Wright’s Cove

This started with a post on the Atlantic Rails Facebook group. I wanted to learn more about National Gypsum’s gypsum unloading operation at Wright’s Cove. As a model railroader interested in design I have long believed this subject would be fantastic for a model railroad and I wanted to translate that interest into a conceptual design. As a railfan, I know it’s a subject that I love returning to. A constant procession of similar cars being moved through a load/unload point one car at a time by a dedicated switcher has become my muse for so many layout inspirations and, in this case, it’s exciting to explore one that operates every day, right now, so very close to home.

National Gypsum operates a gypsum mine at Milford, Nova Scotia and their transloading site at Wright’s Cove where the gypsum is stored and eventually loaded onto a waiting ship. While gypsum moves by rail between the mine and the unloader by CN train 511, National Gypsum themselves move hoppers around the mine and unloading sites using their own engines and crew. Most days start with 511 ferrying a dedicated train of empty hoppers from Wright’s Cove to the mine at Milford where they are exchanged for an equal number of loaded cars.

Above is a Google map that is focussed on the National Gypsum unloader operation at Wright’s Cove. You can easily toggle between this plain view and a more detailed satellite image of the same. Treat yourself and look up the same view in Google Earth to really get to know the site!

The map view of this place is pretty detailed and from it I sketched the above drawing. This was the drawing I posted to Facebook and I annotated it so as we discussed it, we could have common points to refer to. I applied those same points to an aerial photo of the same (photo from Google).

  • A is where empty hoppers gather to be picked up by 511
  • D and E are two double-ended sidings where 511 will place loaded cars
  • C is the unloading shed
  • B is a switching lead
  • F is a runaround track used to tie the scene together

Rolling stock

“By June’s end, Johnstown America Corp. plans to deliver 132 automatic-discharge hopper cars to National Gypsum (Canada) Ltd., which operates an open-pit gypsum mine in Nova Scotia.” That’s the opening paragraph in an article published in Progressive Rail announcing the new car fleet National Gypsum had purchased. The fleet is well-kept and they reflect very well on the company. Looking closely at the typical car you can see they are not only distinguished by their car number but many carry employee names – that’s a very classy touch.

Previous to the delivery of these cars, National Gypsum used a fleet of hoppers provided by CN. I recall seeing these and know I’ve photographed them in the 1990’s but can’t find printed copies of my photos (hopefully the negatives survive somewhere here at the house). The CN hoppers were unloaded using a rotary unloader so the change in the car fleet is significant not only in the ownership of the cars but in almost every way.

Unloading Shed (F)

Hoppers pass through an unloading shed that I marked as F in my diagram. Though the car types have changed as well as how they are unloaded the building itself has remained basically the same shape and style. Model railroaders will recognize that Pikestuff-style of architecture – take note of how easy it would be to create a model of this ease of translating the photos into a good model. Cars are unloaded here and the gypsum is moved by underground conveyor from here out to a stockpile, eventually into a waiting ship in the cove itself. This simple building and the process of feeding cars through it is the heart of this design project.

The switching lead (B) including the maintenance shed

The second building to consider is the small maintenance shed. Similar in construction to the unloading shed it’s used for routine maintenance of the car fleet. I really need to get back sometime and add a few more photos of this building to my collection. Again, even with a few photos it would be so easy to calculate the design of a credible model. Another trip to the Pikestuff catalogue?

The siding “B” is used as a switching lead that the crew will use when moving loaded hoppers into the unloading shed. If you’re looking at this track in an aerial view, it’s actually quite long. For the longest time, National Gypsum used a British-built Hunslet shunter on this site and when they were finished, until it was scrapped, the remains of this engine remained in the weeds at the far end of this track.

The engine


SW9 #506 currently presides over the hoppers of Wright’s Cove. It’s remote controlled and currently wears a very fetching black scheme with a sharp looking set of stripes on its nose. Despite how hard working it is, I have never seen it any dirtier than a light layer of grime as evidence of that day’s hard work. (David Othen created a wonderful resource of this entire operation and shared it on his wesbite which you can now see by clicking on this phrase, on Steve Boyko’s site – thanks Steve!) What a wonderful entry into kitbashing custom rolling stock is this engine? Fairly close to an original SW9 like you can buy in every modelling scale, from Z to G, with only some simple yet highly effective modifications like that cab roof – there I go talking myself back into what was supposed to just be a layout abstract, sorry.

Previous to the SW9, National Gypsum has used a variety of different engines. I’m considering things in the current era but it’s hard to resist the 1980’s and a time when the local engine was a little GE 45 tonner. (This link leads to a Steve Hastings photo of this engine – the photo is one of my favourites taken at Wright’s Cove)

How it works

“511 shoves the loads into tracks D and E each track holds 33 cars. National gypsum takes them a few at a time hauls them towards B and then shoves them through the shed to unload them and once unloaded continued to shove the empties in to track A where the next days 511 will pick up all the empties.”

“34 loaded cars are pushed up D, 32 are pushed up on E. The cars are pulled past the dumper building on B and pushed out empty on A to be picked up by 511/513”

“Chris Mears yes, they usually cut the drags in 9 cars and under (depending on how many cars are on the track, usually 9-8-8-9) and as the cars are dumping they go get another drag of cars.”

Thank you to every single railroader who chimed in on my question. I’m still speechless to find the words to express my gratitude for the messages I received from those whose profession brings them into contact with the Wright’s Cove operation. Sharing notes like the above means the world to me. I wasn’t sure how to handle the above but I don’t want to risk getting anyone in trouble by attributing the above information back each source. Thank you, each and every one of you, for taking time out of your day to share this information. There’s no substitute for this quality.

As a model railroad

In the 1970’s model railroaders got really excited about “loads-in, empties-out” operations. They’d divide a scene with a vertical element like a mountain or backdrop and run one line of track through it. On one side, the coal mine, and on the other, the power plant. The idea being that a train could shove a cut of loaded coal cars into the power plant and the operator could pretend they were being unloaded. In real life that same cut of loaded coal cars was now appearing on the other side of the wall at the mine. A train moved across the railroad to arrive at the mine with empty coal cars and exchanged those for the ones the mine has been loading (remember the power plant?) and by playing the mirror image operation, completes the illusion. I’m hoping to leverage the same pattern.


Our operating session starts with the assumption that CN train 511 has shoved a cut of loaded hopper cars into sidings D and E in my drawing. In real life this might be 34 cars on one siding and 32 on the other. The key for this layout is that they move these cars through the unloader in blocks of 9 cars at a time. So, really, D and E only need to be 9 cars long.

Our engine hooks onto those 9 cars (it’s neat that in real life the engine is remote control just like in our model train). It tows the block of cars from D or E, through the track at F and onto track B (the lead track into the unloader). With the turnout thrown, they can position the first car in the unloader (C). When the cars were CN”s gondolas the one car to unload was placed inside and uncoupled, unloaded, then shoved outside by the next car. This simple three-step pattern to unload a single car is a few switching moves on our model railroad too. With the newer cars, it’s still only one car at a time but the cars remain coupled.

The hopper cars dump into a bin that feeds onto a conveyor belt that will carry the rock out to the stockpile or a waiting boat. This bin can only hold about four car’s worth of gypsum so every four cars, or so, the crew gets a break while the conveyor catches up and empties the bin. In our operating session we’ll practice positioning and unloading this single car at a time for the first four, then perhaps trigger a timer on our cell phones or maybe something mounted on the layout that counts down time while the pretend bin is unloaded. Mouthful of tea and a moment right here to be present in the heart of our operating session to savour just how fun it is to operate this layout. Our sound-equipped model of #506 is idling away, it’s sound decoder ticking over nicely and rewarding us for the extra time we spent on tuning those CV’s to be just right – gosh, that just sounds so nice just idling there. I like that. The timer clears the last of the rock from that fourth car and we shove ahead to empty the remaining cars in this cut. As we unload, we’re feeding cars onto track C in our diagram and these cars compile to become what 511 will pick up tomorrow morning.

In a literal interpretation we’d want to include all the tracks and sidings around this site but in this truncated version I’m proposing we consolidate tracks A, D, and E into one single siding. Picture a simple run-around loop where we model everything before the loader (B in the diagram) but by combining A, D, and E we create a neat variation on the loads-in, empties out scenario. Instead of a turnout connecting tracks D and E to the siding A we replace all with a pivoting siding like a sector plate. This sector plate need be only nine cars long. When we’re grabbing the next cut of loaded cars this track is aligned ‘behind’ the unloading shed. Once the last cars leaves the siding we swing the sector plate into position 2, to act as the track that will receive the cars from the unloader as they’re fed through. We pretend we’re unloading sixty cars but in fact it’s just the same block of eight or nine cars being fed through the same rotation as many times as we’d like to during this operating session. It doesn’t need to be a consistent nine cars either, we could just grab the first five or even just three if we wanted, leave the remainder in the track, and pretend they weren’t there.

In between operating sessions the arrangement of the actual site is very model railroad friendly with the whole operation set against the kind of tree backdrop we favour so much in model railroading. The ground is predominantly gypsum in various grades with low grass, mostly weeds, taking route in this industrial landscape. The operation is a year-round one and it might be very tempting to set this scene in winter?

The two buildings we need are plain these simple subjects contribute to the scene as equal design components not beacons for attention. I think they’ll contribute a human built element in a scene that is still, largely, natural. A modern industrial site, it’s not littered with “junk” but not devoid of fun details like the warning sign above that could be easily modelled with a reduced photo to recreate the face of the sign and a rail post in our model, as in real life. Between the mine and this unloading site, the trains operate on CN’s mainline and 511 moves like any mainline freight: fast. The cars are in good condition and in the background you can see rows of replacement wheels as evidence of National Gypsum’s commitment to maintaining these cars properly for the long term.


Model railroaders like to think that the difference of car types or their decoration are the only credible factors that contribute interest in a model railroad but our goal, in design, should be to create something emotionally accessible. Unloading sixty or so gypsum hoppers could be just as satisfying as a favourite record album or re-reading that book. Our model is no less accurately modelled and the operating session is set to a score of a single locomotive as it moves through the paces of its work. I can only see a balance here that suits the peace and calm that an operating session should provide to its humans. Something comforting and waiting to be absorbed without the chaos and stress of another round of Super Busy Hospital: 2. We invest so much of our lives in the creation of these models and we should enjoy studying our finished work. Animated during an operating session like this might provide one more relationship with our work as we are rewarded with an experience that gives us a place to watch our carefully-constructed models in motion.

“Johnstown America’s custom-built, rapid-discharge hoppers coming to Canadian gypsum miner” is the title of the article Progressive Rail published in June 4, 2003. Click here to read the article online.

David Othen’s web page is an authority on the history of this operation: https://www.traingeek.ca/wp/david-othen/shortline-and-industrial-operations-ns-david-othen/

I memtioned this Steve Hasting’s image earlier, it’s wonderful: http://www.railpictures.ca/upload/national-gypsums-ge-engines-scoots-out-to-the-cn-tracks-in-dartmouth

Chris Lyon produced an excellent video on this operation. Check it out on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WE3mTC63Odk

I have referred to CN’s train 511 above. 511 is dedicated to this gypsum service and is the train number assigned to the daytime movements. Gypsum can move by night and when this happens the train is 513 running in the same pattern.



Categories: How I think, model railway design, My Favourite Prince Street, national gypsum

Tags: , , , ,

13 replies

  1. You’ve captured it very accurately and I think this would be a great little module or switching layout to work. I have fond memories of the one trip I took with David Othen chasing 511 from Wright’s Cove to Milford.

    Any thoughts about modeling the Milford area? There’s a bit more track there but the idea is very similar.

    • That 511 chase would have been amazing. I’ve tried chasing 511 in from Milford a couple times now and you really have to have your plan in place at the start – boy, do they move fast!

    • Milford would be interesting and a different option compared to Wright’s Cove:

      The Wright’s Cove plan doesn’t provide much of a place for 511 but a Milford layout really could and the contrast would be interesting.

      At Milford some gypsum is loaded into CN hoppers still and dispatched west on CN trains which might provide a contrast in output and car types.

      It’s interesting to consider the ways in which these two layouts would be so very different. On the surface they would sound identical but in execution couldn’t be much more different.

      (Plus, Milford has that neat entry into the mine over that giant bridge)

  2. Great combination of prototype and modelling here, Chris.
    Nice work here!

  3. That’s how I blog, too, Chris. I do and they do too. Enjoyed!

  4. 🦋🌷🦋lovely blog, thanks for sharing, love from Spain!

    A cry for peace and igualite!


  5. Do any sort of drawings exist for those hoppers? I’ll need them for my Terra Transport pike. I’m not against designing and printing them myself, but I need somewhere to start. The Johnstown website has been taken over by squatters.

    While I’m on the subject of photos and drawings, how about the ubiquitous orange CN government ballast hoppers? EVERYONE needs those.


    Chris Cardinal


  1. BC Rail 4622 – Prince Street
  2. Wright’s Cove (N) – Prince Street
  3. the regulars – Prince Street
  4. 513 2022-03-22 – Prince Street
  5. hide the train behind the sky – Prince Street

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