A Short History

Compiled by George Waltershausen

RiverRail is a self-directed cooperative; no officers, dues, or by-laws, of a group of model railroaders in the La Crosse, Wisconsin vicinity. The primary objective is to run model railroad layouts as the prototype railroads operate, including standard rules by which the real world of railroads abide. Our group now has about 25 to 27 active people. In contrast to many regular “clubs” that have permanent layouts built in one location, we have many individually owned model railroads in the vicinity hosting operating sessions almost as a round robin.

As with similar interest group formations there were roots, precedents and elements of leadership that helped provide the impetus and framework for the group activity; a coming together of similar enthusiasm. The ancestry for River Rail in this area came from several model railroaders, and other organizations. Modelers who established ideas worthy of emulation and emphasizing operations included Dave Kelber who held the first operating sessions in La Crosse. Dennis Weber, Al Lesky and a few from Rochester got hooked on operations on his Soo Line prototype railroad which were very much enjoyed. Ed Feiock in La Crescent, Minnesota featured locomotives on his railroad.  Ed Feiock was known for his painting skills on engines.  Also, one of the original “giants” was Bob Cornish who used to hand lay all of his track. Other major roots to the genesis of River Rail were in “ancestral organizations”.

The NMRA and Bluffs and Rivers Division had as its main premise, monthly clinics for modelers. Jim and Sandy Wheat were excellent diorama modelers. Some of the clinics featured topics such as refurbishing flat cars. Talking to active railroaders was another.

The Short Flaggers sub-group, a name borrowed from those who had operated with Ed Ravenscroft in the Chicago area also focused on operations.  The Swingbridge, one bulletin of the group, in one issue called attention to an upcoming trip to Lansing, Iowa to visit Bill Kirchmeyer’s layout to observe operations. In 1990s Onalaska, adjacent to La Crosse, a now retired BNSF engineer Ron Copher, a former member of the Midwest Society of Modelers in Batavia, IL and the Salt Creek Model Railroad Club built a layout designed for operations adding more weight to the idea of an operations directed model railroad. This layout had sessions in which a number of avid modelers from Rochester participated along with men from La Crosse. Bill Kirchmeyer, now of Rockford, but then living in Lansing, Iowa south of La Crosse had a small layout overlooking the Mississippi River. After he had visited Ron’s layout he went home, tore out the small layout, and then rebuilding his layout to become the Chicago Champaign and Southern designed specifically to provide for prototypical operations.

One very important part of our operating sessions is the “The Meal.” Breaking bread together has helped us establish friendships and has allowed members to get to know each other on a more personal level other than just as model railroaders. The inclusion of Kirchmeyer’s Chicago, Champaign and Southern railroad had RiverRail expanding beyond La Crosse’s immediate vicinity and also helped in the evolution of the gustatory delights of the operating sessions

Bill Kirchmeyer’s sessions in Lansing, Iowa started at about 10am and ran through the lunch hour so that folks would not have to drive in the dark during the winter time. Since this was over the lunch hour, the group tried a couple of times of have lunch at the local eateries in Lansing. But a group as large as ours taxed the recourses of these establishments such that food was not served to everyone at the same time and lunch breaks took too long. Bill’s wife, Barb, said that she could make the meal cheaper and have folks go thru a buffet line. We all agreed to “chip in.” Barb’s meals were great and rumor even has that a certain freight train with a certain crew member was known to stop for pie once in a while.  Sitting and eating together helped to bind the group as all got to know each other better. To this day, the meal is a very important part of our operating sessions; a tradition that we carry on.

Ron Copher organized trips to see operations on other layouts at Minn Rail in the Twin Cities and Prairie Rail in Kansas City. Al Lesky of La Crosse began construction of an operations purposed layout based on the Milwaukee Road along the Mississippi. In part drawing from his experience in the yard in La Crosse and with assistance in design, materials, and labor from a core group. He held his first operational event in June of 2001.

The concept of team work that involves members in assisting with design, planning, and various phases of construction is an important principle in RiverRail that  persists to this day as layouts are in different phases or iterations as owners move and concepts change. The kind of assistance that Al received has been an important principle of the RiverRail group as new layouts have developed. Even layouts located some distance from La Crosse have benefited from team work. Other layouts that have been developed are those Ed Klein whose Great Northern Mesabi Division railroad, first run for the RiverRail Invitational in 2002, is now being rebuilt in a new house, the Rock Island in N scale by Rick Rodrick; Dennis Weber’s first layout based on the Milwaukee Road which tracks still run right outside his windows, had several operating gatherings. Dennis Weber’s latest, the Peoria Western has now been the scene of over 100 operating sessions since its opening River Rail event in 2006. Many people contributed to the construction of the P&W.

Neil Roggensack’s Montana Northland seen in Model Railroader August 2009, is now new and enlarged in Bangor east of La Crosse saw group participation during the process. Tristan Dwyer building a new Burlington Northern Omaha Region layout across the street from the Lake Erie and Southern is also a recipient of aid from the group. A Great Northern layout in the downstream community of Ferryville also has involved members in carpentry, wiring, software development and other phases of layout creation.

Retired railroader Steve Brudlos has recently added a beautiful layout faithful to the C.M. St. P. & P. Brudlos’ excellent modeling represents the river towns of the upper Mississippi so faithfully that those operating on it easily recognize individual houses in the small towns. Red Wing is especially impressive for its riverside view of the city and its size along with its accuracy. That model railroad has also been shown recently in the Great Model Railroads 2016.

Some innovations from RiverRail builders include the use of camper tape as a road bed in place of cork. Gypsum board offers a firm and stable surface for bench top in lieu of plywood. Bench top construction using ripped plywood instead of dimension lumber has also been useful. Bruce Chubb CTC systems are at work on the LE&S and River Division of the MILW while JMRI drives CTC on the BNSF Kootenai River sub. Over the span of several years Dave Waraxa in Trempealeau, has explored computer based operations on western inspired BNSF layout. After first using Rail Ops he switched to JMRI.

The professional railroad background of Steve Brudlos helped bring about new test for JMRI to more clearly conform to a prototypical switch list ala the Milwaukee Road. Though car card and waybill systems are used to guide operations on many of the layouts, about  half use a JMRI system that has evolved through Dave Waraxa working with JMRI contributors to produce switch lists that are more easily understood by the operators.

But, it is not just about innovation because there are many routes to good layouts and a variety of excellent design, scenery, model building, faithful prototype modeling or creative and convincing fictional lines contribute to a dynamic group with variety and vitality. Part of that dynamism derives from one of the main features of River Rail, the biennial RiverRail Invitational weekends which began in 2001 and 2002 followed by alternate year events. After this summer keep in mind that 2018 years ahead are coming up for more fun, more layouts, and more operations.

RiverRail Invitational has also featured a Saturday evening gathering with dinner so that all the visiting operators have an opportunity to mingle apart from operating sessions. Traditionally this gathering has been held at the Freight House Restaurant house in what else, a former Milwaukee Road freight house. This continues and extends the tradition of sessions, meals, and socialization that help explain the enthusiasm of the membership.