Sunday, April 9, 2023

Koester’s book on McClelland and the V&O

 Many by now will have seen the new book from Kalmbach about the late Allen McClelland and his Virginian & Ohio layout, by Tony Koester. Like all of Koester’s book, it’s really well written and well illustrated (with considerable help from McClelland before he passed away), but more importantly, it does a great job of conveying all the things Allen pioneered. And just as this book brings together Allen’s achievements, it’s well to remember that it was Tony’s championing (when he was editor of Railroad Model Craftsman) of Allen’s modeling and ideas that first created everyone’s appreciation of Allen McClelland and the V&O. 

This is the customary Kalmbach Books (now Kalmbach Media) softcover format, 8.5 x 11-inch upright format, 112 pages, with their customary price point, $21.99. It’s very nicely produced and easy to read, an excellent example of how this kind of book can be done right. And I’m grateful for the book because my copy of the Carstens volume about the V&O is pretty well worn! (My own appreciation of Allen’s contributions and that book is in an earlier post, at this link: .)

Allen of course did pioneer or champion a lot of things, and Tony devotes chapters to several of them: walk-around throttles, extensive use of everyday plastic models, choice of plausible, not dramatic, effects, seeing the model railroad as part of a system, and of course the famous “good enough” principle. I expanded on some of that in my prior comments (link in previous paragraph).

The “good enough” idea I think is sometimes misunderstood as meaning that you don’t have to do great modeling. Well, it does mean that, tangentially, but the more important meaning is that the entire layout is supposed to be done, and every part of it done to the “good enough” standard. In other words, it’s not enough to build a few “good enough” freight cars and feel like you’re in the “McClelland groove.”

Recalling the 1970s, when the V&O was new to a lot of people, I know one thing that was a little surprising to many was that it was unapologetically a coal-hauling railroad. One shortcoming of the new book is that it has few photos of Allen’s coal trains. I show below an image of the terminal at Afton on the V&O (there is a mirror making it look bigger), but at least it shows a string of hoppers.

The book features an atmospheric photo of the V&O at Fullerton, Virginia, taken by Jim Boyd, and I vividly recall when this was first published. It’s not a super-detailed scene — hardly anything on the V&O was — but the atmosphere was superb. Living in Pittsburgh at the time, I had driven around a lot in rural West Virginia, and Allen certainly captured the feel of that region in this scene.

Not mentioned particularly in the book is that Allen was a darn good photographer. Of course he knew the scenes and feelings he wanted to capture on the layout, but the point is that he could accomplish that. The scene below, an overtaking train at Dawson Spring, used also for the cover of the book (though cluttered up with other graphics there), is as good an example as there is. This just is Appalachia.

Speaking of photos, one of Allen’s images is used twice inside the book. I’ll pose it as a challenge to readers to identify it. 

I really liked Allen, whom I had gotten to know when living in the same NMRA region with him, seeing him at regional conventions, and visiting his layout. This book is a great tribute to a great modeler and pioneer in our hobby, and also a fine piece of history of the hobby. I can’t recommend the book enough, and I believe that the less you may happen to know about Allen McClelland right now, the more you will learn and enjoy by perusing this book.

Tony Thompson

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