South Pacific Coast

garden railroad

A spectacular setting for a garden railway in the California hills

By George Hall

Photos by the author

Jose J. Picazo Jr. has built an outdoor model railroad that is a memorial to his father's love of trains and to the garden layout they were never able to build together. Jose explained: "When my father was stationed in Korea years ago, he ran across brass locomotives made in Japan. He started collecting and detailing HO models and building his own brass engines. He had lots of models and had always planned to build a layout. Trains were my father's passion. "When LGB became available, we started going to garden railroad conventions and looking at everything on display. My father always said, 'I want to build a railroad in my backyard.' That was six or seven years ago. I told my father that one day we would build the outdoor layout. Well, my father passed away and we never got a chance to do it. When I moved into this house and had lots of outdoor space, I decided to build the railroad in memory of my father."


The site

Jose's home is on a large and very steep lot in Los Gatos, Calif. "When I bought the house, I did not realize I had so much property. The present layout area was overgrown and I couldn't see anything beyond the lawn. One day the satellite dish that came with the house didn't work, so I started rummaging through the weeds to fix it. I thought, 'Wow! There's a lot of property out here.' I decided on a plan to control erosion and get rid of the weeds and, while doing that, put in a garden railroad."

After he decided to build the railroad, Jose was very busy with his business, so he went to a train store in Santa Clara and asked for the best garden railroader in the area. They recommended Jack Verducci. [Jack's own garden layout appeared in the April 2000 MODEL RAILROADER. -Ed.] Jose contacted Jack, who agreed to undertake the challenge.

Jack described the Picazo house as being on a very steep three-acre site. "The area for the railroad had oak and toyon trees and lots of poison oak. It was just a natural central California hillside. It was such a steep hill you could hardly walk on it."

To build the layout, Jack had to bring in all the materials by crane because there was no access. "We could not even get in with a wheelbarrow," he said. "We hired a crane every Friday to bring in all the materials for the following week. The overall grade going up the hill is about 24 percent, so we had to build walkways and steps and terraces as well as the foundation for the railroad. We brought in 125 yards of soil and probably 40 tons of rocks. There wasn't a single rock on the site."

Besides all this landscaping work, it was necessary to build a watershed, complete with pumping system. There's a 3/4-hp pump on a 30-foot head, the vertical distance from the pump to the top of the hill where the water comes out.

Building the railroad

Construction started in the summer of 1997 and continued through the EI Niño winter of 1997 -98. The layout also survived the La Niña winter of 1998-99. After almost three years of construction, Jose has his layout.

But this spectacular railroad is far from finished. Jack said, "We have a five-year plan. I haven't wanted to work on it continuously from start to finish. It's too big, and we needed time for the hillside to settle and the weather to do its work on the main line. Like the prototype, we'll find out where we need more retaining walls and additional drainage. For example, the first year we had a washout at Wright's and the tunnel filled up with mud -this happened on the prototype!" Jack hopes new groundcover will control erosion.

He notes: "We also had to elevate the track and install culverts at Boulder Creek after several winter washouts. Eventually, we'll install concrete pads for all the buildings, but we won't do that until everything settles."

Structures and bridges

Besides installing landscaping for the railroad, Jack constructed the trackwork, bridges, and trestles. He also built all the buildings, most of which are assembled from cast resin sections or from Railroad Avenue kits. He has an assistant, Al McCracken from the Bay Area Garden Railroad Society, who built trestle parts.

Initially, Jose didn't have any particular theme in mind. Jack suggested that since the house was located in Los Gatos, he could model the South Pacific Coast RR. Jose liked the idea and began studying the history of the prototype. The layout has structures similar to the prototype's buildings and operations roughly analogous to the SPC.

There are a number of buildings remaining to be installed. The prototype West San Jose station was a wooden building with pillars and arches; it will be an elegant building for the railroad.

West San Jose was also home to the Garden City Gas Works, a prominent railroad customer. Jack is still researching this one. Forbes Mill is awaiting installation. It will be a big stone structure next to the stream, which will turn its water wheel. Then there is the Los Gatos Hotel, a regal building with a Victorian tower. There'll be a switchback and a stamp mill installed at the New Almaden Mine and a short narrow gauge mine feeder line.


This is a two-train layout, one up, one down. Jack said, "The original design turned out to be how we actually built it. There's a 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 percent grade with a single-track main line all the way up the hill. Halfway up we made a passing siding to allow downhill trains a chance to cool down. It turns out they don't generate much heat, so we use the siding for multi-train operation."

The base of the layout is West San Jose, and trains head to Los Gatos, then up the grade and through a tunnel to Wright's, then up a trestle, over the river, and around to Laurel and the passing siding. There's a stub-end siding here for a future logging operation. From here the route loops again, crosses the river for the fourth time, and comes to Forbes Mill.

Farther east is a switch leading to the New Almaden Mine. Then there's another loop and two more tunnels to Inspiration Point and an arch bridge.

After that is the yard for Boulder Creek. The main line loops again and climbs to the Summit where there's a reversing loop. The train passes through the ninth tunnel before heading back down. The trains are often out of view, making for very exciting mountain railroading.

Visitors to the San Jose area for the NMRA national convention this summer should be sure to see Jose's South Pacific Coast garden railroad.

George Hall is a commercial photographer from California who has shot many layouts for MODEL RAILROADER.

For further NMRA convention information, visit, or write to 21st Century Limited, P. O. Box 2801, Alameda, CA 94501.