California Dreamin’ | Sugar Short Line

Pajaro Valley Consolidated RR Logo
(Click on the image to visit Nick’s new layout blog)

While attending the Ontario Manifest in California earlier this month, I was delighted to meet Nick Lisica. Nick’s modelling is exquisite – he went home from this NMRA regional convention with a number of merit awards and category wins from the contest room, including for this lovely O scale model of a steam-powered stern-wheeler, built from a Train Troll kit with many extra details:

Alexandria by Nick Lisica

But Nick is an N scaler at heart, and has picked an obscure prototype to model. The Pajaro (“Paw-haw-row”) Valley Consolidated Railroad was a narrow gauge line created in the late 19th Century to provide sugar beet farmers in the Salinas Valley with an alternative to the Southern Pacific when transporting their produce to a refinery in Watsonville, CA. Nick’s prototype is modest, making it an achievable layout. But the SP absorbed the line in the 1920s – and the PVCRR’s modest nature and short lifespan means it’s a challenge to find information and photos of the prototype.

Port Rowan is not as obscure – it lasted longer, and later, so there are better photos and records. But I face many of the same challenges in modelling my subject as Nick does in modelling his. So while we spoke at the convention, I suggested to him that he start a blog. I pointed out that by putting his work on the web, he would open it up to search engines and therefore to a broad spectrum of people who may have information.

My experience with Port Rowan in 1:64 bears this out. Obviously, when I started it, the blog was followed primarily by fellow railway modellers (because that’s who I told I was writing a blog). But since then, my readership has grown to include people who are interested in Port Rowan, St. Williams, and the area… people who are related to railway employees on the line, and to those who were customers of the railway… and so on. I’ve received as much useful information from them as I have from those within the hobby. I never know who is going to provide the next piece of the puzzle to help me build the complete picture of the CNR’s Simcoe Sub in the 1950s.

Nick took the comments to heart, and recently emailed to say he’s started a blog about his plans for his N scale home layout. I’ve added it to my links (right side of the home page). You can also visit the Pajaro Valley Consolidated Railroad by clicking on the logo at the top of this page.

(Great to meet you, Nick! I look forward to following your progress online…)

Six years of blogging

On this day in 2011, I started writing about Port Rowan in 1:64, with a post called “Breaking Marley’s Chains”. You can find that post – and other early ones that outline the thinking that evolved into this layout – on the “First Time Here?” page.

I’m pleasantly surprised at how the layout has taken shape while remaining true to the ideas I set out in those early posts.

Coincidentally, I spoke last night at a local social club for railway modelling enthusiasts and railfans, and one of the subjects I touched upon was the power of coupling a blog to a layout project. I think this blog remains my most important tool for modelling Port Rowan in S scale.

That’s due, by the way, to all of you who read and comment on my posts – offering insight and information. Thanks for that. This blog has generated more than 670,000 page views and 6,700 comments – and my knowledge of Port Rowan, S scale, and modelling has benefitted tremendously from this exchange of ideas.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about the power of blogs as a modelling tool, called “Tips for blogging about our hobby”. If you missed it, click on the dogs, below…


What a wonderful surprise!

I had no idea I was even in the running…

… but my friends in the S Scale Workshop emailed me this evening from the National Association of S Gaugers (NASG) annual convention in Novi, Michigan with news that I’ve received the 2016 Josh Seltzer Award for my Port Rowan ramblings:

NASG Blogging Award
(That’s a smiling Andy Malette holding the award: LLAP, Andy!)

What a wonderful surprise!

I’m not sure who to thank – the award is based on nominations form NASG members and selected by the Board of Trustees. So I’ll start by thanking the NASG Board, and the person or persons who nominated this site. Also, all of you who have shared information and ideas through the comments on my posts – the blog, and my layout, are better because of your contributions.


Leonard Lee: 1938-2016

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(Click on the image to read the company’s tribute to its founder)

I was sad to read today of the death of Leonard Lee. He wasn’t a railway modelling enthusiast (not that I know of), but he did so much to make my hobby more enjoyable.

That’s because Leonard was the founder of Lee Valley Tools, one of those rare companies that, for me, does everything right. Lee Valley Tools offers high-quality products … excellent customer service … and a truly useful e-commerce site for shop-at-home convenience. It has always stood behind the products it sells: I’ve returned a few (mostly, because I realized I needed something different) and returns were always hassle-free. Like a good hobby shop (and for wood-workers, that’s what it was), Lee Valley Tools holds course and seminars to help its customers learn new skills. And it researches and develops new or better tools under the Veritas brand.

Yes, I could have built a layout without Lee Valley – but not as easily. Not as painlessly. Because when I needed an answer to a construction challenge, chances are I would find it at Lee Valley. And if I did, I could always buy with confidence.

What is less obvious about Lee Valley Tools is how it treats its employees. I’m sure there are examples of workers who were unhappy at Lee Valley – you can’t please everyone – but I have never, ever been in one of their stores or on the phone with an employee and had anything but a terrific experience with someone who is obviously knowledgeable and happy about doing the job that they do. Maybe I’ve been lucky. But I suspect the real reason is the work environment that Leonard Lee created – one that he described in a 2013 Globe and Mail article about executive compensation thusly:

You get tremendous loyalty from employees if they enjoy their work and they are participating in the income and they have the authority that they need to execute their job.

Written like that, it seems like a simple concept. But in the case of Lee Valley, this isn’t just HR lip service or PR bafflegab. And what a difference that can make.

Thanks, Leonard, for creating Lee Valley Tools (and opening a store a 25 minute walk from my house!) – I’m so glad that you did. You will be missed.

Dan Kirlin

Dan Kirlin - Obit photo

I was shocked to learn that Dan Kirlin passed away last Thursday, of a heart attack. He was 60.

Dan was well known in the Canadian railway historical and modelling communities, as a wonderful source of information. I certainly benefitted from this in many ways – from drawings of CNR RoW signs to information and photos of CNR Jordan Spreaders. Dan also provided me with a CNR paint chip sampler. If I recall, this is something he helped develop for the CNR Historical Association as part of the creation of accurate paints for modellers.

CNR Paint Chip Sample Board

Dan’s knowledge – both in his head and in his files – was remarkable. And, most significantly, everything he shared with me he volunteered. I had never asked him, directly, for anything. He would read about what I was doing, via this blog, and I’d get a package in the mail, or handed to me at a show…

I think that speaks volumes about the man.

Dan was less well known as an S scale enthusiast. He’d done some brass importing, and detail parts manufacturing, in the past – but always in HO. But his true love in the hobby was 1:64.

Dan’s funeral is today. Details here.

Thank you, Dan, for your friendship and your knowledge. You will be missed.

A letter from Copetown (2006)

S Scale Workshop - Cover photo SScaleWorkshop-CoverImage_zps884a9f05.jpg

A decade ago – in February of 2006, to be exact – I visited the Copetown Train Show and saw the modules built by the S Scale Workshop. I was working in another scale and gauge at the time, but a seed was planted that today has resulted in the layout featured on this blog.

It was the Workshop’s first exhibition of their free-mo style modular layout and it impressed a lot of visitors at Copetown that year. I headed home and wrote a letter to Bill Schaumburg – then editor of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine – about the show, and the debut of the S Scale Workshop on the southern Ontario exhibition scene.

Here’s the letter… which Bill printed in the June, 2006 issue as part of his Editor’s Notebook feature. After you read it, I’ll offer up some observations…

Hello, Bill:

Greetings from the Great White North! Although I must admit it’s not really white in Southern Ontario these days, despite it being the middle of winter. It’s cold, but the ground is brown and the roads are dry, which makes for easy driving (always a concern at this time of year).

But even if the weather outside IS frightful, many enthusiasts (myself included) brave the elements at the end of February and hit the road to the Copetown Train Show, which takes place in a small town of the same name just west of Hamilton, Ontario.

Copetown has never been a typical train show, but rather a showcase for fine model building with a focus on Canadian prototypes.

Copetown does not attract the usual train show crowd of families and casual punters (not that there’s anything bad about shows that do, but not every show has to cater to every taste). Instead, it draws many of the same people one meets at Railway Prototype Modelers meets such as Naperville, Cocoa Beach, and the others you regularly write about in your monthly column. Word is, about 400 people attended this year’s event, and I even saw some old friends there who had driven a good six hours to attend. (That’s particularly impressive when one considers that Copetown is only open to the public on Sunday: Exhibitors set up on Saturday and then get the chance to visit each other’s displays, buy stuff, sell stuff, socialize and so on. The day ends with a dinner, followed by an evening of slide shows and/or clinics. All in all, it’s good incentive to become an exhibitor: I’ll have to do something about that.)

Copetown features photo dealers, Canadian railway SIGs and Historical Societies, booths about area club layouts, tables staffed by manufacturers of Canadian-prototype rolling stock, structures or other details, authors or dealers of books about Canadian railroads, and layouts that exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship, usually based on a Canadian prototype.

There were a number of layouts on display this year, but I think it’s safe to say that the one that created the biggest buzz in the hall was a modular layout created by seven members of the S Scale Workshop. This layout is built to the Workshop’s own version of the Free-mo standard, which allows groups to build modules of any size and shape and then link them together in any number of ways to create large free-form layouts (the concept is described in detail at

The members of the S Scale Workshop began building their modules in earnest just a few months before the show, yet managed to assemble an astonishing 93 linear feet of model railroad in a large, lazy U-shape that worked its way through the main exhibition space.

The modules assembled into a single track line with a staging yard at one end, a model of Port Dover, Ontario at the other (actually, part of one member’s home layout), and a passing siding in the middle, with a couple of spurs still to be built. Using wireless walk-around DCC throttles and a small fleet of sound-equipped S scale Canadian National 2-6-0s built from etched kits by S Scale Loco and Supply (, the layout kept visitors entertained all day.

Some of the modules were unfinished at show time – one was still at the pink Terra Foama stage, while another had nothing more than green garbage bags stapled to each side of the roadbed to prevent any derailed trains from making a 50-inch plunge to the floor – but the potential was readily apparent and I’m sure this group will impress us all over again the next time they do a show.

It was particularly enlightening to see an S scale, craftsman-quality layout up close and personal. Interesting things are happening in 1:64, and it’s worth looking into (as if I need ANOTHER distraction). I can understand the attraction, especially if one’s modeling subject is a modest prototype, such as a branch line patrolled by small engines pulling light trains of 40’ steam-era cars: The “slightly larger than HO” nature of S would give small prototypes a presence and heft that HO just can’t accomplish, without having the overall scene overwhelm a layout room.

It was also interesting to watch the crowd’s reaction to both S scale and the free-mo nature of the layout. One could almost see the current hit the mental light bulbs. I predict that in the next couple of years, I’ll be seeing many more Free-mo style layouts at Southern Ontario shows – mostly in HO, of course, but in other scales too.

While most of the Copetown attendees have invested serious amounts of time and money into their chosen scale/gauge/era/theme, building a Free-mo style module would give many of them an opportunity to explore an avenue of the hobby that lies beyond their primary interest, and who knows where that could lead? Only to great things, I expect.

The builders of the HO scale Ontario & Eastern sectional layout (which was the cover story in the February, 1998 RMC) started the show several years ago. After a long and successful run, the O&E members decided to retire their exhibition layout to devote more time to their endeavors at home, and they passed the show’s organizational duties onto the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers (with a double “L”, since that’s how we do things here in Canada).

So, Bill, that’s the story. I hope you can make it to Copetown some year – weather permitting, of course. But to be fair, I should warn you that by the end of the weekend you may end up horse-trading your Nevada County Narrow Gauge equipment for some CN moguls, eight hatch reefers, and other signature models of Canadian railway history.


– Trevor in Toronto

Workshop video poster - Copetown 2014 photo Copetown2014-Poster_zps64528bc3.jpg

I was an outsider to S scale when I wrote that, but I find it interesting that my initial reactions to the scale were, by and large, right on the money for me.

– “(as if I need ANOTHER distraction)”
It turns out I did. I was unhappy with what I was doing in the hobby, and it was time for a change. It took me about five more years to realize that.

– “I can understand the attraction, especially if one’s modeling subject is a modest prototype, such as a branch line patrolled by small engines pulling light trains of 40’ steam-era cars.”
Well, that’s pretty obvious, since that’s what I’ve ended up modelling on my Port Rowan layout.

– “The ‘slightly larger than HO’ nature of S would give small prototypes a presence and heft that HO just can’t accomplish, without having the overall scene overwhelm a layout room.”
This is definitely something that I’ve appreciated as I’ve been working in 1:64 over the past few years. I’m a junkie for detail, and as I wrote way back near the beginning of this blog, I originally tried to design an O scale layout to fit my space. It didn’t. S did, while still giving me most of the presence that I love about O. It’s not “in your face”, but it’s also not “way over there” either.

– “I predict that in the next couple of years, I’ll be seeing many more Free-mo style layouts at Southern Ontario shows – mostly in HO, of course, but in other scales too.”
This has also happened. Since 2006, several Free-mo groups have launched in the region. I’ve even been involved in a few of them. Some have folded, others have remained quite small, but there are also some quite large groups that are very active.
I’m glad I read the crowd right that day.

– “Copetown does not attract the usual train show crowd of families and casual punters (not that there’s anything bad about shows that do, but not every show has to cater to every taste).”
This is still the case, 10 years later – and it’s one of the reasons that Copetown continues to be a terrific show for the “serious” hobbyist.

As a show, though, it remains a novel experience in Southern Ontario – an exhibition with a specific focus, instead of a general train show. Other good examples of “focussed events” in the area include the Ontario Narrow Gauge Show and the Great British Train Show, organized by The Platelayers Society. Both are well worth attending – in large part because of their unique focus on the hobby.

There are several local shows each year that pretty much present the same thing as every other local show. The same layouts are featured. The same vendors show up. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all – so there’s not much point in attending. Some of these local shows are failing. If they want to turn around their fortunes, they could look at how to make their shows a unique event instead of offering up more of the same.

It’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece, and The Copetown Train Show continues. So does the S Scale Workshop – which will be celebrating the 10th anniversary since it first exhibited those Free-mo style modules, as it exhibits at the 2016 Copetown Train Show. Workshop member Jim Martin has written about this on The S Scale Workshop blog. We’ve included a couple of early photos from 2006, as well as a layout plan for this year’s exhibit and information about attending the show.

Check it out, and I hope to see you in Copetown on Sunday, March 6th!

Tigers are mean! Tigers are fierce!


Hobbes in the Tree Fort
(The Tree Fort is occupied!)

A big shout-out to my friend Stephen Gardiner, who surprised me with a wonderful gift during last night’s meeting of our monthly supper club.

Stephen remembered that a couple of years ago, I had written on this blog about building a tree fort for St. Williams. My model included a copy of the hand-made sign that graced the tree fort in Calvin and Hobbes and at the end of the post, I asked,

“And where can I find an anthropomorphic tiger?”

Well Stephen – being the talented sort of guy that he is – made me an S scale Hobbes:

Hobbes by Stephen Gardiner

Stephen crafted Hobbes as the stuffed toy that adults see, and hand-painted him. Thank you, Stephen: he’s wonderful! And he looks right at home in the tree fort:

Hobbes in the Tree Fort

I’m sure I can find and kit-bash a suitable Calvin to stand at the base of the tree, singing the password…

Calvin Hobbes Tree Fort Comic

If I was a tiger, that would be neat!

CP Rail in Woodstock, circa 1980

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Last week, Ryan Mendell, Hunter Hughson and I visited Bob Fallowfield and his terrific HO scale layout, based on the CP Rail operations in and around Woodstock, Ontario in the autumn of 1980.

I’ve written about our visit on my Achievable Layouts blog, because Bob’s layout is a great example of a prototype-based model railway that can support a mainline parade of trains plus interesting yard and local switching for a small group of friends, while still being manageable by one builder.

In fact, Bob started his layout – which occupies a space about the size of two bedrooms – less than five years ago and he’s well on the way to finishing it, with convincing scenery and prototype fidelity. His progress over such a short time should provide inspiration to anybody who is still struggling with getting past the dreaming stage to start building.

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(Click on the image to read my report)

Thanks Bob – I look forward to our next operating session!

1066 and all that

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Four years ago today, I started writing this blog. Frankly, I can’t remember why I decided to do share the design and construction of my layout with the world – but it doesn’t really matter.

I’m glad I did.

If one were to draw a plan of my layout today, it would look very similar to the plan I drew in 2011. But the layout has evolved considerably over the past four years in ways that aren’t apparent when looking at lines on a page or a screen.

That it has is the direct result of the questions, observations and information that you – the readers – have contributed to this blog. Sometimes, questions have prompted me to analyze and then better articulate the thinking behind a decision. Other times, these discussions have brought new information to light which has changed my thinking. Thank you for that.

With this post, I’ve written 1066 (and all that?*) pieces for this blog. I look forward to sharing more in Year Five.

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(*While I’m not sure they include 5 Bad Kings, I hope they include 103 Good Things and a couple of Genuine Dates.)

Fillmore Engine Terminal

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(Mark works the coal deliver track at Fillmore. With the exception of a staging area to the right, this is the whole layout)

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Mark Zagrodney and I visited Fillmore Engine Terminal – a superb HO scale layout built by Rick De Candido and featured in the 2015 issue of Model Railroad Planning magazine.

It’s a good thing I didn’t do this back when I was still trying to fit a Proto:48 layout into my space ( – because if I had, you wouldn’t be reading about Port Rowan in 1:64 on this blog. Rick’s concept of devoting an entire layout to the servicing of locomotives would’ve solved the challenges I faced in trying to fit O scale into a long but narrow room. (Not that I’m going to switch now – I’m really enjoying Port Rowan, so it’s still safe!)

I’ve written about our operating session on my Achievable Layouts blog, because Rick’s layout is a perfect example of thinking creatively to craft a layout that emphasizes quality over quantity while still being satisfying to operate.

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(Click on the image to read my ops session report)

Thanks Rick – I look forward to our next session!