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 (davedupler.com)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Five Week Construction Sprint

Everyone knows that there is nothing that focuses you on work that needs to be done like a deadline. My deadline was an upcoming neighborhood home and garden tour on which our house was one of the destinations.

We had agreed to be on this year’s tour more than a year ago. The main feature of our home, the one that prompted the tour organizers to recruit us, was our rooftop solar array – a feature that is not common in Central Ohio and is virtually unknown in my neighborhood.  One component of that system is the inverter, and our inverter is in our basement.  Given that the layout is also in the basement, it would unavoidably also be on display and I decided that this was as good a time as any to “out” myself as the guy in the neighborhood that builds models.  And that meant the work that needed to be done by the deadline was getting the layout in presentable condition.

I had been making steady progress on the layout before and since we committed to the tour – but with little haste and no definition of “done” (i.e., no goal).  Left to my own devices, I would have been happy to have a static train displayed on dead track in front of a building mockup, but my better half would have none of that.  Trains had to run and those trains had to be moved by steam locomotives with their visually interesting running gear.  Inspired by her resolve, around the first of the year I set the following goals for the tour:

  • Trains running on a continuous loop
  • Fascia, a scenic base and skirting installed along the length of Circleville
  • At least one semi-finished scene to give a sense of what the future miniature reality would look like

Between the time I set the goals early in the year and the end of April, I had completed the track work (with some concessions to expedite the work) and most of the needed wiring.  This took longer than expected, partly due to the effort of working out the wiring logic, but largely due to work travel interruptions. With incomplete wiring, no running trains and zero scenery, the deadline was starting to look imposing at the beginning of May.

With the help of my wife, we mapped out what we needed to do to get the remaining work accomplished. One big change was the use of the “we” word – I began recruiting friends and family.  The other change was simply her keeping me on task – she sent me to the basement virtually every evening to get something done.  The nature of the work also started to change, moving toward more finish-type work, which is easier to delegate out to multiple helpers.  Those helpers came in the form of my brother, dad and friends. My dad and brother did the dirty work of figuring out some fascia mounting solutions that I had been actively ignoring.  Most importantly from a teamwork and labor standpoint, my wife became fully engaged in the effort – planning and working on items completely independently of whatever I was doing (this was a big deal since I am not a natural delegator!).

This all led to a remarkable (for a Goodman) work sprint in the month of May and early June in which all goals were met or exceeded. The work is documented in the following video.

Most importantly, trains ran flawlessly for four hours on tour day! One fully scenicked farm scene (with figures) and two partially scenicked areas added visual interest for our visitors and the fascia and skirting added a finished look. During the pre-tour (for other homeowners on the tour and volunteers) the day before the public tour, I even heard a few gasps of surprise when people entered the basement.  Two of the organizers that had seen the basement only three months before were frankly astounded – proof that they were being overly polite during that earlier visit!  Compared to even a month prior, the basement was was engaging, organized and VERY tidy!

The visitors were a wide spectrum of people, of which all showed at least a passing interest in the railroad, and a large percentage were fascinated by it. Everyone loves miniatures – they can trigger your imagination to take you to a different place, time and reality.  I suspect there were at least a couple of visitors that are now potential hobbyists!

Building Spline with Homasote – Time Lapse Videos

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Many years ago, I bought Joe Fugate’s well-done video series about the construction of his Siskiyou layout. The section on Masonite spline roadbed convinced be to try the method. Having built several plywood cookie-cutter layouts over time, I was ready to try something different.

Before starting construction of my current layout, I was further influenced by another modeler who was also a proponent of using spline – but his material of choice was Homasote.  His reasoning was logical and applicable to my way of doing things.

The advantages of spline in my way of thinking is three-fold; it produces natural vertical and horizontal curves, there is little waste of material (a flat sheet of material can be turned into any roadbed shape; straight or curves) and the subroadbed is also the roadbed (if using the solid spline method)  The key selling point of Homasote is the ability to assemble it with screws; important to me since I tend to do a lot of revisions.  Screw assembly means disassembly and reassembly when one’s mind changes…

Over the past two years I’ve laid about 150 feet of this roadbed – about 220 if double tracked sections are included – and I thought it was about time to share the process via some time lapse videos I’ve accumulated over the past year.  It won’t necessarily show specific details, but will give viewers a good sense of what the build process looks like.  All are narrated.

As is obvious by the video titles, these are effectively a video layout blog.  Though they weren’t recorded with that in mind, it turned out to be a useful side effect.  Enjoy the cheap entertainment – and questions welcome.

1/12/17 Edit – Added link to update 13