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.

9 thoughts on “NS&T Layout Design: Head vs Heart

  1. I’ve been expecting this!

    Only you can decide, though it would be a shame if you didn’t first finish Port Rowan whilst building up the NS&T equipment.

    But what about the 2-10-2 and 2-8-2?

    • Hi Simon:
      I guess it should’ve been expected. The heart often leads us into trouble in this hobby (well, in everything – but that’s for someone else’s blog). We really want to do something, without thinking through whether we can accomplish it – given the unforgiving realities of our layout space and available time and money to devote to the hobby.
      In my case, the challenge is mostly the layout space. I am struggling with how I can compress my favourite NS&T (or, more accurately, post-NS&T) memories into the layout room. I’m wondering how much I can selectively compress or even eliminate before what might fit no longer bears enough resemblance to reality for me to find it satisfying. And – unlike Port Rowan, where I have no memories to satisfy – I think I will be less forgiving of such compromises with the NS&T.
      Ultimately, the head may win out in this case. I may decide that I cannot do the NS&T justice in my layout space – and I will look for other ways to make use of the models I have acquired: A diorama comes to mind. So does a display case.
      I’ve found as I’ve matured in the hobby that not every project I undertake has to be for a layout. I get a lot of satisfaction out of building models for their own sake, too.
      As for the CNR 2-10-2 and CNR 2-8-2, they were never intended for the Port Rowan layout – they were always destined for use on the S Scale Workshop exhibition layout.

  2. For me, a connection to the specific railway or general geographic area (defined very broadly) is enough to make a modeling subject feel “personal”, and for me this would be particularly true for such a unique and characterful prototype as the NS&T.
    However, of course, this is one of those very personal model railroading questions where the only correct answer is the one that satisfies the builder. Best of luck with your research!

  3. Hi Trevor,

    My last model railroad was the TMER&L from Milwaukee, WI to Burlington, WI. O scale, I had 190 feet of main line. Being born in 1963, I never saw any of it run. My connection was dirt biking the old right of ways (before they were turned into bike paths), seeing the numerous concrete bridges that were marked MHL&TCO 1906. We rode on the Burlington, East Troy, Racine-Kenosha, and Waukesha lines wondering what it would have felt like to be riding in one of the interurban cars. That somewhat unique introduction to the system turned me into a trolley modeler. For me, hand laying track, building the single point turnouts, and stringing wire were the best part of a traction line. I look forward to following your progress.

  4. Hi Trevor,
    Just came across this post going through the blog. What caught me in particular was your statement about Thorold not speaking to you emotionally because you’d never been there – the same as Port Rowan. I’d be interested in hearing you explore this more, and what it is that speaks to you emotionally – surely there can be more than nostalgia? I seem to have a different experience than you in what speaks to me emotionally when exploring subjects to model…

    • Hi Brian:
      This is a case of “I can’t tell you what art is, but I know when I see it”. There’s no formula for what speaks to me emotionally. And it’s not an “on/off” feeling – there’s a spectrum. My comment about not visiting Thorold (as a teen, growing up in St. Catharines – I’ve visited since) is exactly that: I have no emotional connection to the place compared to St. Catharines because I have no memories of Thorold while growing up. By contrast, I have memories of watching trains in St. Catharines, running on the lines that used to belong to the NS&T. It’s not nostalgia for a place – it’s actual, accurate recollections of it.
      I think, therefore, that if I were to build a layout based on the NS&T – and that’s still not a certainty – that I would have a stronger connection to it if I modelled places I remember seeing while growing up. After all, it’s those experiences that got me interested in the NS&T in the first place.

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