Friday, August 1, 2014

Modeling sugar beet loads

Several parts of the Southern Pacific, particularly Central and Southern California, experienced traffic in sugar beets. Individual growers sold their crop to one of several sugar producers, in various locations, in the 1950s which I model, so traffic could even move in opposite directions on a particular line. This is familiar from the Coast Route, to name one, with active sugar refineries in 1953 at Oxnard (American Crystal Sugar), Betteravia, near Guadalupe (Union Sugar), Salinas (Spreckels Sugar), and Alvarado (Holly Sugar). An outstanding article about SP beet traffic, by Patrick Bray, was in the SPH&TS magazine Trainline for Fall 2001, Issue 69. Much of the same information is in an article by John R. Signor about modeling a beet loader, in Railroad Model Craftsman, November 2008, page 58.
     Prior to 1948, Southern Pacific moved the beets (often called “the roots” by railroaders) in a removable rack, placed on flat cars, called the Blackburn Patent Beet Rack. I discussed these racks in a previous post (here is a link to it: ), and I showed a model photo of such a rack, built by Pat Bray, in an additional post about the composite gondolas which took over from Blackburn racks (at: ). There is also a fairly extensive description of both the racks and the gondolas in Chapter 8 of Volume 1 in my series, Southern Pacific Freight Cars (Signature Press, 2002).
     The present post is about making loads for beet gondolas. The prototype sugar beets are not a simple shape, but are something like very large, lumpy turnips, or as one modeler put it, a cross between a potato and a turnip. And they do vary in shape and size within a particular load. Here are two Southern Pacific photos of beet unloading to give a sense of relative size and shape. In each photo, the workman is using a long bar to operate the Enterprise drop door gear on these cars.

How can such a load be modeled?
     One answer, which occurs to many modelers, is to choose some kind of seed or grain, which is about the right size, and if not the right color, can be painted. For example, many have tried anise seeds, which are about the right size but are really too uniform. That leads to the idea of mixtures of seeds, such as Jim Lancaster’s mix of 30 percent anise seeds and 70 percent bulgar wheat, then given a rusty brown color with Bragdon Enterprise’s weathering chalk (see it at: ). Others have mixed brown rice (again, too uniform) with seeds such as anise or cumin, or, in John Gillette’s formula, mixing flax seeds and steel-cut oats (which do add a nice irregularity). Andrew Merriam has used several different seed mixtures to obtain a realistic variation from load to load.
     I have made loads from something different from all of the above, namely fenugreek seeds. These are a spice widely used in the cuisines of India and some parts of the Middle East, and accordingly can be obtained in groceries specializing in those cuisines. They are a good size and color, and most important to me, are fairly irregular. Here are a few of them to illustrate their appearance (you can click on the image to enlarge it).

     As I usually do for bulk loads in gondolas, I begin by building (removable) balsa wood platforms to fit in the cars, and you can see my method in this post: . Here is a plain platform, just glued with yellow carpenter’s glue. The two supports are a little too big, and were cut down in height later.

     The only issue of which to be careful with these platforms is inside dimensions of the gondolas. The Car Builders’ Cyclopedia drawing for SP Class G-50-23 composite cars was shown in Volume 1 of Southern Pacific Freight Cars (cited above), and the cars were 41 feet, 0 inches long inside, 9 feet, 1-3/4 inches wide inside. As it happens, I have examples of G-50-23 in brass (Precision Scale) and in plastic (both Detail Associates and Red Caboose). All are quite similar in inside width, but only the Red Caboose car is correctly 41 feet long inside (other two are 40 feet).
     I then add the load shape with a paper-mache product such as Sculptamold, as I showed in the post cited just above. The shapes created should ultimately show the car as brimming full. Here is a 1954 SP photo of the composite gondolas at Chorro siding on Cuesta, headed railroad east (probably to Union Sugar at Betteravia).

 This was a few years before the side extensions were added to gondolas like these to permit larger loads, and on my layout, the beet gons will look like this photo.
     My balsa load base sits up fairly high in the car, so as to obtain the look shown just above. Here is a platform in a Red Caboose car body, showing the relative height inside the car. Note I secured the uprights with one small nail each.

My next step was to build up the load shape with Sculptamold from American Clay Products. Here are two load platforms with their load shapes:

     I painted these rough load shapes a medium brown (I use the same “Painter’s Touch” Nutmeg color from Rust-Oleum that I use for scenery base), then glued on the seeds using Matte Medium. In this case, I used fenugreek seeds, as shown in a photo above. though I may try some of the other seed mixtures described above. The seeds were left unpainted, revealing the natural color of the fenugreek.
     Here is a finished load, in a Red Caboose composite gondola (as yet unweathered). I think the load height is a little high, comparing the SP photo above, and I can cut down the supports underneath.

     I like the overall appearance of this load, though I think the individual fenugreek seeds are perhaps a little too large. I plan to experiment with other seed mixtures to see what else I can create. Because the SP main line which I model on my layout was host to plenty of sugar beet loads, both westward and eastward, I have a lot of scope to operate cuts of loaded cars.
Tony Thompson


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    1. Tony,
      Thanks for yet another useful, informative post (as they all are). I have used anise seeds without realising until I read your article that they would be too uniform in size, so I might well experiment with other seeds at some point.
      I have more or less adopted the same method of creating the loads as you have, but I wanted to have them removable so that I could reproduce the cycle of empties in, loads out and empties back in again', so I have lodged a small but fairly powerful magnet inside each of the piles of beets. It is then a quite straightforward task for operators to lift out the loads using a wand with another magnet attached to the end. I have successfully used this system on my SP layout at train shows here in the UK.
      Best wishes, Ken