Monday, November 7, 2022

Remembering Allen McClelland

As many readers will know, W. Allen McClelland passed away on October 28, barely 10 days ago. He was 88. Older model railroaders were universally saddened by this news. Younger modelers may wonder exactly why, and I want to say a few things that may help explain.

Allen’s model railroad, called the Virginian & Ohio, was a free-lance Appalachian coal-hauling railroad, but as the phrase goes, that’s like saying the Big Boy was a locomotive. The layout was immensely influential — more on that in a moment — but Allen was a delight to know, as practically anyone who ever met him can testify. 

I had the good fortune to live in Pittsburgh during the heyday of the original V&O layout, and had the privilege of visiting the V&O and operating there, as the Dayton, Ohio area is not at all far from Pittsburgh and part of the same NMRA region.

It was indeed an impressive layout in person (including the memorably dim lighting . . . until your eyes adjusted) and the first time I visited, there was still some steam power on the layout. The train schedules, the complete scenery everywhere — it was something you rarely saw in those days.

Coincidentally, just at the time I had moved to Pittsburgh for a new job in the spring of 1977, Railroad Model Craftsman magazine (RMC) was beginning what would be a seminal series of articles about the V&O. The nearly new editor of RMC, Tony Koester, helped bring into being a full description of not just Allen’s layout, but the principles and ideas that Allen had followed.

These articles were collected in 1984 into a fine book, The V&O Story, published by Carstens Publications, reprinted several times, and still available from on-line booksellers today. My copy is well worn from frequent use and re-reading.

But Tony Koester has long wanted to update and extend this recognition of Allen and his modeling, and has been at work on a new book. Luckily, he and Allen were able to collaborate on it, and Allen did see proofs and approve much of the material in the book. It’s due for publication by Kalmbach in January. You can be sure I will get a copy as soon as possible!

So what is all the fuss about? The most famous point made about the original layout, which I believe was coined by Tony Koester, was the principal of “Good Enough,” referring to every aspect of the layout. Scenery, structures, signalling, motive power, rolling stock — all of it to the same (good) standard of modeling, none of it exceptional. For some, I know, this was a liberating idea: you didn’t have to super-detail everything, or have every model on your layout be a contest-quality model.

Another point emphasized by Koester in the magazine series (and first book) was that Allen fully bought into the idea of recognizing what is “Beyond the Basement.” That means that the modeled railroad isn’t a self-contained entity, but interchanges with adjoining railroads, and is part of the national railroad network. Not an original idea with Allen, but an important one in setting the character of the V&O.

For me, the third aspect of the V&O was the most important. Allen envisioned his V&O’s Afton Division as not merely interchanging with other V&O divisions and other railroads, but being a vital partner with them. A number of scheduled trains were part of schedules across the entire V&O, and even part of trains that ran with partner railroads. Allen properly called this the “Transportation System” concept. 

This I think was the turning point in recognizing, as Tony Koester has said, a layout need not be merely something to entertain yourself by building a series of models. It can instead reproduce, within our space and time limitations, real railroading. That was certainly a major recognition for me.

As I worked on my layout in Pittsburgh, I soaked up the V&O ideas, even though my locale and era diverged considerably from Allen’s Appalachia. I implemented Allen’s update of the Doug Smith car-card and waybill system, using 3 x 5-inch cards, like this (with waybill inserted into a clear plastic pocket on the right half of the car card); note the initials at lower left, W.A.M.:

Like anyone who ever met Allen, I remember how pleasant and unassuming he always was, a friendly man who welcomed everyone to his layout. And when someone would come up to him, for example at an NMRA Regional Convention and start to gush about the V&O, Allen would look embarrassed and try to talk about specifics. He wasn’t embarrassed about the V&O, of course, just about the adulation.

This is the Allen I remember, a photo from when he was about 50 years old. A wonderful individual, a great model railroader, and an unassuming pioneer in the hobby. May he rest in peace.

Tony Thompson

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