they could have built one, but time was of the essence. So, in 2002, Tom purchased a mini-dozer from the C.F. Struck Corp.

"It was their smallest belt-drive dozer at the time," Tom says. "It didn't have hydraulics, but it was perfect for our needs." Perfect in most regards, that is. After a hard season of work, the little dozer showed significant undercarriage wear, necessitating a complete makeover. In the end, the duo fabricated new axles, trued up the entire drive train, installed lower track rollers where there had been none and beefed up the frame. And since the little crawler's tracks were prone to loading up with clay and losing traction, Tom built a die and had a local metal stamping shop use it to produce a full set of overlapping grousers. The little Struck was ready to go back to work.

Now able to load and spread more efficiently, Mike and Tom realized that hauling material was once again creating a bottleneck. If they could run a pair of trucks between the pit and the work site, Mike believed, they could minimize wait times. So, they fashioned a second improved dump truck, but this time it looked more like a Mack Model AB. The Mack was built on a stretched gear-drive Cub Cadet frame. Rather than moving the Cub Cadet's transaxle, Mike left it in its original location and used longer drive chains to make the connection with the drive wheels. The AB was also fitted with a Heil-style steel dump body. Its hydraulic hoist was installed between the frame rails and connected directly to the box.

Since the 4.80-by-8-inch front tires on the International tended to bog down under load in soft material, Tom machined a set of five-lug front hubs for the AB bushed to fit on the tractor's original front axle. These heavy-duty hubs were fitted with a set of trailer tires on 12-inch rims. The end result is more aesthetically appealing and solves the control problems associated with the smaller tires.

Once completed, Mike's Mack was put into service. With additional friends added to the roadbed crew, Over The Hill Construction was a model of model railroad building efficiency. But Mike still wasn't satisfied. "The dozer worked really well for roughing-in the roadbed," Mike says. "But there was still some finishing that we had to do by hand." That included carefully raking and hand-grading ripples, bumps and abrupt transitions. "Mike thought we needed a power grader for the finishing work," Tom says, shaking his head. "So we built one."

Once again Mike turned to the Cub Cadet to power his grader, which is based on a 1920s-vintage Galion Road Patrol that bolted to an existing farm or industrial tractor. Tom says the grader offered some of the most challenging machining of any of their projects, including making gears and gearboxes to raise and lower the blade on either side, and adjusting the scarifier located directly behind the front wheels. The grader's blade can rotate left or right, and its moldboard can be offset to the right or left to facilitate edging and ditching. Like the rest of their machines, it does its job well.

Odds and ends

Mike finally finished his model crane (complete with clamshell bucket) and mounted it on a wheeled-chassis instead of the crawlers, but it proved a little slow at loading dump trucks. He still uses it occasionally just for fun. A retired crane operator, Mike has a fond place in his heart for the machine, which he patterned after one of his favorites, an old Marion cable model. From the gear-driven winch drums to the mechanical pivot mechanism, the miniature crane operates just like the real thing.

Other projects Mike and Tom have completed together include a lovely circa 1925 AB Mack wrecker truck, forklift and gravel screener, and a tiny farm tractor. The truck features dual rear wheels, and a nicely scaled and fully functional Weaver Model G Auto Crane. That project was completed for their friend, Jim Martin, Kalamazoo. The gravel screener serves duty when excavated material is particularly rocky, while the Cub Cadet-based forklift eases lifting chores around Tom's shop. Mike's most recent project is a farm tractor patterned after the Farmall Model F-20. Mike built it specifically to pull a self-powered finishing mower on the Mid-Michigan Railroad's grounds. In a twist, Mike chose a Wheel Horse chassis as the basis for that fabrication.

Mike and Tom aren't certain what (if any) piece of model railroad construction equipment they'll build next. Mike says they need a small roller to compact newly graded roadbeds and further speed the process of laying track. Tom isn't rushing into the project. "I'm not so sure we need a roller since nature and time make a fine job of it," he says. "Besides, we have no place to store a new piece of equipment." New roller or not, Over The Hill Construction Co. and its crew of friends continue to haul their mighty miniatures around the Kalamazoo area wherever a fellow 1-1/2-inch scale train enthusiast needs a hand with building a railroad. FC 

- For more information, contact Mike Perigo, (269) 342-1092 or Tom Briggs, (269) 342-1527.

Oscar "Hank" Will III is Editor-in-Chief of GRIT magazine. Contact him at hwill@grit.com