Houses set the scene

Extra 80 East - St Williams, Ontario - August 1953 photo X80East-StW-2014-01_zps347cae5c.jpg
(A single house at St. Williams provides an important clue that there’s a town here somewhere)

A reader recently got in touch privately to offer some observations about my layout, having read my article in the February-March 2015 issue of The S Scale Resource. He wrote, in part…

In my mind there are a couple of areas that help to “set the scene”. One is the use of houses, making it seem so natural that folks actually live there. Too many times we modelers only include structures that somehow are directly related to the railroad in some way. By your including houses, you set a scene of community.

Thanks! That’s a great observation – and it tells me that my use of houses is working because that’s exactly what I hoped they would do. For me, the houses provide a clue that the train is serving two towns – as opposed to two industrial districts, or two cities, for example. They also suggest that somebody from “around these parts” might be riding the daily-except-Sunday mixed train, at least some of the time.

What’s interesting is that conveying this sense of community doesn’t have to require a lot of real estate. On my layout, I have a single house in St. Williams, and two in Port Rowan. (Actually, one house and one mock-up at this time, as the photo below illustrates…)

 photo PtR-Chestnut-TwoHouses-03_zps4c1caab3.jpg

Those looking for railroads that exist in seclusion can find plenty of examples – from Shay-powered lumber lines to more modern examples such as the Plaster City Railroad, a three-foot gauge line operated by US Gypsum:


(Modern, but with a moonscape vibe. You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

But beyond resource haulers and other specialized lines, railroads exist to serve communities – with a varying mix of people and businesses depending upon them. It pays to represent that – to put the railroad in context – in our miniature worlds.

‘ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses

The owners of the Blue House must be getting pretty fed up with moving. In October, I relocated the house from Port Rowan to St. Williams. Now, it’s back on Chestnut Street in Port Rowan. Here’s why:

The Blue House is the “Whitehall House” – an S scale laser cut kit from Branchline Trains. I have also acquired the kits for the “Finley House” and the “Deluxe Farmhouse”.

Last month, I noted that I was bothered by the fact that I hadn’t completed a first pass of scenery at the end of the Port Rowan peninsula. It’s the first thing people see when they enter the layout room, after all. So I slopped about some paint, scattered some gravel and grass, and the peninsula now looks a lot better.

But as I was replacing the structure mockups on the peninsula, I realized something was missing. I had a huge patch of green grass where the Chestnut Street houses will be located. It looks like someone has parked their car on a playing field:
Buildings, grass and gravel photo PtR-EOT-Green-05_zps666fe8da.jpg

Well, since I have these house kits and therefore know their sizes and shapes, I decided it made sense to build mockups of the two unbuilt structures and then play around with the arrangement. What I found is that the Blue House actually looks better back in Port Rowan:
 photo PtR-Chestnut-TwoHouses-03_zps4c1caab3.jpg

Here it is next to a mockup for the Deluxe Farmhouse:
 photo PtR-Chestnut-TwoHouses-01_zpsb0e2ced1.jpg

And now, this is the view that greets visitors:
 photo PtR-Chestnut-TwoHouses-02_zpsd96d0f20.jpg

Meanwhile in St. Williams, I have been a little unhappy with how the Blue House crowded the scene. As this photo (from my recent series on Working a Freight Extra) illustrates, it’s pretty tight against the edge of the property, with just a thin strip of grass between the house and the railway RoW:
 photo Tour-2013-01-082_zpsdfaa45e1.jpg

Compare this photo of the Blue House to the mockup for the Finley House:
X1560 West: Arrival in St. Williams photo Tour-2013-01-002_zps98cdfaa7.jpg  photo StW-FinlayHouse-03_zps60cdb966.jpg

There’s a lot more room between house and RoW – and the Finley House won’t overpower the tiny St. Williams depot:
 photo StW-FinlayHouse-01_zpse3dd4a5b.jpg

I like this arrangement much better, although I may replace the garage with a toolshed or other farm-related outbuilding:
 photo StW-FinlayHouse-02_zpsa88fc220.jpg

The smaller house will give me room for a lovely etched brass kit I’ve acquired for a farm windmill from TractorFab, too!

Being able to accurately visualize the relationships between structures is one of the great benefits of using well-built mockups, I find. And they’ll look just fine until I get the real structures assembled.

(The title of this post is borrowed from a great CD by The Imagined Village.)

Moving house?

No – not me. The layout is safe.

But I recently picked up another S scale house kit from Branchline Trains – this time, the “Deluxe Farmhouse”. It’s a little deeper than the “Whitehall House”, which is the blue house that’s been occupying the corner lot on Chestnut Street in Port Rowan on my layout.

Therefore, I’m thinking about whether I should move the Whitehall House. I have several options:

1 – I can leave it on the corner lot, and put the Deluxe Farmhouse on the next lot over on Chestnut in Port Rowan.

2 – I can put the Delux Farmhouse on the corner lot, and move the Whitehall House one lot up Chestnut.

3 – As seen in the photo below, I can put the Whitehall House in St. Williams, across the track from the station. I’m not sure this works, though: it feels crowded to me, and partially obscures the big (and therefore impressive) Number 10 track switch I’ve put here:
Moving House? photo HouseAtStW.jpg

There are other options. I also have Branchline’s Finley House on order – originally for next to the Whitehall House in Port Rowan. But it’s the smallest of these three house kits, so it may be a better fit in St. Williams.

Or, I can use the Deluxe Farmhouse on a future layout, or on a module.

I will likely build the Deluxe Farmhouse and the Finley House (when it arrives), and then play around with the arrangement of all three. Whatever I do, I want to make sure the scenes look realistic, with enough space to breathe…

Atmosphere structures

I received an email from a friend who read my post earlier today about the blue house on Chestnut Street and he used an interesting term that I wanted to share. He wrote:

Glad you’ll have room for some atmosphere structures.

I like that term, as it neatly sums up the important role on a layout played by houses, garages, shops, gas stations and other buildings not served by rail. Such structures are every bit as important as the industries we model and the rolling stock that serves them – and they deserve the same degree of care, even if (as I have with this house), one does not choose to model these atmosphere structures faithfully from the prototype.

I’m going to keep this term in mind as I plan other offline structures for my layout.

The Blue House on Chestnut Street

The Blue House on Chestnut Street.

My scan of the CNR track map for Port Rowan shows that the railroad ends at Bay Street, and there’s a cluster of buildings around the end of track. I flew over the area using the satellite view of Google Maps and here’s what I found:

Aerial photo of Port Rowan.

The yellow line represents the approximate location of the main track, which ends at Bay Street in Port Rowan. The cluster of buildings that comprised the feed mill are on one side of the track. These structures are all that remains today of the railroad presence in Port Rowan. I have never seen photos of the feed mill as it appeared in the 1950s so I’m pleased that it still stands today. While it has changed over the years – most notably, with the addition of a cluster of metal storage silos – enough remains to give me a good starting point to model it.

Near the top of the photo, I’ve labelled “the garage”. This building appears in a number of prototype photos and I have enough room to model it – so I will.

Across the track to the south, visitors in the 1950s would find the gravel drive leading to the station (now long gone). I’ve labelled it on my aerial view. And south of that is a the back of a house, at an angle to the station road. This is the first house on Chestnut Street, which intersects Bay Street just south of the station driveway. Chestnut Street will be off the back edge of my layout, and since it runs at an angle away from the scene most of the houses will be beyond my modelled slice of Port Rowan. But I have just enough room on the layout for that first house in its wedge-shaped lot. I’ve labelled it (appropriately enough) “the house” on my aerial view, and it will add a nice “non-railroad” structure to the scene.

I’m not overly concerned with building an accurate model of this house – instead, I’ll invest my time and effort on railroad structures. But a suitable kit house would work for me, and I’m pleased to have found one.

A few months ago while prowling around the Walthers web site I discovered a sale on a laser cut kit for the Whitehall House from Branchline Trains*. It’s kit 522 – one of four house styles Branchline offers in S scale. I added it to my shopping cart and set it aside until the mood struck me.

Well, the struck this past week, and after a few evenings of work the house is now essentially finished and ready for the layout. The lead photo shows my model posed under my layout lighting.

I liked the blue used on Branchline’s kit sample, and thought it would add a dash of colour to the scene, so I used an appropriate blue for my model. I built the kit pretty much to instructions, although I substituted real glass (microscope slide covers) in the windows, instead of the kit’s clear plastic glazing. I also added eavestroughs and downspouts. As of this writing I still need to paint the chimney, add a power meter and pole, add curtains, and do some light weathering.

As on the prototype, I’ll add some trees between the house and Bay Street to provide some privacy, and build a suitable, matching garage for the back corner of the lot. There’s even some room for a washing line in the backyard.

The kit is straightforward, although I was underwhelmed by the execution of the roof panels in the kit. With CAD and laser cutters, there’s really no excuse for roof segments that don’t line up.

With that reservation noted, however, I’m pleased with the house and it’s nice to have my first structure ready for Port Rowan.