Saturday, January 13, 2007

Ore Docks! Mini-quads!

I'd read about ore docks in Model Railroader (see MR November 1992 for a spectacular HO model), but for some reason assumed that, like so many other rail modelling subjects, they were things of the past, now all disused and torn down.

On this trip, I discovered I was wrong. Around Lake Superior, there are several ore docks still standing, and even a few (such as this one in Two Harbors) still in use:
(I apologize for the low contrast; the sun was at a bad angle for photographing the accessible side of the dock).

It's a simple concept: push a string of hoppers up the dock and dump the ore into bins below the track. Later when the lake boat comes in, lower the chutes and fill the hold. Here's a couple of close-ups of Missabe Road (now CN) hoppers up on the dock:

About those hoppers: that's another thing I had thought was gone -- 70 tons? Hasn't everyone gone to 100 tons by now? And aren't they older than the regulatory maximum life of rail cars? Apparently not, as there are plenty in the Two Harbors yard. (I also picked up an informative book from the museum in Duluth: Michigan-Ontario Iron Ore Railroads, by Patrick C. Dorin, which gives the state of the industry as it was in 2002 -- according to Dorin, some lines are still running 55-ton cars).

Now as it happens, I have a fondness for these 70-ton hoppers: Atlas makes a nice one in N-scale, in a variety of road names, which can be readily found at hobby shops and train shows -- often at prices under $10 (a definite advantage when you're trying to put together a respectably long unit train!) As a result, without really trying I seem to have accumulated a fleet of about 75 of these things (now all I need is a proper layout to run them on...but that's another story). So this Two Harbors jaunt was sort of Hopper Heaven for me. In addition, they had some of these:

Look carefully, and you'll see orange stripes up the corners of the end car, and on the fourth and fifth cars along. These mark the ends of one "mini-quad" - four hoppers permanently joined together by draw-bars. The DM&IR converted much of their fleet to this configuration in the 1970's, to reduce the number of failure points in an ore train (see MR February 1976, pp. 56&ff). They also added height extensions, as the newer taconite pellets are less dense than the raw iron ore originally carried. Also in the February 1976 MR is an article describing the modifications to off-the-shelf hoppers to bring them closer to this prototype. I decided to try this with a few of my DM&IR hoppers.

First, I needed to fabricate the draw-bars. The MR article scratch-built theirs out of styrene. However, someone at a train show gave me a better idea: every N-scale modeller has about a zillion discarded rapido-style couplers (at least, the ones who have converted to knuckle-couplers do). These things have a T-shaped end that nests in the coupler pocket. By cutting off the big square hook, and doing a little trimming and shaping, you can fabricate the other end into a similar "T". It goes like this:

The patient is ready for surgery:

A bit of work with cutters and a chisel-blade, and we have a candidate draw-bar:

Man-handle that back into the coupler pockets of two wheel-sets:

Repeat thrice, and we have a mini-quad:

Here it is, ready to haul ore:
(OK, I haven't added the extensions or the orange corner stripes. Yet. But even as it stands, it saves a lot of time coupling up the train!)

And here's a guy who's gone the whole way -- quads with extensions and an ore dock (scroll to the bottom -- it's worth it!):

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