Ops and Clubs with Jeffrey

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Yesterday, Jeffrey Smith visited. Those who know the name will appreciate that I was very excited about this.

Jeff runs the CNRy in Ontario website – an amazing source of information for railway historians and modellers. Jeff is a transplanted Canadian – he lives in Missouri right now but still has family in southern Ontario. He got in touch to say he’d be doing a bit of research at the University of Toronto – which is just a few minutes from my house – so we arranged to meet up for the afternoon.

Jeff and I started with a typical operating session – working a freight extra to Port Rowan and back. As is typical of recent sessions, we used the TouchCab application and an iPod Touch as a throttle, and put the Sergent Engineering couplers through their paces.

Overall, things went well and continue to trend in the right direction – although I still need to do more work before I’m happy with the couplers. (I have an idea about that…)
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As it was his first time at my place, I was keen to get Jeff’s impressions. He noted that he’s seen the whole layout on this blog so it was pretty much as he expected, but it was still nice to see everything in person – and to hear the ambient audio. The bird calls seem just right for setting the season and place, and quickly fade into the background as the train starts to roll.
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After our session, we retired to Harbord House for club sandwiches and pints of Conductor’s Craft. Jeff and I discussed many things, but the subject that sticks most with me this morning is the role that prototype modellers play as railway historians.

It’s not just what we do with the material we find – but the fact that we go looking for it and then organize and share what we find with others. I think of the information that’s in the heads of the people I know in this hobby – and how easily it can disappear. I know this first-hand, as I’ve witnessed great researchers – friends – who have passed on and I appreciate how much of their knowledge has been lost to us.

Unfortunately, many non-rail historical societies are not that interested in aspects of history that extend beyond genealogy. The good news is that the Internet has given us an excellent distribution channel – one that Jeff is putting to great use with his website.

For my part, I need to do more to share the information I have that’s publicly available, but perhaps hard to find. Jeff has given me some great information over the past couple of years – much of it from public sources like Library and Archives Canada.

A mountain of info is available – it just needs someone (or to be more accurate, “many, many someones”) to dig through it, catalogue it and share it. If we can figure out ways to co-ordinate our research so that we don’t spend as much time reinventing the wheel, so much the better.

To that end, Jeff gave me copies of a few documents from the archives about my branch. I’ll share that information via this blog once I figure out how best to do that.

A great discussion and a great visit, Jeff – I look forward to the next time we get together!

2 thoughts on “Ops and Clubs with Jeffrey

  1. The role of historian is an interesting one to me. Only when you have a high level of motivation and /or interest in a subject (however arcane others may consider it) will you pursue it to ever deepening levels.

    Modelers like yourself and others whose interest goes deep beyond the surface of a subject provide a service that only increases in value over time.

    In my mind, this topic also relates to and prompts the question of meaning. In a hobby that can spoon feed people product after product, which subsequently strips away the extended personal efforts once required to enjoy it, how does one provide meaning in such a pursuit?

    Mike Cougill

    • Good points as always, Mike.

      Jeff and I talked about “meaning” a fair bit.

      For some, I guess, the meaning comes from recreating something from their own past or their family history. There are plenty of examples of modellers building layouts that represent something they remember when growing up, or that include the small, railroad-served line-side industry that their parents or grandparents owned.

      Many might suspect that I’m modelling Port Rowan because of such a connection. But they’d be wrong. As I told Jeff yesterday, I have no family connection with the place. In fact, until I started modelling it I’d never been to Port Rowan – and I still need to stop and explore St. Williams sometime.

      My choice was purely practical: Port Rowan fit my space with minimal compression and when looking at photos of the operation, I liked what I saw. Port Rowan is also close enough – about two hours down the highway – that I can easily do a day-trip to the area for modelling inspiration. By comparison, my previous focus on the hobby – a Maine two-foot gauge line in On2 – required a 12-hour highway drive just to reach it. Day-trips? More like long weekends…

      That said, having chosen this area, I decided I needed to try to do it justice on my layout. This too relates to my experience in Maine two-footing.

      When Bachmann released its On30 Forney, the Maine two-foot community welcomed the news. We anticipated that the Forney would help inspire more people to find out about Maine’s narrow gauge lines – and that the Forney would make modelling them more accessible. The result, we hoped, would be some layouts where everything was well-done, to the point where the gauge discrepancy became irrelevant.

      What actually happened was what you might expect. There were a few modellers who did as we expected/hoped, and created some really nice Maine two-foot layouts in On30. Most, however, simply slapped a name on the side of the locomotive, declared their layouts to be “Maine Narrow Gauge”, and then built nice looking layouts with no relationship to a Maine two-footer whatsoever.

      I realized from that experience that unless one makes an effort to understand the natural and built environment through which a prototype railroad ran, it’s impossible to replicate it in miniature.

      It’s why I’m pleased with how the Port Rowan area of my layout is turning out and why I’m troubled by my freer interpretation of St. Williams – where the station is correct and the tobacco fields and kilns are typical of the area, but where the track arrangement is very different and the grain storage building just doesn’t belong. I’ll start to address that by building a more correct model of the Hammond Mill, and I’ll continue to think about whether I can re-build the entire St. Williams area – at some point in the future – to be more faithful to the prototype. (Strangely, I’m not at all bothered by the re-location of the Lynn Valley to my segment of the branch. Go figure…)

      This is a long, rambling way of saying that I’ve set challenges for myself – to not just model “a railway in southwestern Ontario in the 1950s” but to model “a portion of the Port Rowan Branch”. And that by setting these challenges, I’ve created meaning for myself.

      In the process, I’m also collecting a fair bit of information about the relationship between the railway and the two towns I model – and then using this website to help organize and share it with others.

      Again, great comment – and it obviously got me thinking. Cheers!

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