The Charleston Project

This is the view from the entry door. Beaufort is on the left foreground, Charleston in on the right, the wharf is in the center, and in the background are the Old and New lines connecting everything.
This is a view of the two rivers which actually represent four different rivers depending on whether one is on the near track or the far track. Despite the layout size, we did not have room to run separate shelves for the route to Port Royal/Beaufort and Savannah.

The Charleston, Savannah, and Atlantic Railroad (CS&AR), which we at Rail Tales call ‘the Charleston Project’, is by far the most comprehensive, challenging, and complex project undertaken by Rail Tales to date. Consultation began in July of 2015 and the work was completed (to the degree any model railroad is every completed) in July of 2020. During the intervening time, there was never a month and rarely a week where some aspect of this project was not being worked on by some member of the staff.

The layout depicts a modified speculative version of an actual group of railroads. The real Charleston and Savannah Railroad was built between the two named cities just before the civil war. The railroad was taken over by the Atlantic Coast Line and after a sequence of mergers, part of it became what is now CSX and part has been turned into a walking trail. At one time, the C&S had extensive tracks and a yard in what is now the downtown historic district. The real Charleston and Western was built after the Civil War, running between Port Royal/Beaufort and Augusta, Georgia, intersecting the C&S at Yemesee. This line also became part of CSX but was abandoned within the last decade. The real Seaboard Airline built a rail link around 1915 between Savannah and Charleston well towards the coast from the old C&S and continued the line on through to North Carolina. This line south of Charleston was abandoned after the CSX merger in the 1980’s.

In our imaginary world, the Charleston and Savannah railroad acquired the Charleston and Western railroad portion down to Beaufort and Port Royal in the late 1800s and remained independent of the ACL. Further, it leased and later took over the portion built by Seaboard. Our new railroad is called the Charleston, Savannah, and Atlantic Railroad. In addition to those three real locations and lines, we added a bridge over the Ashley River at the Albemarle point location (which on the C&S was a ferry) and a pair of interchanges which were never built in the real world.

We chose 1955 as our cutoff so we could get enough vehicles and rolling stock to populate the project and so we could use diesel and steam. We would have preferred 1946 but the equipment just is not available.

A trip along the CS&AR

The CS&AR is a bridge line serving the Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Air Line, and Southern Railway, and others. The layout represents train operations between Charleston, Port Royal/Beaufort, and Savannah with Charleston being the focus. The Old Route runs from Charleston over the old C&S line to Yemesee. The New Route runs over the formerly Seaboard line from Charleston direct to Savannah. The Port Royal/Beaufort Route runs over the old C&W line from Yemesee to Port Royal/Beaufort, intersecting and interchanging with the Old Route at Yemesee and with the New Route at a fictional Clark Junction.


Space considerations require a number of compromises, including using the same track in places to represent two different lines depending on the train direction or purpose and using the same physical features (rivers and towns) to represent different places, depending on which line the train is on.


We do not depict either Port Royal or Savannah directly, only as a partially hidden staging yard ‘behind’ Beaufort. Beaufort is depicted, at least a portion of it is, but it does not interact with the railroad other than by a passenger station. The track that circumscribes Beaufort is either the interchange at Clark Junction or the spur track to Beaufort or a convenient operating convention to turn trains going to/coming from Savannah or Port Royal. Therefore the section of the layout with Beaufort on it serves operationally as Beaufort, Port Royal, Savannah, or Clark Junction!


We do not depict points north of Charleston directly but there is a spur within Charleston that serves as a team track and a storage yard outside Charleston (North Charleston Yard) that serves both as a place for trains to be stored as having gone north or as coming south.



Standing in the Ashley River looking North into Charleston. The main street in view is Church Street with Tradd Street running east west, St Phillip’s Church in the background and Battery Park in the foreground.
Standing in the Ashley River looking East down Tradd Street with the wharf in the background and the Ashley River Bridge in the right foreground.
High view of the wharf looking west with the engine service area in the background and Charleston Harbor in the foreground. In this view the rolling stock has been removed from the wharf so the track layout is clear. Both sides of the warehouse have run-around tracks.


The CS&AR yard in Charleston focuses on a large wharf and warehouse on Charleston harbor. The switching network around these features also includes a train service yard and a spur line team track that represents traffic heading north (connecting to Seaboard). Trains are switched in this complex and prepared for departure. They can leave using a reversing loop on either the New or Old routes. There is also a classification and storage yard outside Charleston (North Charleston Yard) which is accessed by heading out what becomes the New Route. Trains can arrive at or depart Charleston on the old C&S line over the Ashley river or they can head to the North Charleston yard.


North Charleston Yard represents trains headed north or coming from the north and are typically stored here to represent them being ‘somewhere else’. They can also be trains waiting to be sorted at the harbor or trains which have been sorted and placed ready for pickup. Through trains from the north or through trains headed north can arrive or depart by either the Old or New routes. Trains coming out of Charleston can go through the yard.


The Old Route to Yemesee

The big Ashley River Bascule Bridge. This started off as a Walther’s kit but we had to heavily modify the framing.
Standing in the Ashley River looking at Ashley Crossing. The lower right to upper left is the New Route (the old Seaboard line) while the lower left and curving line is the Old Route (the original C&S line).
The town is Coosaw with Yemesee junction to the right (note the hole in the backdrop for the spur track).
Nominally, this is one of the many creeks running into the Stono River.
Another swamp trestle on the original CS railroad line with the Seaboard line in the foreground (the CS&AR New Line) and the cutoff running between.

Crossing the Ashley River Bridge, trains follow the original C&S and reach Ashley Crossing where the tracks cross the New Route. There is an interchange track for Ashley Crossing. Continuing on the Old  Route, the train passes through marsh, swamp and a mix of pine and scrub hardwood forest, using a small bridge and a long ‘swamp trestle’. The original C&S line was built on many, many miles of these swamp trestles but most were filled in by the turn of the century. The line eventually reaches dry ground and swings through open country (represented by hedges, fields, and backdrops of the same) for some distance before it reaches Yemesee junction. The track to Savannah is represented at this point by a spur headed into the backdrop.

The Port Royal/Beaufort Route

Another view of Coosaw with a typical low country muddy creek in the foreground.
On the rear (Port Royal) line, this is Battery Creek next to Port Royal. On the foreground line (the Savannah line), this is the Coosawhatchie River.
On the far track, this is the Coosaw River. On the foreground line, this is the Combahee River. Both are part of the St Helena Sound which is navigable, hence the boat facilities.

The route to Port Royal turns and heads ‘south’. The train passes through Coosaw (a real place), a typical African-American town in the segregated south of the 50’s on the banks of Coosaw River (a part of St Helena Sound). The railroad crosses the sound and reaches Beaufort Junction where the track forks. Continuing straight, the train passes through more swamp and forest before crossing Battery Creek and arriving at a yard representing Port Royal. One can also continue past the yard, run around and use a reversing loop to come back at Beaufort Junction. This represents trains turning around in Port Royal.

The train is sitting on the Beaufort cutoff. The station to the right is for Beaufort. Some of the sidings for Port Royal/Savannah are just visible to the left.

On the CS&AR, Beaufort is represented by an extensive downtown ‘small town’ but its only railroad service is a passenger station on the Beaufort Junction cut-off. The track running around the town is intended to represent tracks in and around Port Royal leading back to the cut-off.

This is Beaufort. The track that surrounds it is an operational convenience. The water and coaling towers in the background are on the Port Royal/Savannah yard.

For continuous running, we need to use the track around Beaufort to access the coastal route. Used this way, the track represents the return track from Savannah on the Coastal Route.



The New Route to Savannah

The New Line includes North Charleston Yard in the back right, the trestle crossing of the Ashley in the window, and Ashley Crossing just off the image to the left.
A portion of the Ashley Trestle. Much of the line was originally built on these and then filled in.
View of Wilton. Behind Wilton, you can see the Ashley Crossing cutoff connecting the Old and New lines.
This icehouse and dock are on the Edisto River.

Trains leaving or coming out of The North Charleston Yard cross the Ashley river on a long trestle well inland of the bridge and after several miles of woods and marsh, eventually reach Ashley Junction. This is the ‘long way around’ that the Ashley River Bridge shortcuts. Trains can switch to the Old Route from the New Route or they can continue on the New Route (along the front of the layout). The New Route follows the Stono River (minimally depicted) for some distance before reaching the town of Wiltown where there is a siding for the town and a siding reaching the Edisto River where there is an inland dock. In the real world, the railroad would cross the Edisto but we did not have room for a bridge here. The next bridge is for the Combahee River (St Helena Sound) where there is a bascule bridge. The track continues through more backcountry before crossing the Coosawhatchie River and proceeding on to Savannah Yard (going around the return track on the outskirts of Beaufort to the same yard used for Port Royal).


Trains going to Savannah are presumed to return using the Old Route which comes out at Yemesee by ignoring the portion along the back of the layout between Port Royal and Yemesee or by using different place names for the features along that part of the route. If we had had room, we would have hidden the track from the Coosawhatchie Bridge to Yemesee behind a backdrop but we didn’t have room.


Visual Design Elements:

Some of the railroad runs on relatively high ground which is still occupied by small farms to this day.
The enginehouse in Charleston. The banks of the Ashley are in the foreground. The edge of Battery Park is visible to the right.
A marsh timber operation. A lot of old timbers ended up in the swamps and rivers in the low country and there was (and is) money to be made recovering old logs from them. The watercourse represents the dozens of small tidal creeks in the area.
A typical rebuilt farm on the banks of the Ashley. The original buildings were mostly burned during the Civil War. Most of these are actually on the south or west bank but we didn’t have room to do that, so we put it on the east bank. These are actually much farther from Charleston than depicted but again, space…
Rainbow Row as interpreted to fit in the available space and using commercially available buildings (modified of course). The street is East Bay.
In places across the low country, there are relatively high hammocks of land that can be very densely forested. Some of these became state parks and are preserved.
The engine yard in Charleston with Battery Park in the foreground. The trackwork here is complex with reversing and run around tracks.

The key features of this layout are the many river crossings, marsh and swamp areas, typical low country structures and features (cotton fields, hedgerows and thickets, and of course Charleston. The primary goal was conveying the feeling of the deep south in the 50’s.

The issue of ‘how it was’ had to be handled with some sensitivity: oppressive and often brutal segregation was a fact of life but we were not going to show overt oppression or symbols of Jim Crow or the like. The layout is supposed to be fun and nostalgic, not painful. Therefore, we elected to create a typical segregated town instead. It is obviously poorer and more run down than the other rural town ‘Wilton Bluff’ but it is still bustling with ordinary activity.

The other issue of ‘how it was’ was poverty: the south was poor in the 1950’s. Some people had big houses but they were nearly all run down and while the downtown area of both Beaufort and Charleston were not falling apart they were not generally speaking modern either. The roads were not in great condition and outside the cities, they were almost always still gravel.

Downtown Beaufort with Port Royal/Savannah Yard in the background. These structures are all commercially built from Woodland Scenics (we dressed some of them up a little but most are out of the box). The highways are all Smooth-It in Beaufort.
In all of Charleston, there are only four ready-built kits. Except for the church, the rest are all kits, most heavily modified, from many manufacturers. We added roof details, fire escapes, canopies, window scenes, and utilities.

Note that Beaufort is in many respects more modern than Charleston! This was accurate as the downtown area of Charleston was largely unchanged from a century earlier.


This layout had to be built at Rail Tales, transported to the site, taken up a narrow stairwell and installed in the second floor of a restored but very old farmhouse. Obviously it had to be built in sections. While it is impractical to discuss how we built this layout in too much detail, most of the project used the techniques discussed elsewhere in the gallery and on other pages in the website and which are shown in our Saturday Demonstration events. However there are a few features which are unique to this layout.


St Phillip’s Church:

This is an accurate, scratch built scale model of St Phillip’s Church. We built a sample wall segment with the window and then resin cast the rest. Every other structural part is built up from Evergreen plastic. The weather vane is built of soldered brass bits. The whole thing is held together by pegs and can be disassembled for transport. This model was built for Rail Tales by Dallas Tittle with Richard Isner doing the resin casting and the final painting (and the weather vane) were done by Bret Jones


The Northwind:

Although the model is based on a resin kit offered by Sylvan Models, we scratch built or replaced about 40% of the parts. The kit is very difficult but the only one of a large freighter that exists, so we had to use it. The end result is beautiful, even if the effort required was extreme. This model was built and painted for Rail Tales by Dallas Tittle and weathered by Bret Jones. Bret Jones also did the water and concrete wharf.


Charleston Port Authority Warehouse:

This is a huge scratch built model based on a photo of the prototype designed by Bret Jones, built for Rail Tales by Dallas Tittle and James Flowers and painted and weathered by Bret Jones.


Locomotives and Cabooses:

The locomotives and cabooses are all custom labelled for the CS&AR. Because the CS&AR is a bridge line, it has no rolling stock of its own. At least not yet. All the various pieces of rolling stock that are present are heavily weathered for Rail Tales by Bret Jones and Don Terwilleger.



The superb sectional benchwork was constructed by Peter Schare. Without his excellent carpentry, this job would have been much, much more difficult.



The track is all code 100 Peco. We considered using smaller rail but with so much of it being embedded in downtown Charleston, we concluded (rightly) that the larger rail would make this part smoother. Also it stands up to the abuse of moving better. The switches are all Peco Smartswitch servos. The control system is an NCE Pro Cab radio. The large bascule bridge over the Ashley river is a Walthers kit that can be made to operate. We tried but could not make it reliable enough and so secured it in the down position. Most of the track was laid by Bret Jones and most of the wiring was done by Dan Murphy.


Everything Else:

Abandoned lots near Charleston. Well into the 60’s, much of the south was poor and underdeveloped. Many structures and buildable lots were not in use; land that today is worth millions.
The backyard gardens of Rainbow Row and the graveyard of the church. The brick paved alley is Philadelphia Alley.
View of Tradd Street.
Intersection of East Bay and Tradd. The waterfront is in the foreground. The rail line is the spur headed north towards what in the real world is the Cooper River yards.

The vast majority of the scenery, including the woods, fields, and building scenes were all done by Dan Murphy. Of special note are all the details he did in and around the buildings of Charleston, especially the various gardens that make the alleys and backyards of Charleston so unique.

A typical low country seep pond. These were often filled with fish by the owners. Today, many are used for commercial fish farming.

The water features, roads, and backdrops were done by Bret Jones.

Most of the wooden structures and most of the small boats were built by Gary Whistleman. In addition, various current and past staff members have contributed to bits and parts of the entire project.


Thanks to everyone who helped make this project happen and a special thanks to the clients for having faith in our ability to pull this off.

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