Serving the Golden Empire – one black line at a time

Last Wednesday, I visited my friend Pierre Oliver to spend the day drawing lines on homasote – something that’s become one of my favourite aspects of the hobby.

Pierre Oliver - Clovis - Lines on Homasote
Clovis, California takes shape in the space formerly occupied by Aylmer, Ontario

As I recently reported, Pierre has made the decision to switch focus – abandoning his vision of Time Table and Train Order-controlled Wabash fast freights across southern Ontario for the relaxed pace of a local freight working a Southern Pacific branch in southern California.

For most of us, abandoning a layout is not an easy decision. We are understandably reluctant to tear out what has taken us so long to build. But sometimes, it’s necessary. In this hobby, if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, don’t keep doing it. You may feel that you’re losing your investment in the layout. You’re not. Because the real investment isn’t in the layout – it’s in you. It’s in the skills you’ve acquired and the knowledge you’ve gained. This includes the knowledge of what does not work for you.

Pierre understands this, so he’s not one to agonize over the time and money he’s invested in the Wabash. Instead, he thought about the pros and cons of the transition from the perspective of what he enjoys in the hobby and how a new layout would either enhance that, or diminish it.

Kettle Creek Bridge - gone!
The big bridge at the west end of the St. Thomas yard has already found a new home. So have the 10 pairs of Wabash F7As that formed the backbone of the old layout’s fleet.

Once Pierre decided that the SP Clovis Branch was, indeed, the way to go, he figured out how he could unload the equipment he would no longer need and acquire the locomotives, rolling stock, and structures that would make the new layout possible.

With a new concept and a plan for the acquisition and disposal of stuff in place, Pierre and I discussed how to transform the existing Wabash layout into the new Southern Pacific project. He decided, and I agreed, that it made the most sense to reuse the existing benchwork as much as possible – especially the long peninsula that currently hosts the yard at St. Thomas.

I scanned a copy of the layout plan from Pierre’s Wabash layout article in Model Railroad Planning 2018. I then erased the Wabash in Photoshop – leaving just the outline of the peninsula, and the room itself. This gave me a nice, scale drawing upon which I could lay in the Clovis Branch. To start, I simply scanned the track diagrams from the Joe Dale Morris book, Serving the Golden Empire – Branch Line Style, and dropped them onto the room drawing. Some quick work with a fine tipped marker connected the scenes:

Pierre Oliver - Clovis branch - early concept
A very quick sketch to determine what would fit. The modest track arrangements at each scene make it easy to work from the prototype, with little compromise. We did make some adjustments, as detailed below.

Pierre liked the idea – a lot – so we fleshed out the details and I did a complete redraw of the plan to create something closer to scale that would actually guide Pierre during construction:

Pierre Oliver - Clovis Branch - Concept
An overall concept for the SP Clovis Branch in Pierre’s layout space. The space is generous for the prototype – much more so than it was for the Wabash – which will make the resulting layout feel very railroady. (Right-click on the image to open it in a separate window, to enjoy a larger view.)

Even with such a modest prototype, there are some deviations from reality:

– Fresno is completely made up. It’s a staging yard, so that’s fine. But since it’s also visible, I thought it would be nice to have some railroady things in it, like an engine house and an SP yard tower. The yard tower and adjacent overhead road bridge help hide the end of staging. Meantime, the engine house (the Port Costa two-stall structure: a kit from BTSRR) will be a lovely spot to store Pierre’s much smaller fleet of motive power.

SP 2-6-0s
Two of three 2-6-0s Pierre acquired for the new layout. Pierre equipped them with LokSound decoders and paired sugar cube speakers. He reports these Iron Horse Models brass imports are smooth runners, sound great, and easily handle 25 cars on the flat.

– I flipped Tarpey so the winery is on the far side of the tracks, against the backdrop. This just made more sense for the space: the stub tracks can head towards the corner, and it will be easier to switch this important customer if the winery is not in the way of the operator.

Wine tank car.
Pierre has been collecting brass models of multi-dome tank cars for winery service – something he didn’t need for the Wabash layout. Now, if only someone would offer them in plastic!

– The biggest change is the addition of an ice deck to Clovis. Pierre and I discussed this and agreed that while it’s a major departure from the prototype, the additional play value of icing refrigerator cars for all of the packing houses on the branch was just too good to pass up.

Ice Deck at Clovis
Extra moves for on-layout cars justified this design decision

Icing refrigerator cars is an operation that is unique to railroads serving produce packing areas, and helps define the character of the prototype. This is especially important for those of us who live on the other side of the continent, and need all the help we can get in capturing the character of southern California railroading. (In a further adjustment, Pierre decided the ice deck should go against the wall, and that the packing houses I had replaced with the deck should remain in place. So we added another double-ended siding in this space.)

– The quarry at Rockfield was an important customer for the SP, providing a lot of ballast to the railroad. We didn’t have room to model it, but a couple of spurs in the furnace room will allow Pierre to at least model the stone traffic on the branch.

– We could not fit every track in Pinedale on the layout, but captured the flavour of it, at least.

With a plan in place, construction could begin.

Rather than tear out all of the Wabash at once, I suggested that Pierre start with Clovis. This long wall previously held Aylmer, Ontario – the farthest he’d built the Wabash as he worked his way around the room. By starting here, Pierre could get a switching layout up and running relatively quickly. He could then work his way up the branch to Friant to add some play value. Friant can become a temporary staging area, with trains working to Clovis and back. Meantime, Pierre could scrape off the peninsula and start working his way down the branch towards Fresno. The last piece to build would be Pinedale, which will just be in the way during the rest of the construction.

All of which brings me back to last week’s trip. Pierre had scraped off the rails and ties at Aylmer, spackled and sanded the homasote roadbed, and given everything a coat of medium brown paint. It was time to lay out centre lines for the track in Clovis.

Ice Deck at Clovis.
The ice deck at the left end of the Clovis scene.

It was important to determine the icing facility’s footprint before drawing in the track. Pierre went one better and actually built the model – consisting of three Tichy icing platforms and a Walthers ice plant. The deck is 54″ long and can serve 10 cars at a time. As noted above, it doesn’t belong in Clovis, but will add too much to leave out. Rather than displace some packing houses, we added a track to Clovis for icing.

In the above photo, the main is the track next to the icing track. It’s placed on the standard 2″ centres for HO scale. To achieve the more open look of California, however, the siding for the packing houses (to the left of the main) is offset from the main by 3″. The sheets of paper and kit boxes represent packing houses.

Clovis - planning - centre.
A cluster of turnouts near the heart of Clovis. The hairspray bottle is standing in for a town water tank.

To help with laying out the plan full-size, we employed Number 6 turnout tie strips from Fast Tracks. This made sure that we didn’t fudge the drawing and create turnout clusters too tight to build. The paper template is for a Number 4 turnout: I didn’t really want to use one that tight, but the prototype included a spur that branched sharply away from the main at this point and it was the only way to fit in this spur.

We had the plan pencilled in, agreed upon, and inked with black marker in just a few hours. All in all, a most productive day. Pierre is already gluing down ties so we should be serving the Golden Empire – at least in Clovis – in no time!

(You can visit Pierre’s blog to follow along on his new layout building adventure!)

NS&T Layout Design: Head vs Heart

NS&T Line Car 31 at Thorold

(NS&T Line Car 31 at Thorold, Ontario.)

I’m currently considering tearing out my Port Rowan layout and starting over, with a new prototype. There’s nothing wrong with Port Rowan – I like the design, I like how it operates, and I love how it looks. But Port Rowan was always an intellectual exercise for me: It was my first layout in S scale, and it was as much about learning about the scale – what could and could not be achieved – as it was about the layout.

I picked Port Rowan as a subject to model for purely rational reasons: it was simple enough, and small enough, that I could fit it in my space. I could also find all the locomotives and rolling stock necessary to populate the layout with the prototype equipment that ran to Port Rowan.

But I have no emotional attachment to the place. Port Rowan is a lovely small town on the north shore of Lake Erie. But I’ve never lived there. I have no memories of the place.

Many of the best layouts – the most satisfying – are those that speak to us on that personal level. Port Rowan speaks to me about Canadian branchline railroading in the 1950s, but it doesn’t speak to me about anything I’ve experienced first-hand. But if Port Rowan doesn’t… what does?

When I was a teenager, I lived in St. Catharines – the largest city in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Just up the street from our house was a General Motors component plant that was served by a Canadian National spur.

This line was interesting because the trip to GM included a lot of street running – with good reason: the line was built as part of the Niagara St. Catharines & Toronto Railway, and electric operation that ran throughout the eastern part of the peninsula (with boat connection across Lake Ontario to Toronto). At one time, the GM plant was served by the NS&T, under wire:

NS&T 14 - McKinnons, 1951

(NS&T 14 – a classic GE steeple cab – switches a tank car on Ontario Street, with McKinnon Industries – part of General Motors – in the background)

The NS&T was a remarkable railway – part city streetcar service, part interurban, part industrial switching operation. It was owned by the CNR and ran passenger service until 1959. Electric freight service lasted until 1960, when the wires finally came down and CNR diesels took over.

While I did not experience the NS&T under wire for myself, I did haunt the places where it used to run. I find that the combination of what I remember from my teenaged years, coupled with a lifelong fascination with streetcars and interurbans, is very appealing. It’s much more meaningful to me.

Today, I have an opportunity to model the NS&T in S scale – thanks to the generosity of someone who is already doing that, but at a time in his life when he needs to downsize. I’ve started a blog about this venture – Niagara Electrics in 1:64 – on which I’m currently exploring the railway through images in my collection, with an eye to picking places to model.

The line past the GM plant is an obvious choice for its relevance to my life. But it’s primarily an emotional choice, and I am struggling with the practicality of it as a modelling subject.

McKinnons - Aerial photo 1955

(1955 aerial photo of McKinnons (GM) on Ontario Street in St. Catharines. The main track entered the scene from the east via street running on Louisa. It angled through Woodruffs siding onto Ontario Street. It then ran north to Carleton, turned east to Haig, and ran south on Haig. Spurs also ran behind the portion of the plant on the west side of Ontario Street. Photo from the Brock University online collection.)

There are a number of challenges with modelling this portion of the NS&T:

1 – This would be almost a single-industry layout, with limited car types. I’ve already built a layout where my rolling stock selection is limited – and it would be nice to build something where a larger variety could be justified.

2 – GM was at the end of a spur line, with limited opportunities for other trains to make an appearance. Passenger runs worked through to Woodruffs siding and then skirted behind the GM plant to reach Port Dalhousie – but on a layout, they would make only a brief appearance between two staging areas. Otherwise, Ontario Street would be a one-train layout similar to what I’ve done with Port Rowan.

NS&T at Woodruffs

(NS&T passenger trans at Woodruffs siding. On a layout, this would be the only place where one saw more than one train.)

3 – The prototype track arrangements are awkwardly shaped – the main track curls about a few city blocks, much like a backwards number “6”, with spurs radiating out from it at 90 degrees. This would make it difficult to design into the typical, linear layout space (including mine). At the same time, I am so familiar with the prototype that it will be more difficult to introduce compression and compromise into a layout design in order to make things fit.

So, while there’s a lot of emotional pull to such a layout, it scores poorly on the practical front.

By contrast, a layout based on the NS&T’s operations in Thorold – immediately to the south of St. Catharines – is a lot more logical.

Freight at Thorold depot.
(An NS&T freight motor switches a boxcar near the Thorold depot. The small freight yard can be seen in the distance.)

Thorold has many things going for it as the basis for a layout:

1 – The NS&T’s operations in Thorold were quite compact, and tended to be linear – so easier to fit into a layout space.

Map of the NS&T in Thorold

(Map of the NS&T in Thorold. With an aisle up the middle of the Old Welland Canal, it would nicely fit around three sides of a layout room. Staging would be required in three directions – lower right to St. Catharines, lower left to Niagara Falls, upper left to Welland and Port Colborne. Right click and open in a new window for a larger view…)

2 – Thorold was on the main line – in fact, it was the location of an important junction.

3 – There’s a variety of interesting NS&T facilities to model in Thorold – including a depot, a freight shed, a power substation, a railroad track scale, a section house/speeder shed, and a small yard.

Freight crew with motor 16 working in Thorold yard.

(An NS&T crew switches a car over the scale track in Thorold’s small yard.)

4 – There are interesting scenic features to model – including a portion of an old canal used as a mill race, bridges, some in-street running, and a portion of the main track elevated on trestles behind the downtown.

5 – There are a couple of major industries to generate traffic including a paper mill, plus smaller customers like coal dealers and lumber yards.

6 – I have excellent information about the NS&T in the area – better than I do about its operations elsewhere.

So, Thorold is the practical, logical choice – much like Port Rowan was. And it suffers from the same problem: I have no personal connection to the town. As a teenager growing up in St. Catharines, I never visited Thorold. So if I’m looking to build a layout that speaks to me emotionally, Thorold isn’t it.

The best option, of course, would be to build both places, perhaps on separate decks. Given that St. Catharines and Thorold were separated by the 300-foot rise of the Niagara Escarpment, there’s prototype justification for a (hidden) helix to connect them. But I’m not sure I’ll go that route.

Meantime, I’ll keep Port Rowan where it is, and continue to explore the massive collection of images and other data that I’ve acquired on the NS&T to determine my path ahead. I’ll do that on the NS&T blog mentioned above: If you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll join me there.