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.

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.

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.