Saturday, May 6, 2023

Frank Ellison: an appreciation

Frank Ellison was an O-scale modeler who became famous after a 6-part series in Model Railroader during 1944 about his layout, the Delta Lines. Through the late 1940s and well into the 1950s, Ellison continued to publish article in both MR and Railroad Model Craftsman, writings totalling in the hundreds. Yet younger modelers often express confusion as to who Frank Ellison was, or why he should be remembered. This post is an effort to correct that.

The Delta Lines was a large layout, powered by outside third rail, as was common in the early days of O scale. It was covered in some detail, emphasizing operation, in that 1944 MR series. Below is the first page of the first article; each month, these were the feature articles of the issue. They contained the first publication of Ellison’s famous statement, that the layout is really a stage, and the trains the actors that perform on it, and the timetable the plot. This idea was doubtless a legacy of Ellison’s own years performing in vaudeville. (For a nice biography of Ellison, I recommend this site: .)

From August 1964 through January 1965, MR reprinted all six articles.

The layout filled a large space in Ellison’s house in New Orleans. Designed to provide numerous routes through the layout, the plan can be confusing to look at. Here is the MR version (you can click on the image to enlarge it if you wish):

To see what is meant by the “routes,” here is a version of the track plan with routes shown in color (from a German model railroad magazine), between the end-point yards at Fillmore and Chapelle, via the intermediate yard at Colbert. The key at the top shows the station sequence.

Two of Ellison’s towns had considerable switching. One was Donaldson (like many of his towns, named for one of his children). It’s the peninsula just to the right of Colbert in the track plan. In the June 1950 MR, he showed a clear plan of the track layout and industries there:

Below is a view taken from the left end of the drawing above, looking toward “Spur B” as a local freight is picking up a reefer from the icing platform (February 1950 MR). Nearest the camera is “Hamm & Berger” meat packers, one of Ellison’s many “humorous” industry names.

At a time when few model railroads had much scenery, or many buildings beyond depots and roundhouses, Ellison had numerous industrial buildings served by his way freights. And he eventually wrote construction articles about many of them. Like most model railroads, many were unrealistically small buildings, but not always. This handsome structure was shown in the September 1951 issue of Model Railroader. I especially like the shadowy suggestions of equipment inside.

Ellison wrote a great deal about operation, including timetables, scheduling, way freights, and other details. Having worked two years as a telegrapher on the L&N, he understood what he was talking about.

At one time, Ellison as probably as well known as any layout owner, through his many articles about a layout far more complete than most. And his articles usually included encouragement to try operation. In the mid-1950s, he would be overtaken in visibility by John Allen (about whom I’ve posted before; see for example: ). But Ellison pioneered many advances in the hobby in his day, and deserves more recognition that I think he receives nowadays.

Tony Thompson


  1. Though I was raised in New Orleans, I never met Mr. Frank. He sold his house and the layout was dismantled a few years before I entered the hobby. By the time I learned of him, he had moved to Baton Rouge. Fortunately his memory lives on through his articles, and others such as the one by Mike Palmieri which you've linked to.

    1. Thanks, Jack. I really enjoyed Palmieri's article, which told me a lot about Ellison's life that I didn't know. I have the greatest respect for Ellison's accomplishments and his pioneering of much that we do today.
      Tony Thompson