Sunday, September 13, 2015

Drawing lines

Partly on account of hosting some operating sessions on my layout, and thereby needing to convey to visitors the locale, era and concept of the layout, I’ve been thinking further about the age-old issue in this hobby (and other hobbies): how far do you go in your efforts to realize your vision?
     This is not a new thought process for me, and I still vividly remember from years ago an excellent “Trains of Thought” column by Tony Koester on this very subject. So warmly did I remember the impact it had on me that I looked it up and re-read it (it was in Model Railroader, December 1995, page 150). And sure enough, it resonates with my own thinking even now.
     At the time, Tony still was progressing with his layout as the Allegheny Midland, but was already thinking about what he would do if he were to start over — and sure enough, it was the Nickel Plate around Frankfort, Indiana that he chose to think about even then. Now, of course, the exact idea he then described of a Nickel Plate layout is up, running and still growing.
     My own ideas are considerably different, in geographic style and space if nothing else. But there is a common thread. I’ve already made, and continue to make, a series of decisions reflecting how far I want to go, or feel it’s realistic to go, on each aspect of my layout. My chosen locale is the Central Coast of California, between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, the Guadalupe Subdivision of Southern Pacific’s Coast Division. I am not entirely sure of the reasons for the choice, except that other locale choices did not appeal as much. The chosen area is moderately rural and has mostly fairly small towns, good for modeling, yet the main track of the SP Coast Line runs through it, ensuring that I can have as much SP character and action as I want to create.
     But I have not chosen to model specific towns or specific buildings along the right of way, nor is my layout backdrop even quite correct for the actual skyline of the modeled area. I guess I could say that my goal is to represent the area, not the exact features in the area, and to try and model general features of the railroading in the area, without being too concerned about exact procedures. But it’s always interesting to find out from people who worked in the area, how things were done.
     To illustrate, let’s look at this scene (Dallas Gilbertson photo, June 1952):

This is evidently a local freight train, photographed at Hadley just south (railroad east) of San Luis Obispo. Mac Gaddis was one of those who told me it was the Guadalupe Local, and was running backwards because locomotives couldn’t turn at Guadalupe, thus had to run tender-first in one direction or the other. The crew could choose which direction they would run that way, and for the afternoon departure, as you see above, they ordinarily chose tender-first outbound, since they would be coming back after dark, and a certain number of motorists might be on the way home from taverns, and you wanted to be running locomotive-first if encountering at a crossing one of them who happened to have impaired judgement.
     That of course means that photos of the Guadalupe Local returning to San Luis Obispo should show the engine leading, as indeed they do. (Though the photo below, near Bromela Road by Dallas Gilbertson, March 1954, shows the Local returning in daylight). Incidentally, this photo was published with a caption stating that these reefers with hatches latched open were empties, while in fact they were certainly loads of winter vegetables (likely broccoli and cauliflower), in ventilator service, coming from Guadalupe packing houses or the Santa Maria Valley Railroad.

I find these little details interesting because all the traffic pickups and set-outs for my layout branch line take place at the main line junction, and are done by the Guadalupe Local. But I have not tried to duplicate exact procedures followed by this local train.
     I had long wanted to model the transition era, but didn’t choose a specific year until I researched SP locomotive history and found that 1953 was the last year when steam was a major part of the motive power on the Coast Division. That was the environment that I wanted. And there is ample documentation of what engines in steam were assigned on the Coast in that era (along with equally good documentation of where new diesel power was assigned). The SP modeler has been well served by the importers of brass locomotives ever since such importation began, so it was a matter of choosing which ones I wished to operate.
     I have rarely taken the trouble, however, to modify a brass steam locomotive to exactly duplicate the appliance arrangement and other details of the engine number I modeled (nor have I made sure that every one of my diesel locomotives exactly matches the prototype of the engine number I used). Here’s a steam example, Consolidation 2829, assigned to San Luis Obispo for years, with its distinctive rectangular tender (good rearward visibility for switching). This Alden Armstrong photo dates from 1954.

My Key brass Consolidation 2829 is a mainstay of the present layout; its rectangular tender was borrowed from a Max Gray SP Twelve-wheeler, which captures the main look, without a lot of worry about lesser details. My model shows up in lots of layout photos. For example, see this post: to see the tender, or this one for a glimpse of the locomotive: .
     But those locomotive matters aside, I do find myself quite careful to be accurate about the 1953 modeling year. I have often researched topics like period advertising, so my billboard ads are suitable for 1953, and likewise for freight car paint schemes and degree of weathering, models of automobiles and trucks, and a variety of operational details, even to the specific SP paperwork in use at that time. But I can’t be sure every scale figure has 1953 clothing, nor that every automobile has the right color for its model year. Again, I want to convey the feel of 1953, as accurately as I can, without necessarily being perfect in every detail.
    I have a considerable interest in freight cars, and enjoy building or modifying models. But here again, one has to draw some lines. One old saw in freight car detailing is the question whether your brake pipes are actually tubular. After all, the prototype is that way. Further, Jack Spencer among others has done a superb job of modeling the angles, tees, and unions of underbody piping, though I haven’t chosen to do that (beyond a contest model of some years ago).
     One could also raise the possibility of modeling working brake gear. This has certainly been done in O scale, but even there, this is pretty challenging because friction has to be minimized very strictly. I know it’s possible in HO, and has been done, no doubt after a heroic amount of effort, but I am definitely not going there. There are those who use individual boards for wood sheathing on house cars, or who move or add rivets (or bolt heads) throughout the car body, to duplicate the prototype locations. Again, I would rarely do that except for rows of rivets. So there are certainly lines in my freight car modeling that I choose not to cross.
     The topics I’ve been describing are among the innumerable compromises that any modeler makes, for a wide range of reasons, and most involve drawing some kind of a line, at some kind of personal limiting factor. These are some of the places I have drawn mine.
Tony Thompson


  1. Thank you, Tony, for recognizing the difference between rivets and bolt heads.

    I chose to rework an old Silver Streak Hart Convertible gondola and through the course of research into the prototype, noticed the bolt heads on the vertical supports for the sides. Newer (relatively) plastic models include this detail, though those models suffer for other reasons. I chose to model the bolt heads on the old wood kit using a styrene strip overlay with the bolts pressed in place using a dull needle. However, I wasn't as pleased with that effort as I'd hoped, and so the next two cars I rebuild will use rivet, er, bolt head decals.

    Would the cars work without them? Sure. Would I be happy? No, since I did the research, and now I appreciate more how the cars functioned (converted) in service. But I did not model the other side of the bolt, the indent with the nut and washer on the inside of the cars. I did model angle iron and the plate metal bottoms, but no rivets or bolts on those. It is indeed a dance of compromise based on knowledge, desire, time, energy and resources.

  2. Like many Silver Streak cars, the Hart convertible gondola is well proportioned but about 10 percent oversize. No problem, as long as you don't get it near a correct-sized car -- I run my Silver Streak Harts very carefully for this reason! Wish we had a good resin or brass version. But your approach,Galen, drawing an appropriate line, is well chosen.
    Tony Thompson