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.