New Haven’s Hartford Roundhouse Wreck

I had been looking for an eye catching diorama to bring to the shows where I vend my products for years and finally decided on replicating a fairly famous scene from an old photo of a wreck that happened at the New Haven’s Hartford roundhouse in 1904.


A Little History.   Locomotive 231’s Johnson bar slipped a bit and the locomotive crept forward until it burst through the wall before stopping and not  falling into the Park River in Downtown Hartford, CT.   It was jacked up and pulled back into the roundhouse and resumed regular service throughout the rest of it’s service life without anymore major mishaps like this one. On a side note, another locomotive had punched through this same roundhouse’s back wall, but a couple of bays down. If you look close enough you can see the difference in brick coloring due to the mortar not being weathered like the rest of the walls. They also added a few square stay bolts to help secure the new wall to the old one.


New Haven roundhouse wreck
Cribbing and Jacking up of 231 so that it could be pulled back into the roundhouse.




This is my attempt at capturing the scene. It’s not perfect, but close enough. The roof has not been installed, but the parts are cut at this point.


When I first began this project I established a few points I needed to adhere to.  1. It had to be built with it’s own traveling box.  I knew that if I had just carried it around open it would have gotten destroyed, by me, so I built a box for it travel in that also acts as a stage.  2. I wanted it to be at my eye level.  I’m considered average height, so it made sense to use my eye distance from the floor as the benchmark.  ( 65inches )  Most tables at train shows are 30 tall.   The traveling box is 20 tall by 24 x 24 square.  This kept is reasonably sized and manageable for getting it through doors and being able to fit in my vehicle.  It’s still a bit clumsy being 24 x 24 x 20, but still manageable.  It’s been show tested and I need to make some improvements, but as far as I’m concerned it works well.  I went ahead and built the box first and then the diorama frame to fit inside.  The box and most of the diorama’s structure is made from 3/16″ thick luan sheet.  Luan is a sub board used on floors to smooth them out before adding another flooring material such as parkay, or carpeting.  Anyways, it’s cheap and lightweight although rather potato chippy.  Meaning, it warps (in compound curves) like a potato chip. It needed a skeleton of 3/4″x 3/4″ pine strips to straighten out the waves, but didn’t get every twist out completely.  Luckily, those areas are not noticeable.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures in the beginning because I was so into getting the box and diorama frame together.  I do have a few.


Wrapping the wall. Surprisingly, the 1/8 ply that I used didn’t want to bend that easlily, so I had slit it to make it more flexible. The holes in the previous wrap where so I could glue the wall to the radiating sub walls/supports underneath the roundhouse floor.


The plaster walls needed to be curved, which is somewhat tricky, but not that hard to deal with. What you need is a set of forms. One to set the radius of the mold and the other to press and smooth out the back side. Technically you don’t need to do it this way, if you don’t need a back side of the wall to be roughly parallel to the front face. However, I needed the back of the wall to fit up with the wood substructure I had in place.


Here is the mold curving fixture. I would keep the mold in a level position for pouring by sticking an old o-ring pick under the mold until pouring was finished. After waiting about 3 minutes to give the plaster time to cure and thicken I placed the back form on top of the wet plaster and then pull the pick out allowing the mold to drop into the curved fixture causing the plaster to curve with it. I used some chunks of steel I have laying around for weighting stuff down on top of the back wall form to hold everything in place until the plaster set.


Test fitting the casting. Notice high tech wedges.


I don’t think I could get a better fit.
The base board of the diorama ended up being a bit warped and I had to adjust my planning a bit. I was going to put a course of cap stone on the top of the wall, but decided not to, which I regret now. On the other hand, no one will know the difference, so no big deal.





I had Brian Bollinger at BEST Trains cut me a bunch of angle brackets to help support the wall. I didn’t want to rely on the plaster and glue joints to keep everything together during travel and I came up with these. Nothing special, but it did make life so much easier while I test fitting all of the sub-walls.



What the walls look like after painting. For the brick I used cheap acrylic paint called “iron oxide”. This color is very good as a base for older brick. I do not use a sealer. I use a kitchen sponge for applying the paint, same for the stone wall except I used a bit of black mixed in with the iron oxide to darken it a bit for one of the sponge applications.  For the efflorescence  I used a thin mixture of “titanium white” that was applied, let sit for a minute then dabbed with a moist towel to absorb any excess.


I used Super Dirt for the dirt. This was the first time I used the stuff and instantly fell in love with it. For the sand at the bank that blends into the river I mixed up a small amount of matte medium and water and then a table spoon of some fine graded Super Dirt, which I sucked up into a cheap plastic eye dropper and then applied it by dragging the eye dropper along the bank while squeezing out the contents. The mixture was thin enough for it to settle, but thick enough to blend into the larger stones along the bank without slumping out.  The stone wall has also had a bit of ocre colored powder applied to give it a dry look.






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2 thoughts on “New Haven’s Hartford Roundhouse Wreck

  1. Saw your diorama at the Amherst Railway Society show & after some initial amusement at the subject choice, very impressed! 🙂 Also found it interesting in how you designed it to be easily transportable.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks. I’ve been wanting to model that scene for years, but never had a layout big enough to display it correctly. I needed a display for shows and figured this would be a good one. I have gotten quite a lot of compliments on it. It’s still kind of awkward to handle, but does fit nicely into the vehicle and it having it’s own box helps. Again, thanks for the compliment. Russ

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