Museum Dioramas

Rail Tales was commissioned in 2014 by a local philanthropist to create three dioramas for the (then still being developed) Museum of the American Revolution in Philidelphia. These dioramas were to use the figures collected by the client in scenes replicating famous paintings. The three scenes were to be Valley Forge, Knox’s Noble Train of Artillery, and The Battle of Trenton. This is not the historical order but the order in which we built them.

All three dioramas are 30″ x 72″, constructed of stacked rigid foam sheets on an aluminum sign plate with wood framing.

Valley Forge

I actually visited Valley Forge to research this particular diorama and spoke extensively with the very helpful local staff. In particular, we would like to thank Bill Troppman for his time and invaluable advice. Our goal was to show a cross section of the facilities and terrain constructed by American troops at the site. Valley Forge was first and foremost a fortification but it was also a camp and training area. We did have to compress the distances between the outer wall and the training field but not that much. We were somewhat limited by the figures available in what scenes we could show and the accuracy of the uniforms is limited to units and uniforms that might have been there but we are not sure if specific uniforms were there.

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As always, our primarily scenery base material is Sculptamold overlaid with Mold-a-Scene plaster, ground foam, sand, wood shavings, and Vallejo ground effect pastes.

The cabins are all constructed of basswood dowels that were roughened and stained. The chinking is Vallejo ground effect pastes (mix). The shingles are hand split from dollhouse shakes.

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The soldiers at Valley Forge did not have to contend much with deep snow as much as they had to deal with cold weather, mud, and freezing drizzle. We used a light snow cover to give the impression of ongoing snowfall.

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Knox’s Noble Train of Artillery

Few people know the story of how Col. Knox organized a small unit of volunteers to drag the cannons captured at Fort Ticondaroga to Boston so Washington could use them in his siege. Although the man himself kept a diary, there are still a lot of unknowns about the mission. We know he started with oxen and finished with horses and we know certain points he passed on the way. We know the area he passed through was rugged but that it had been settled for several decades. We know he had local support and that he acquired his replacement transport along the way. We also know it was a cold and fairly miserable journey. Using pictures of the area and references of period construction, we depicted the train passing a barn over a ‘road’ by the standards of those days and acquiring local horses peacefully from a local.

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The sleds were scratch built based on the oldest photos we could find of heavy winter hauling sleds and reconstructions of such sleds done by contemporary re-enactment groups and modellers. We know they could have been built the way we show them but we don’t know that they actually were.

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The harnesses and tack are based on period pieces. We did simplify the tack a little for clarity.

The figures are dressed and equipped as they might have been but we do not know for sure what they actually wore and carried.

The fences are made from split dried hardwood, stained and painted.

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There are no period barns surviving in the area but the barn is shown constructed using period references for barn and home construction. The barn itself is stick build from scale sized lumber and weathered with stains, washes, and paint.

The hardwood trees are handmade from florist wire, putty, and special tape. The evergreen trees are commercial products, mostly from Grand Central Gems.

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The snow: This was the real challenge and took some experimenting. Most of the snow areas where there are no figures are made with Vallejo Snow Paste over ground foam with Woodland Scenics flake snow added for ‘sparkle’. This would not work for the areas of travel, so we created a mix of Scultamold, powdered pigment, and white watercolor. This is our Kraff T Fox snow mix (KTF Snow).

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The Battle of Trenton

Most people know about Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas of 1776 and attacking the Hessians camped in Trenton the next day. We were commissioned to show two phases of the action at Trenton: the second phase (specifically Greene’s Brigade charging the southern Hessian flank on the east side of town) and the surrender of the Hessians in the middle of town to Washington. To do this, we split the diorama on the diagonal using the buildings as a screen between the two scenes.

Our primary reference for our scene design and interpretation was the Hessian map of the battle. The information on this map slightly contradicts the painting of the same scene. It was the Americans who had the cannon at this point in the battle…

The primary scene replicates (roughly) a famous painting with cannons on the American side.

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The weather was extremely cold but it had not actually snowed for several days prior, so we depicted partially melted and cleared snow, tramped down into dirt and grass where the soldiers were active. This used a combination of Vallejo snow and ground pastes in some areas and KTF Snow in others.

Only the dormer building has snow on the roof. This snow is in the northern shadows of the Dormers. The street runs due North-South.

The structures were all scratch built. The stone building and building with dormers were built from plastic, weathered and textured. The third larger building (which we call the tavern) is made of wood over a plastic box with scratch build chimneys.

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The hardwood trees are built the same way as the trees on Knox. The evergreens are commercial, trimmed with snow.

The picket fences are scratch built from basswood stock.

Note that the commander is the one carrying the flag, trying not be noticed. The second in command is trying to surrender his sword (instead of the commander’s). The horse figure signalling Washington to hold back is Alexander Hamilton. This is a speculative scene.

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The cavalry figures escorting the Hessians are the Philadelphia Light Horse. These figures were custom made for this diorama.