Shortly after planning the three crossings that make up the PRR/N&W interlocking, I discovered that the section of the N&W that I thought was straight, wasn’t. The problem was that the easements of the curves at either end of the straight were creeping in, so both ends of the straight were actually a very slight curve.

My takeaway from this discovery was that while spline roadbed can be allowed to make its own spiral easements in most cases, in other cases specific ROW locations need to be enforced. I didn’t do that when building this section, so I was forced to retrofit the correct alignment.

In the image above, the two-foot straight edge illustrates the slight bend. To fix it and avoid building a crossing across a curve, I decided to reposition the curves on either end and shorten the spirals. This ended up affecting about ten feet of track.

My first attempt was to leave the apex of the curves in the same place but broaden the curve’s exit, which lead to a shorter spiral. I used the bent-stick approach for this. The image above shows a 30″ radius curve template sitting partially in the fixed radius part of the curve, with the rail easing away from the fixed radius between the second and third hole in the template. From this image, you can see the easement is long and quite lazy about getting to tangent (it made for really smooth running though).

I wasn’t happy with this solution because it led to too many radii within one curve, so instead I chose to push the apex of the curve toward the center of the right of way about an inch, extended the 30″ radius arc a bit further, and used an spiral that was about 8″ shorter. Effectively, this made the curve more “square” – starting later and ending sooner.

The result of those changes lengthened the straight about 6″ on the left end, and applying the same approach at the right end of the tangent found another 8″.

The photo above shows the result of the changes on the right end. The offset of the tangent and the 30″ curve radius is about 3/4″, down from about 2″ with the lazy spirals. The length of the spirals is around 18″, which feels right.

Looking closely at the photo above, you can see the original and new point of tangent and the new spiral point marked on the ballast shoulder.

The new alignment of the straight is a full two feet long, which puts the crossing in a much better position. The Sharpies point to the original ends of the straight for comparison. Notice the gap in the rail – the realignment also increased my length of run by an inch!

Squaring off the curves (as the racers would say) made the new track alignment cross a depression in the center of the roadbed that represented the ballast profile between the two tracks. I had to fill that in to provide a foundation for the new alignment (and as I later learned, a center “ditch” isn’t prototypical anyway). My wife and I cut out some of the foam that formed the center profile, filled it with Sculptamold, and repainted it in my base “cinder” color.

This image does a good job of showing how much the curve moved outward compared to the light-colored line that is an artifact of the old alignment. That movement exposed almost an inch of the roadbed at the apex of the curve and required some rework to remove the excess material and regain my ballast shoulder.

I removed the existing ballast shoulder (a separate piece of Homasote screwed to the side of the spline) and cut away unneeded material with my favorite Homasote-working tool – an oscillating saw with a metal cutting blade. I eyeballed the angle, and it worked out pretty well. Including cleanup, it took about ten minutes per side.

All that’s left now is to repaint the new ballast shoulder, then it’s on to building the three crossings!

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

Roadbed for the PRR Crossing

Last month’s virtual track planning session with local NMRA members inspired me to get going with construction. To that end, I added new Homasote spline roadbed for the PRR’s mainline and Purina’s siding.

The addition includes three 19-degree crossings – two across the N&W main and one across the N&W Old Main. I chose this angle for two reasons; it fits the space without too many compromises (or complex curved crossings) and the availability of 19-degree paper templates from Fast Tracks. Their templates are a huge help for the modeling community.

I had hoped to take advantage of Fast Tracks just-announced “Diamond Line” crossings for this area. They appear very nicely detailed and feature straight-forward assembly and guaranteed gauging. Unfortunately, the first to production are 90 and 30-degree versions; a 19-degree is on their roadmap, but probably not in 2021. Too bad. 

The above means that I will be forced to scratch-build them. Grumble grumble. I built two 19-degree crossings in the past (for my shelf layout) so I know I can do it; they’re just fiddly. 

But that’s for later. For now, onward with sub roadbed construction!

N&W / PRR crossing and Purina Mills mockup. A Zoom call with local operators helped to develop the track layout.
The diagonally crossing track (including the tail track with boxcars and locomotive on the right) is the PRR mainline. The track alongside the mill is served by the PRR. The track with the green tape is the transfer track between the PRR and N&W, and the blue tape is the South Court Street right of way.

The completed project, with temporary track mockup on the new roadbed. I also added more spline to the left to accommodate a future small yard, or a passing track/industry combination.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

Track Plans With a Little Virtual Help

I recently completed most of the remaining track work on the Old Main at the north end of Circleville. All of the industries along that stretch have their track, turnouts, and associated wiring in place, excepting Container Corporation’s shipping and receiving yards. Most recently, I added all of the turnout controls, making the north end fully operational. More on those details in another post.

That milestone got me thinking about extending the track work further to the east, along Huston Street. The major industry here was Purina Mills, which I wrote about in a previous post. The trackage around the area is relatively complex due to the nearby interchange between the N&W and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Reproducing that in model form is going to be difficult due to the prototype’s track layout and the relatively confined space I have to squeeze the reproduction into.

I kicked around some ideas, but decided I needed feedback from people who regularly operate model railroads – folks that could tell me whether my proposed plan would work or not. The problem was, how do you do that when having visitors in the layout room is difficult?

The solution was to use what everyone has become familiar with in the past nine months – video conferencing. Several modelers with operations experience volunteered to help, so it was up to me to work out a way to present the prototype and model situations in a way that made sense on a video screen.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Zoom Video Conference application
  • Google Maps
  • Three cameras;
    • iPhone 11 (my current phone)
    • iPhone 7 (my previous phone) with a Joby Gorillapod tripod
    • An iPad
  • Laptop to manage the call and which camera views were visible.


I suspended the iPhone 7 above the layout using the Gorilla-pod. This was the first time I’ve tried using this tripod in a hanging position, and it worked really well. The iPad setup was simpler; I propped it up at track level, on the opposite side of the scene from the iPhone.

Before the call, I built a Google Map (learn how here) to show the actual track layout in Circleville in order to provide context. In the screenshot below, the N&W is indicated with red lines and the PRR with green. The fatter/brighter lines indicate where the model’s track would have to deviate from the prototype to avoid the basement wall.


I started the call by sharing my desktop with the Google Map displayed. I described the railroad’s route Circleville, followed by zooming into the specific area I needed help with – the Purina Mills complex. The reason for showing the entire map initially was to give the viewers a better sense of how trains would approach the area in question.

Following the map overview, I stopped the screen share and went to the video displays – the ground-level iPad, the aerial iPhone 7 and the iPhone 11. The latter I used temporarily to walk around the basement in order to connect the map overview with what I had built in model form, and how it led into the area I needed help with.

Making more than one video feed usable requires using a more advanced feature in Zoom called “Spotlight”. By default, Zoom will show the video of the person speaking (or their name if their camera is turned off). This is fine for a normal conversation, but isn’t helpful when everyone needs to talk and see a particular video feed!

To solve this, the host adds one (or more) videos to a list of spotlighted views, which keeps those views on everyone’s screens, even during back and forth conversation.

The image below shows what everyone saw during the discussion. For a short time, I had the third, walk around, camera on the screen as well. I turned that camera’s video off as soon as the walk around was complete to keep things simple.

The final track arrangement for Purina Mill and the N&W/PRR Transfer Track is pictured below. The major differences, compared to the prototype arrangement are:

  • Purina Mill will have one warehouse track instead of the prototype’s two. In the photo, the warehouse track is next to the brick building, with three boxcars
  • There is no second track (running track) parallel to the PRR main. Compare to the Google map screenshot above.
  • The warehouse and transfer track (marked with green tape) will both connect directly to the PRR main, instead of a separate running track
  • The transfer track is straight and the PRR main is curved, the opposite of the prototype

My goals were to retain the general feel of the area and reproduce the three diamonds created by the crossing of the PRR over the N&W’s double track main line, and single track Old Main industrial track. My concern was whether those two goals would impact operability – my main concern was the relatively short PRR main to the right of Purina, which would have to serve as a tail track to switch the industry.

The general agreement was that it was long enough (three 40′ cars and a locomotive), and was right-sized for the transfer track (three cars) and warehouse track (also three cars). The end of the track is a long reach, but the coupling area is within reasonable reach.


Overall, the virtual brainstorming was successful, from my point of view. I got some good feedback on my track arrangement and had a chance to test video-conferencing in a “hands on demonstration” capacity. I am the Superintendent of my local NMRA Division, and wanted to test this use case before suggesting it to the members in my Division for similar training and/or educational purposes.

There are a couple of caveats to doing this. I was using a “Pro” account which allows longer calls with multiple members. You could also do this with a free account, but the call would be limited to 40 minutes – and the “Spotlight” feature may not be available. It also is worth mentioning that this entire presentation could have been accomplished with one camera – it just would have been a more limited view.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

Why I Model the Steam Era

My model railroading interests are firmly anchored in the steam era.  After reflecting on why that is, I found that there really could have been no other outcome, given my upbringing.

The Age of Influence

I was a voracious reader when I was young, and read (or at least flipped through) about every book in my childhood home. Many of them were either history or railroad-related books that my father collected, and the majority of those were written between the late forties and early sixties by a variety of authors, both well-known (Beebe, Clegg) and less so. 

The topics or themes in his collection ranged from histories (Narrow Gauge Through the Rockies, Steel Rails to Victory) to historically romantic (The Twilight of Steam, Railroad Wrecks) to motive power (Pennsy Power 1&2). Some books were written even earlier in the century for the railroad industry. Locomotive and Maintenance Cyclopedias from various years are good examples of those.

My personal collection – with some of dad’s on loan. As his collection dwarfs mine, I have little reason to buy many of my own!

The one thing that almost all of the books had in common was that they were focused on railroads, trains and locomotion during the steam era.

Under the influence of these artifacts, I remember being frankly astonished that the railroads would give up the obviously superior steam power for *diesels*. Furthermore, I found photos of steam locomotives being scrapped heart-rending and misguided. 

The Age of Exposure to the Real Thing

During this influential time, when I was six or seven, dad came home with a steam engine – literally.  He and two friends (Jerry Ballard and Lanny McCaulley) decided they wanted to establish a steam-powered scenic railroad. To that end, they had sourced #33 – a heavy 2-8-0 built in 1916 for the LS&I – from Marquette, Michigan. The locomotive was hauled on its own wheels to Columbus about 1971 and parked on the “Mud track” in the C&O’s Yard A – just west of where today’s Huntington Park is. 

The locomotive was in good mechanical condition and had had very little time on new flues when she was retired about 1960. My memory was that its “restoration” in Yard A consisted of relatively minor tasks; new sheet metal, paint, and general renewal-type work (there was also coach restoration going on).

#33 at Yard A’s “Mud Track”, with two ex-Erie commuter coaches. Notice the Franklin tender booster. Columbus, 1971. Photo by Dick Argo

Dad often took my brother and I along to “help” and (probably) to get us out of mom’s hair.  I don’t remember much of what I helped with – save one day when we were put to work mixing “mud” in a wheelbarrow. Once this cement-colored insulation material was thoroughly hand-mixed with water, it was applied to #33’s cylinders before the sheet metal wrapper was re-attached. Back in the steam days, insulation mud contained asbestos – to this day, I wonder if the mud we mixed did! 

Eventually, because somebody knew somebody, the locomotive was moved to a stall in the C&O’s Parsons Yard roundhouse. Now THAT was cool. I did some gopher work there, but honestly spent most of my time just hanging out.

By this time, being around a steam locomotive (and the railroad more generally) was normal. Climbing into the cab, smokebox and between the frame rails was old-hat. My brother and I would occasionally wander through the rest of the roundhouse. As this was usually after hours, there weren’t many railroad employees around to yell at us. Every now and then, there would be a diesel with it’s hood off being serviced in one of the stalls with high-level work platforms – I would scoff at this inferior form of motive power!

On the turntable at the C&O’s Parson’s Yard, ca. 1974. Photo by Dave Dupler (

One day there was word that the C&O was short on power, and the railroad asked dad or Jerry if #33 was ready for pusher service up Powell Hill!  From my perspective, this was a great opportunity to show what a REAL locomotive could do!

For whatever reason, the event never happened – to this kid’s enormous disappointment. I vaguely recall dad telling me that #33 would have been too slow for the work. One thing is sure, it would have been a very interesting movement! 

Up and Running in Nelsonville, Ohio

After initially trying to acquire a line into Wellston for the scenic railroad (which was to be named the Salt Creek Railroad), the Hocking Valley Scenic was established in Nelsonville, running up the Monday Creek branch to New Straitsville, recently abandoned by the C&O. This line is relatively flat, with modest curvature, and originally served many mines. However, the rail was light (67-90 pounds), ties were in poor condition and the track structure was generally anchored by cinders and weeds. Not many railroads looked good in the early seventies; so as far as I was concerned, this look was “normal”.

#33 transported herself down to Nelsonville at the start of the first and second seasons, using the C&O (now I&O) main. It was fun watching #33 run alongside Route 33 at about 30 mph. It was a clank-clonking cacophony! I would have loved to ride the cab during one of these trips – I’m sure the crew was quite active keeping up with the steam usage during this long, sustained speed trip.

The first year of the railroad’s operations was a bit like primitive camping. The “ticket” booth was a tarp strung between two trees and the surface of the parking lot was solid cinder recently reclaimed from a forest (via my uncle’s bulldozer). Cinder makes a nice surface when its dry, but is very messy when wet. The following year, the tarp was replaced by a small watchman’s shanty for the ticket booth, then later by a railroad target office from the HV/Pennsy crossing in Lancaster. That one was big enough to include a souvenir counter, which I sometimes manned.

Longstreth “Terminal”. Dad is on the left, by one of the motor car trailer

At that time, #33 was stored in Longstreth between weekends, where she was re-coaled using an ancient conveyor (water was taken from a hydrant at Bessemer). My brother and I would sometimes spend the whole weekend down in the hills, overnighting in the cupola of the caboose, which we were both still short enough to lay down in. There’s nothing like waking up to a light scent of coal smoke and the sound of the locomotive’s dynamo and blower running as steam pressure is brought up! Those mornings still stick with me.

The local Longstreth kids were attracted by the activity, and would sometimes stop by to help out or socialize. Many of them rode around on four-stroke Honda mini bikes. Man, was I jealous of their freedom and having all of the hills to ride in (motorcycling is one of my other hobbies).

Sounds and Smells

During those early years, I spent one or two trips per day riding in the cab of #33 when dad was firing. I remember these experiences like they were last year – not forty five years ago! These experiences are what made steam really get under my skin.

Put on your sensory imagination cap, and I’ll attempt to describe what I saw, heard and smell. I encourage the reader to try to duplicate the sounds – out loud!

#33 looked especially burly from behind and below, as in this photo taken at the Nelsonville end of the line. That’s my grandfather standing at the foot of the tender, and my mom in the cab (with white hat). By this time, the Franklin tender booster had been removed and sold for scrap.

Standing – Steam locomotives are relatively silent while at rest (when compared to an idling diesel). Some sounds were there all the time – like the buzzing whine of the dynamo (the small steam-powered turbine used to generate electricity) and the rhythmic “ssss-chunk-CHUNK, chunk-CHUNK, chunk-CHUNK” of the cross-compound air pump. The feed water heater’s pump made similar sounds, though slower and accompanied by a bit of spitting/fizzing from steam and water getting past the packings.

If required, someone would make the rounds with an alemite gun to force grease into the rod journals. It made a loud “CHI-CHI, CHI-CHI, CHI-CHI” air-exhaust sound.  Then there was the occasional, ear-splitting hissing-ROAR of a lifting safety valve. This would occur without warning and would scare the pants off me!  Fully opening the drain valve on a pressurized air tank is a good comparison – but with a lot more bass and volume!

Starting –  Before starting, someone would begin ringing the bell manually (sometimes my job!) or with the air-powered automatic ringer. #33’s ringer was a single-action device that swung the entire rocker, not just the clapper, so it had a more natural ringing frequency than the fast ding-ding-ding of the clapper type. The air-ringer would make a “pi-sssit” with each rocker swing – and each swing would create two dings. 

After whistling off (two toots), releasing the train brake (PPSSSssshhhhhhhh), and moving the reversing lever forward (“SSSHHHHHhhhhh” from the power-reverser), the engineer would give a tug on the throttle. With a good engineer, steam starts are dead silent and very smooth – so gentle that I had to watch the ground from the cab window to see if we were moving. Math tells me that we could travel up to three and a half feet before the first exhaust was heard. Then, a gentle “Wuff”. Overlaid on these sounds was the sound of the steam escaping from cylinder cocks (“SHHHH………. SHHHH…….. SHHHH…. SHHHH” – in time with the quickening driver rotation) accompanied by a plume of energetic steam angling up and back about twenty feet before dissipating. On chilly mornings, the steam would hang in the air much longer, a very cool (and slightly eerie) effect.

Underway – When accelerating from a stop, #33 had a side-to-side waddle. The location of the cab behind last axle and the view along the side of the boiler accentuated the movement. Similarly, when the locomotive was traveling over uneven track (i.e., the whole railroad), the cab would wag left, right, up and down. That movement was accompanied by the sound of the floor apron scraping back and forth across the tender deck and the groaning and popping of suspension bits, flanges and rail as they protested the abuse.

Whenever in motion – but especially when drifting backward into the station on the return trip – the rods would make a terrific sound – a “clank-clonk-clong-bong” – with every driving wheel revolution. Sometimes it sounded like parts were about to fall off!

Grade crossings got both a ringing bell and wonderful whistling. Jerry’s son would sometimes get to blow the whistle at one private crossing, but I don’t ever remember having that opportunity – maybe I should have asked!  I think the whistle was a three-chime. Whatever it was, it sure was pretty.

Firing – Firing was a grand mix of sounds, smells and other non-visual sensations. Dad usually hand-fired the locomotive; it had a stoker, but it was rarely used.

When firing, there would first be the sound of his shovel scraping the deck at the coal gate, followed by an air hiss and loose, heavy clanking of the fire door opening when he stepped on the pedal of the automatic (air powered) opener. That was followed by a flat ”zhiiing” of the coal sliding off the shovel into the firebox, then another hiss and loud “CLANK-clank” as the door slammed shut and rebounded.

When the stoker was used, it made a grinding/crunching sound as the coal was crushed and moved to the the stoker’s distributing plate. If the fire door was open (HOT!), I could watch the distributing jets fling the coal from the plate into the red-orange abyss – this made a stuttering hissing sound.

Whether firing manually or with the stoker, dad would open the door manually to check the fire. He always said to “fire the bright spots” – the brightness indicated that the fire was getting thin at those points.

Adding water – #33 had two ways of putting water into the boiler; a feedwater heater (used only when underway) and an injector, which was typically only used when standing.

I distinctly remember the injector because of the dance required to use it, and the sounds it made. First, dad would pull down on a large brass handle mounted on the backhead, then crank open a valve below the fireman-side seat box. While his hands were still under the seat box, he would would hang his head outside the cab window (dog-like) to watch the injector overflow just above track level. When water started gushing out of the overflow, he would close the underseat valve, then stand up and pull the injector handle all the way down (at least, that how I remember it). I vaguely remember the sound of the water working its way up the pipe, a mix of gurgle and rushing sounds that increased in pitch as the pipe filled (think of the sound a slide flute makes), then it would stabilize into a steady metallic rushing sound.

When enough water was in, he’d shut the injector handle, which was accompanied by a water-hammer like “CLANK”, followed by a temporary gush of water down at the overflow.

Smells – I’ve read that smells cement memories better than any other sense, and based on my experience on the locomotive, it’s absolutely true. When starting, I would get a nose full of smells – a wet coal smoke smell from the stack, a steam-oil steamy smell from the cylinder cocks and exhaust and a straight saturated steam smell from various water/steam appliances (injector drain, dynamo, whistle, etc.). Alemite grease for the rod journals had it’s own unique smell, as did the car oil used in the journal boxes.

It Sticks With You!

So, given the above described sensory immersion at that young age, how could I *not* have a penchant for steam locomotion?

If you ever see me listening to a sound-equipped locomotive model with a look of fierce concentration on my face – or if I ever comment on or critique the sound that the model is making, you’ll now have a sense of what’s going through my head.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

Ralston-Purina Visit

Recently my wife and I made the forty-minute drive to Circleville to take some photos of the former Ralston-Purina plant. Of the industries and buildings I will be including on my model railroad, this is the only one that still (largely) exists from the timeframe I am modeling.

That visit got me thinking, and I broke out my collection of photos, articles and maps to see how things fit together. In this post, I’ll compare photos from today to “back in the day”, provide a little plant history that I’ve scraped together, and go over a bit of rail operations. I’ll also touch on how I intend to model the structure.

Then vs. Now

It’s remarkable how little has changed over the decades. Ben Shahn took the following photo in 1938, as part of his work with the FSA (Farm Security Administration). This is my go-to reference for this building due to its detail and timeframe.

Mr. Shahn took many photos of the Circleville area, and his collection, housed in the Library of Congress, is one reason I chose my particular modeling year. The photos are great references for buildings of course, but also for period environmental details. This particular photo includes bicycle riders, a mix of brick and asphalt street paving, trucks, weedy side tracks, coal hoppers, train order semaphores, etc. Great stuff.

Comparing the previous photo to mine from 2020 shows little change, other than the missing warehouse (where the truck dock is in the 1938 photo), soybean oil tanks, and chimney, and some added sheathing.

Similarly, the southeast side of the plant also show few changes. The first photo below is a postcard, circa 1940; the second is my photo from 2020. Both are both taken from roughly the same spot. The biggest changes are the addition of siding and the subtraction of the boiler’s chimney.

A Brief History of the Mill

Part of the fun of building models of specific buildings or places is the research that goes along with it. The most helpful for this facility were old editions of the Circleville Herald (via and Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. The Pickaway County Historical and Genealogical Library has also been a huge help.

On the 1927 Sanborn fire insurance map, the property was referred to as “H.M. Crites & Co. Flour Mill & Elevator”, was “re-built” in 1918 and had a 100,000-bushel capacity. According to a 1933 Herald article, Mr. Crites acquired the property in 1918 and presumably was responsible for the rebuilding. It’s not clear how extensive the rebuilding was, but it appears that the concrete headhouse and brick/concrete office were added, possibly replacing an older wooden structure.

At some point, the mill was sold to the Dixie Mills Company, whose properties (this and several others) were sold at auction at the courthouse in January of 1925, apparently to Mr. Crites. I suspect that the Dixie Mills Company was controlled by Mr. Crites, and that he bought it from himself at that auction.

In any case, Mr. Crites was back in control of the mill by 1933. In that year, he sold the property to Ralston-Purina in a transaction involving eight (or ten, depending on the source) additional properties. In reporting on the transaction, The Herald stated that Mr. Crites had “vast agricultural holdings … throughout several central Ohio counties” and “Mr. Crites pointed out [the S. Court st plant] is valued at $350,000” and all nine (or eleven) had a value just under a half-million dollars. Quite a sum in 1933. The deal was described as “one of the biggest in Pickaway-co’s history“.

Ralston-Purina immediately began refitting the property, converting it from a flour mill to a feed mill. They installed two French soybean oil expellers in January, 1935, and four more the following summer. These gave the plant the capacity to process up to one million bushels of beans per year.

Those expellers needed beans, so the company also made a pitch to local farmers to start planting them, as described in a 1934 advertisement in The Herald (left). They also planned to provide seed starting the following year.

The photo accompanying the advertisement nicely illustrates the physical arrangement of the time. The storage bins that are landmarks today did not yet exist.

In 1936, new slip-form concrete “tanks” were constructed, with a capacity of 200,000 bushels. This first set are along the tracks, directly west of the head house. In 1939, an additional twelve tanks were added to the immediate southwest of the first set. These added another 250,000 bushels.

Also in 1939, the company removed an old brick building that sat along Court Street (on the north side of the brick office building) and built a new metal-clad, two-story warehouse to store feed produced in the plant. To the rear (west) of this new building, a three-story metal-clad building to house equipment for manufacturing livestock and poultry feed was added. Some of these improvements are visible in the Ben Shahn photo.

And that brings us up to date for my modeling period!

Railroad Service

In 1938, the plant was served directly by the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Zanesville branch, which ran from Zanesville to Morrow. The branch was often referred to as the C&MV (Cincinnati and Muskingum Valley) after the company that built the line in the 1850s. The plant was also served indirectly by the N&W (Norfolk and Western), via an interchange/transfer track from Huston St.

Pennsylania’s Zanesville branch connected Zanesville and Cincinnati, via Morrow, Ohio. Circleville was one of the heaviest shipping points between Zanesville and Morrow. 1927 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map with 1945 updates. Annotations by Matt Goodman

Purina was a money-maker for the Pennsylvania railroad. It, along with the Eshelman Feed Mill a quarter mile to the east, made Circleville the heaviest shipping point along the entire branch. In later years, the branch was stubbed at the Scioto River when the bridge over the river was determined to be unsafe for the traffic of the day.

From an operations perspective, I’ve found evidence of a surprisingly wide variety of car-types being delivered to the plant.

  • Boxcars for delivering soybeans and other ingredients used in feed products
  • Boxcars for shipping the final product
  • Hopper cars to deliver coal for plant power and steam heat
  • Tank cars to deliver petroleum products for the neighboring filling station/garage.

The area around the Ralston-Purina plant was cramped, from a railroad switching perspective. The mill, a busy US Highway crossing (S. Court Street/U.S. 23), two interlocked Norfolk and Western crossings, and the N&W interchange track were right on top of one another at the east end. The upside was that all of the switching could be done from the west end, which had only one side street crossing (Harrison Street – just out of view in the map above).

It appears that none of the tracks in the Purina area were double-ended, so the crews couldn’t do a traditional run-around move to get the locomotive onto the east end of a train after switching was complete. However, railroaders from the 1980’s have told me that they got around this problem by using a “gravity drop” with the aid of a light descending grade toward the Scioto River. The crew would move the locomotive out of the way, then release the brakes on the cars they wanted to remove. The cars would drift west past the locomotive, which could then couple to the east end of the cars. It seems reasonable to assume that the same moves would have been done in 1938-9.


I’d always planned on representing the plant on the model railroad, given its visual and economic prominence in this part of Circleville. Initially, it’s inclusion was only going to be cosmetic, but after learning all that I’ve typed above (and finding I had more space on the model railroad than I thought), I am now motivated to include Purina as an active switching point. Those operating plans, however, are in the future.

The plans for modeling the building itself consist of a pretty straight forward kitbash. The base for the model will be Walther’s ADM Grain Elevator kit, which represents a slip-form concrete storage facility. This model has the same relatively compact profile as Purina.

Walther’s Cornerstone model of a slip-form elevator.

Although a good starting point, the kit is too short vertically and horizontally. The prototype structure is relatively compact in the grand scheme of things (great for a model railroad!), but it’s much bigger than a railroad car – refer again to the Ben Shahn photo. My modeling philosophy is to preserve these proportions where possible.

To get there, Christy and I will bash two of the kits together to give it more visual “heft”. The changes will involve the following:

  • Raise the kit’s head house “shoulders” from 76 to 90 scale feet and it’s “head” to 100 feet
  • Raise the height of the kit’s storage bins from 63 to about 80 scale feet
  • Add four more storage bins (twelve vs. the model’s eight) to increase the horizontal footprint

That build will be the subject of some future post.

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Middle Switch Complex

This past week I’ve been working on three additional right-hand turnouts that are key to laying another twelve feet of track on the old mainline. As a reminder, the old main is used to service industries in Circleville (the modern mainline was constructed in 1911). In a future post, I’ll reflect on the five turnouts (constructed two months ago) that lead to these three.

Some folks are able to build turnouts on a fixture in an hour or two. I cannot, even though I’ve built at least a dozen. Likely the problem is that I figure out all of the tricks for speedy assembly during a building session, then forget those hard-learned tricks before I build another set!

I cut the rail I needed for the eight turnouts along this stretch (four righthand, four left) last autumn, along with doing the filing needed for the frog and switch points. That left only locating and filing the stock rail bases where the point rail would sit, some bending operations, cleaning the rail, and cutting the PC board ties before I started soldering.

Turnout construction tools

After completing that work and assembling the turnouts, I spent a good deal of time tuning the points to allow smooth operation on both routes. I tried some new ideas on the shaping the points that seemed to work well (my growing collection of files came in handy here) – though the real test will be running trains over them.

Arranging the turnouts on the layout was mostly completed last summer, using Fast Tracks paper templates as stand-ins. I spent several hours experimenting with different arrangements, trying to find the best balance of usability and aesthetics. The tracks competing for turnout space along the old main were:

  • The west end of Esmeralda Canning’s siding
  • The east end of a runaround on the old main
  • A spur to Pickaway Grain and Maizo Mills
  • A spur to Enderlin Coal

A fourth turnout is in the immediate vicinity, but as it was on the runaround track (not the old main), it had no impact on the arrangement.

Referring to the gallery of photos above, I decided against Arrangement 1 primarily because it would require a switchback to get to Enderlin Coal. In reality, there was a switchback in this location that led to Pickaway Grain’s own coal yard. That made a turnout here defensible, but I wanted to avoid the complexity.

Arrangement 2 solved the switchback issue, but cramped Pickaway Grain’s loading area and crowded Enderlin Coal and Esmeralda too closely, which went against my aesthetic interest in creating breathing room between industries. These first two arrangments also made Esmeralda’s siding shorter than I wanted (only 2.5-3 cars) due to it’s west end turnout placement.

To lengthen Esmeralda’s siding, I tried Arrangement 3. This involved moving its turnout to the right, displacing Enderlin’s turnout back to the switchback. This was better for Esmeralda, but… the switchback.

The biggest change with Arrangement 4 was the removal of Enderlin Coal. This is the arrangement I decided on, for a couple of reasons. In my last post about the industries I selected, I mentioned eliminating Enderlin Coal to “mitigate problems elsewhere” – this switch complex was that “elsewhere”. Removing Enderlin and its turnout provided breathing room and simplified this area as well as giving space back to the rest of the layout. See the previous post for more information.

Fast forward back to this past week. After getting the turnouts built and placed on the layout, I tweaked them a bit more to account for track spacing and the already-installed Pickaway Grain/Maizo turnout.

Final Arrangement

In the photo above, the left turnout leads from the old main to the east end of the runaround, the center-left turnout (on the runaround) leads to a short 1-car stub-end spur, the center-right turnout is the west end of Esmeralda Canning’s siding and the rightmost turnout leads to Pickaway Grain and Maizo Mills.

The final photo below is looking railroad west (compass north) to illustrate the nicely-developing industrial area along the old main. Complete with captions!

Circleville’s west-side industrial stretch, progressing nicely

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Container Corporation Site Arrangement

Container Corporation, ca late forties

Container Corporation’s strawboard mill was the largest industry in the section of Circleville I’m modeling in 1938, and will also be the busiest industry on my model railroad. Since deciding that Circleville would be a focus of the railroad, I’ve gone through many design ideas for the mill’s site, structure, and track layout to best suit my goals.

Plant Siting

One thing that was never in doubt was the location of the plant on my model railroad. In the real world, the mill was located alongside the N&W Railroad and Canal Street at a point where the railroad makes a ninety-degree bend. This curve made a room corner the logical location to model this part of the railroad, which in turn made the same corner the ideal location for this plant.

So the general siting of the plant was easy. Sizing it turned out to be more difficult, with each attempt teaching me something that led to another attempt. In the end, the effort made me happier with the result.

Arrangement 1

When I first designed the layout using CAD, the Container Corporation’s footprint – in fact, all of Circleville – was relatively compact. The plant was tucked close to the room corner, with the remainder of Circleville’s industries extending down the wall to the right (north). As I learned more about the plant, I gradually stretched it’s footprint and moved it further from the corner. However, these changes were limited by the other industries in this stretch – the space available was finite.

After the benchwork was built, dad and I laid out the entire industrial stretch on tracing paper – this is dad’s preferred technique, adapted from his day job. Each industry was sized to fit the space, in proportion to one another.

Following the pencil-and-pen planning, I set about building a mockup of the plant. This raised the question of compression. I ultimately decided to size the whole plant using the coal shed/boiler room as the point of reference. The prototype shed was about 105 feet – or about long enough to house three coal hoppers. I shortened it to two hopper-lengths and applied the resulting 60-65% compression to the rest of the plant buildings.

Even with this compression, the full plant was bigger than I expected. It’s one thing to see a two-dimensional footprint, another to have a physical object as a hard reference. This more-imposing-than-expected building forced the rest of Circleville a bit north.

With the mock-up in place, I also realized that the close-to-the-corner siting would make it difficult to get track into the receiving yard without concessions in curve radius, track length and turnout locations. It would also have scenic impacts as it would leave no room for contextual buildings – specifically straw ricks and a small residential area on the south (left) end of the plant.

Over a couple of months, I started moving the plant to the right to address those concerns, which compressed the rest of the industries like a slinky.

Arrangement 2 and 3

After fussing with the compressed industrial stretch for several months, I decided to do a more comprehensive re-think of the entire Circleville industrial stretch, from Ohio Street (in the left corner) to Hargus Creek (right), in order to loosen things up.

After considering what was important to me – namely, operationally interesting or personally relevant structures – I decided to remove an entire block between Main Street and Hargus Creek on the right end. There were no rail-served industries at that end so there was no downside, other than the loss of a cool canal-era building. The upside was gaining an additional 31″ that the rest of Circleville could “grow” into. All of the industries gained more elbow room; CCA (at the opposite end) got a good chunk of that newfound space.

The additional breathing room more-or-less addressed the left-end track work concerns. There was now reasonable room to get trains in and out of the plant’s receiving yard. Details on that layout will be in a future post.

Plant Revision

During this same timeframe, I decided to revise the plant mock-up. The first mock-up was based on 1920’s dimensions and aerial photo, which I thought would be appropriate for my 1938-39 modeling time frame. Additional research unearthed information and photos showing that assumption was incorrect. The entire left end of the plant changed in 1936-1937.

I’d been itching to revise the mockup anyway, since the original had been constructed hastily to make the layout presentable for a neighborhood open house. This new information was just the trigger to get it started.

While building the new mock-up, I updated the dimensions of all of the buildings including shorter vertical dimensions and a more generous horizontal compression (70 vs. 60%). These changes made the overall proportions more pleasing and provided more room for the shipping trackwork at the right end of the plant. It also extended the left end of the building back toward the corner, though that did not impact the receiving yard’s usability.

There was one final move. For a variety of reasons, I decided to remove one industry (Enderlin Coal) altogether, freeing up more space. Again, everyone got more elbow room, and CCA got two inches of that.

That final move wrapped up CCA’s siting. It’s time to start some track work on on the Old Main.

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Finalized List of Modeled Industries

Almost since the moment I decided to model Circleville, I was certain I would include three specific sites on my railroad; Circleville’s Interlocking Tower (VI Tower, the namesake of this website), Container Corporation’s strawboard mill, and Pickaway Grain’s elevator.

The inspiration for VI Interlocking Tower is twofold. Firstly, dad spent a lot of time hanging around the tower as a kid, getting to know one of the operators very well (Wink Wellington), feeding his interest in the railroad – and indirectly, mine. Secondly, interlocking towers are an iconic railroad structure – known by railroaders for their function, and by the public as a landmark.

Container Corporation was the largest industry in Circleville during the time I am modeling and produced an unusual product, making it an operationally busy and functionally interesting addition to my railroad. In addition, I remember the plant (albeit in a more modern form than my modeled period) and my uncle Gene worked there as a chemical engineer in the fifties. Both make it personally relevant to me.

Pickaway Grain was astride one of the doorways to Circleville (Main Street / Rt 22), making it a landmark to local citizens and travelers. It represents an industry that was (and is) ubiquitous in grain-growing areas – during my modeled time period, smaller elevators were a common sight along every railroad. Pickaway Grain is another personally relevant industry as I remember passing it every time we left Circleville for home.

Those three obviously weren’t the only three rail-served industries in Circleville. Dad suggested three more from his memory for modeling consideration. Esmeralda Canning Company was on Canal Street immediately north of Container Corporation (CCA). Esmeralda was probably still operating during my (early) lifetime but would have been long out of business by the time the building was torn down in 1996. Enderlin Coal (later VanCamp), north of Esmeralda, was once a very busy retail coal yard with an unloading trestle spanning a concrete pit. It’s not clear when it stopped selling coal – I suspect shortly after VanCamp bought the property since that company’s focus was road work. Maizo Mills was on the north side of Main Street, across from Pickaway Grain. It burned down spectacularly in the 1950’s.

Beyond these initial six, I learned about additional sites/industries of the period from a variety of sources (mainly period Sanborn Fire Insurance and N&W Right of Way maps) that I also considered including. They were (from south to north):

  • Purina Feeds on S. Court and W. Huston.
  • Two canal-era houses on Canal street between the CCA and Esmeralda properties.
  • N.T. Weldon Coal and Building Supply at the corner of W. Mound and Canal streets, between Enderlin Coal and Pickaway Grain
  • A bulk oil company owned (I think) by Weldon at the same location as above
  • The Ohio and Erie Canal warehouse (re-used by a host of other industries later) on the site of today’s Pickaway County Health District building.
  • N&W’s Freight House at the corner of North Western Avenue and Water Street
  • Highway Department site north of Ted Lewis Park (at the same location as today’s ODOT facility).
  • Sturm and Dillard sand and gravel’s spur on the west side of the N&W, across from the north end of Forest Cemetery

Ultimately I had to make some choices since I don’t have space for the entire city. After a year or so of planning, building mock-ups to check for fit, research trips to the Pickaway County Historical and Genealogical Library, advice from friends in the hobby and lobbying by dad – with my list growing, shrinking and changing from month to month – I finally decided on the following list. From north to south this time, the champions are:

  • N&W Freighthouse
  • Maizo Mills
  • Pickaway Grain
  • Esmeralda Canning
  • Container Corporation
  • Purina
  • VI Tower

I chose these based on relevance to my family (i.e., what we remember), interest from a visual, train operations or historical standpoint, recognizability and (very importantly), space available.

I tried very hard to work Enderlin/VanCamp in. It checked the interesting (coal trestle) and relevant boxes and dad lobbied hard for it. In the end, I couldn’t make the track layout work in the space available and removing it freed up enough space to mitigate problems elsewhere. If I can fit it in a different (incorrect) location, it will be back.

The Ohio & Erie Canal warehouse is certainly interesting, but since it wasn’t rail-served, it missed the “operationally relevant” check. I pulled N.T. Weldon because of redundancies with Pickaway Grain (both sold coal and building supplies, and in fact, Weldon was later purchased by Pickaway Grain). It also presented some track layout issues.

I will most likely add Sturm and Dillard to the list in the future, though more design work is required before committing to it. Also possible (though less likely) is the Highway Department. There may also be a few items added east of South Court Street, once I get to planning that area.

Over time I will add new posts about each of these industries, and for those that have enough information, a stand-alone web page.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

Steam – The Ubiquitous Power Source of the Past

In today’s world, electricity is a ubiquitous power source – we use it for everything from running factories to cooking to powering model “steam” locomotives. In the vast majority of cases, that electricity is purchased from a utility. While doing research on the various industries along the N&W in Circleville, it became clear to me that steam was the ubiquitous power source back in the day – and that power was generated at the plant site.

The Circleville industries I model, circa 1939, used steam generated in the plant to power a variety of processes necessary for their business. From north to south, they were:

  • Maizo Mills – Steam used to power an engine that drove the corn cob grinding machinery
  • Pickaway Grain – Steam powered a steam engine that operated the elevator leg machinery
  • Esmeralda Canning Company – Used steam in the cooking process prior to canning, and to power the canning machinery.
  • Container Corporation – The most extensive operation in size with the widest variety of steam uses, “The Strawboard” used steam under pressure in the straw cooking process, to power turbo-generators that supplied the plant’s electrical needs, other turbines that were mechanically connected to pumps and other peripherals, heating the paper drying rollers and finally, to heat the entire mill complex.
  • Norfolk & Western Railroad – The railroad, of course, used steam for transportation services.

What got me thinking about this were three Circleville Herald articles I came across using All reported cases in which local plants needed externally generated steam to replace their on-site production due to emergency or maintence situations. In all three cases, that external steam that was provided by the mobile steam generating plants of the N&W (i.e., steam locomotives) .

August, 1942

In August of 1942, Esmeralda Canning Company experienced a boiler failure during the canning rush. A call to an N&W official in Portsmouth (where division headquarters were located) led to a locomotive being dispatched from Columbus. The locomotive’s boiler was then tied into Esmeralda’s system to allow their canning work to resume.

August, 1952

Problems struck Esmeralda again in May, 1952 – another boiler failure shut the plant down. Like in 1942, the plant’s management called the N&W, which again dispatched a steam locomotive from it’s closest terminal (Columbus) to get Esmeralda up and running.

January, 1955

Finally, in January 1955, Container Corporation – a strawboard mill – leased a steam locomotive from the N&W to supply steam for heating the buildings while the mill’s main boiler was down for planned maintenance.

Unlike the two Esmeralda incidents, this was not an emergency so probably did not require a frantic call to the local railroad agent. This particular article lists two interesting details; the steam locomotive was capable of producing 10,000 pounds of steam per hour compared to the mill’s boiler capacity of 90,000 pounds per hour.

It appears that, prior to the 1960’s, steam locomotives could serve the same purpose as flatbed-mounted diesel-generators do in today’s world. They both provide a source of energy compatible for the energy consuming loads of their times – emergency or planned.

The Shifter

Sometime in the past five years, I discovered the following photo in the Norfolk and Western Historical Society’s online archives. I found it using a “Circleville” keyword search, but more precisely, it’s location is Dorney, Ohio, which was a coal and water stop a couple of miles south of Circleville. The photo was taken in 1946 and the subject is #573, a class E2a Pacific type.

E2a #573 simmers at the Dorney water tower in 1946.  What is it doing here?

When I first saw this photo, I remember wondering what a lightweight (for 1946) passenger locomotive was doing there with no train – and a caboose?  Since the location and locomotive didn’t seem to apply to my interest in the railroad through Circleville, I discounted and forgot about it.

In the autumn of 2017, while doing research on the Container Corporation at the Pickaway County Historical and Genealogical Library, I came across a photo of the company’s cinder tower – and in the background was a surprise – an E2a working the shipping dock. Surprise or not, this made it obvious that these locomotives were being used in freight service.

An unknown E2a works Container Corporation’s shipping dock

The photo isn’t dated – I guessed it was taken in the early to mid-1940’s based on surrounding details. In retrospect, the date on the Dorney photo supports that guess. Based on this photo, I guessed that the E was used to power local freights that worked out of Columbus and Portsmouth – similar to how K1 Mountain types were used in the fifties.

This past month, I came across information that has made me discount the local freight idea. The information came in the form of an August 1941 newspaper article about a grade crossing accident (thanks to my subscription to

The Circleville Shifter

 The article stated that the automobile involved was struck by the caboose of an “N&W shifter that was moving freight cars from Dorney to the railroad freight house“.

The word “shifter” supplies some context – they generally don’t travel far. In fact, the references to the freight house (on Circleville’s north end), and Dorney probably define the entire range of the shifter’s work. It seems reasonable to assume that the locomotive that was doing the shifting was stationed in the Circleville area, and the Dorney photo is very likely documenting a locomotive that is waiting for the next batch of freight cars to shift to local customers.

The Dorney and Container Corporation photos are therefore good evidence that E2a’s were assigned to this job. This type of locomotive would seem to be a good fit for this work; fast enough to get over the main line quickly, while small enough to traverse the industrial track of the old main line, with it’s lighter rail and sharper curves.

In light of this information, dad’s stories about seeing M’s and Z’s – both slow freight engines – in town in the 1950’s make more sense. I had previously assumed those locomotives came over the road (slowly) from Portsmouth or Columbus. More likely, they were also assigned to Circleville’s shifting job. Assigning obsolete power to this job apparently didn’t stop with steam – my friend Mark Maynard was doing basically the same work in the late 70’s / early 80’s with GP9s and Alcos.

All of this from a few words in a 77-year-old article about a grade crossing accident!