Friday, October 31, 2014

Ghosts of Railroads Past

(I originally posted this last October, but since I think I had maybe 3 readers then - including my buddy Randy - I thought it'd be worth posting again - especially given the, um, "spirit" of the day...)

A big part of my motivation for recreating the Valley line is to keep alive the memory of the men who were responsible for getting the stuff of life delivered to you, each and every day.  From coal for winter heat or a bicycle to ride in the summer, for over 100 years in this country the stuff of life was delivered by rail.  And sometimes, if you're lucky, historical research will unearth a ghost or two.

Given that today is Halloween, here's a question for you:  Do you believe in ghosts?

The answer for me depends on what kind of ghosts you mean. I don't believe in the creepy un-dead or spirit wanderings of departed souls. But I do believe in the ghosts of the past - the hauntings of a place by the memories of the people who were there. Who were they? Did they have dreams and plans like we do today? While dead people don't haunt us, the spirits and memories of the past can - and often do. Especially if you're paying close attention.

During this time of year especially, if you keep your eyes open and know where to look, you can see some of these ghosts of the past materializing.  You have only to slow down, pay attention, and keep your eyes peeled. Here's just one example for those interested in the history of railroading in the Connecticut River Valley...
Bridge far
Railroad line from Middletown to East Berlin.  Trust me, it's there - somewhere...
I passed this spot a dozen times back during the summer when I was riding my bike to work. But only recently did I spot a ghost of the old railroad line between Middletown & Berlin across this field. Do you see it there in the distance? How about if I zoom in . . .

Stone arch bridge, Middletown - Berlin line
You'll have to excuse the camera quality of my phone, but if you tilt your monitor just right, you should see, just beginning to poke out of the trees, this beautiful stone arch bridge. The railroad was abandoned and torn up years ago, and the trees have long since reclaimed much of the roadbed. But this bridge remains - a monument to the memory not only of the railroad, but to the spirit of the men who built it.

If during your travels you stop at a spot like this and imagine, even for a few minutes, how those men lived, what their hopes were and whether they ever achieved them, you might see some ghosts.

And if you're especially quiet, you may even hear in the sound of the leaves floating by on the breeze a whisper of thanks from those men for not letting them be forgotten.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ops Session - October 29, 1947

As wonderful as they are, sometimes ops sessions can be a bit of a pain. If you're doing any sort of construction on the layout, you can't operate until you clean up the mess. And a lot of times, it's just more convenient to leave the mess and continue working on the layout.

Provided you're actually accomplishing something, rather than just making a mess.

So, preparation for last night's ops session included the following:

  • Finish up plaster cloth in Wethersfield and do strips/cloth at the Middletown diamond (to keep my newly-completed Middletown Tower from falling to the floor)
  • Cleanup all the mess, remove drop cloths, vacuum, etc.
  • Run engine all around layout & into all the sidings.
  • Discovered 3 feeders that came unattached, and one short from a rail touching a frog when I moved a siding.
  • Re soldered the feeders & separated the rail
  • Prepared paperwork (updated Bulletin Order, clearance cards, train orders, switchlists)
  • Layed-out foam floor squares
I started to run short on time, so I ended up reusing switchlists from a previous session - but the crew members were on different trains this time, so the repetition wasn't apparent, and saved a ton of time.

Snacks were set up, paperwork divided between the two locals, fast clock set - and we were ready to go!

The Valley Local southbound with K-1 mogul #278 arrives in Wethersfield with John Wallace at the throttle (having "fun" with the new momentum and brake settings) and me as conductor.

Valley Local switching Hartford Rayon in Dividend (Rocky Hill). Note Hartford Rayon mockup which is just started.

The timing worked out again very prototypically - both crews were in Middletown at the same time and had to coordinate movements. Roman had arrived by this point and pitched in as brakeman so I could railfan a bit and concentrate on the paperwork.

Airline Local crew switching Middletown yard, with Pieter holding down the right hand side of R-1 4-8-2 #3304 and Tom making the moves as conductor. Valley Local is standing by.

The two locals at Middletown.

Airline Local working back south from Middletown is now in Mill Hollow for some additional switching.

Meanwhile, with the Air Line Local out of town, the Valley Local can do its switching in Middletown.

Air Line Local continues south to Cedar Hill, but not before doing some switching here in Somerset.

After finishing its work in Middletown, the Valley Local heads back north to Hartford. Here it is just north of Rocky Hill.

Air Line Local had tied up for the day, so Pieter could head to Wethersfield to catch the Valley Local doing its last switching before heading to Hartford for the end of the day.
Since I'd finished my conductor duties, I had the engineer drop me off so I could take some Super 8 video with my new-fangled recorder (and, um, a drone apparently):

Valley Local northbound at Jordan Lane in Wethersfield, heading back to its home terminal for the night.

As always, I had blast - and this time, I actually got to operate a bit (sometimes rare for a layout owner). Also, as always, the ops session exposed a few issues that need to be addressed:
  • Atlas couplers need to be replaced with KD #58s. All but one of the coupler failures during the session (and, thankfully, there were only a few of them) occurred with the stock couplers that come on Atlas freight cars.
  • Speaking of couplers, the front coupler on the K-1 (of unknown origin) started to fail - so it also will be replaced with a KD.
  • All of the cars performed flawlessly otherwise, except for one NYC mill gondola which needs its trucks checked out. They may need some more play.
  • Inexplicably, 2 of the 3 feeders I'd just resoldered the other night came unattached again. So I need to do a much better job now that I'm not pressed for time.
  • Some miscellaneous sound decoder modifications needed (volume, sync, etc).
But, all in all, the Punch List that my operating sessions are producing are getting smaller and smaller - which is some evidence that the layout is improving!

After we tied up for the night, we went to "O'Rourke's Diner" (upstairs kitchen) for some banana bread and debriefing. The layout ran well and there aren't that many things that need to be done before the next session - hopefully next month (we'll have to see with the holidays coming up).

My plan now is to focus on getting the Wethersfield section of the layout "done" - which is to say, bridges completed, backdrop done, and scenery in (including - gasp! - water in Goff Brook. I've never done water before...). East Berlin is on that same peninsula, so maybe if I'm lucky with time I can get that at least done for operating (track down). If so - added bonus! - I can do an operating session in 1949, when it was all diesel and the Air Line local served served E. Berlin. That would give them some additional work to do and would balance time a bit better with the Valley Local.

So, lots to do - now I just need to concentrate on taking small - but regular - bites...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Crew Call - Another Opportunity for Realism

To me, prototype modeling is even more than modeling the equipment and scenes prototypically. If I'm doing things right, it's the closest thing I can imagine to a time machine. And the research required to do things right is a huge part of the fun.

Case in point - my crew call. In addition to the prototypical paperwork I hand out (Clearance Forms, Train Orders, Bulletin Orders, Switchlists), I've started to let my crews know beforehand what day they're on-duty and what's going on in the world, including the weather forecast - all thoroughly researched and perfectly prototypical. I got the idea for doing this from operating on Dave Ramos' New York Harbor railroad and really liked how it set the mood for the session.

This year - 2014 - it just so happens that the days fall exactly as they did in 1947. So I couldn't resist the extra added bit of realism. Here's my crew call for tomorrow's operating session:

"It looks like our two extra freights now have full crews and will be operating tomorrow, Wednesday, October 29, 1947.

Here's what's going on in the world on that day:

Weather forecast: temps in the lower to mid 60s; fog in the morning, drizzle throughout the day.

The Thomas Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington is investigating the film industry.

Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" premiered on ABC radio on Monday, October 27.

Trial of famous art forger Han van Meegeren begins in Amsterdam.

But none of that bothers our crews all that much - other than the weather, which - while not too raw - could be a bit nicer.  The engineers will have to keep their drivers from spinning on the wet rails, made all the more slick by the fallen leaves.  Be sure your sand dome is filled up before you leave the yard!"

If you want to try adding this extra bit of realism to your sessions, check out the Farmers Almanac online (Ben Franklin would be proud). There's a historical weather section where you can enter the zipcode of the locale you're modeling and the date corresponding to your era. Presto! a forecast for the day of your ops session.

Also, "this day in history" type sites are good for getting an overall feel for the day. I googled "this day in history october 29, 1947" and got links to a bunch of sites with good information. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that happened exactly on this day - so I had to fudge a little, e.g. by mentioning Groucho's show that started earlier in the week. I also checked out Eleanor Roosevelt's diary for the day - pretty helpful for folks modeling the late '40s.

I find that adding this level of authenticity really puts the railroad in context, literally. No longer are you just running trains on a layout (not that there's anything wrong with that), but you're participating in the history of the line & towns your modeling and playing some role in keeping those memories alive.

If you try this out, I'd love to hear about it. The cool thing about a time machine is that you can go anywhere in time that strikes your fancy - and it'd be fun to add your era to the list of places to visit!

More Fun with Mockups: Wethersfield Lumber, Rocky Hill Stations

I only have one photo of Wethersfield Lumber, and it's just a blow-up portion from a much larger aerial. You can't see much, but it's better than nothing - and confirmed that the Walther's Walton Lumber Co. kit will provide a good stand-in, at least until I get better photos.

But before plunking down $55 for a kit, I figured I'd make a mockup of the main building. Walthers provides the overall dimensions, so it was just a matter of measuring out the matboard, cutting & gluing:

I discovered AFTER I'd already made a few mockups that I have this handy-dandy assembly jig from Micro-Mark. I HIGHLY recommend it!

Since the building is pretty large, and the roof was going to be in two sections, I decided to install this ridgeline brace.

The roof area was large & unwieldy, so I decided to do it in two sections, using masking tape to join them and provide a hinge.
And here's the finished product! At least I know the Walthers kit will fit and - as importantly - how its size looks in the overall space. As you can see, since it's just a mockup, I didn't bother with the complicated roofline or building-length cupola. But this works just fine for now.
 After doing Wethersfield Lumber, I installed a mockup of Rocky Hill station that Dick did and the Rocky Hill freight house that Roman did. You can see them here in place, temporarily propped up on the bank of the CT River, just like the prototype:

Here's a shot looking south toward the freighthouse and station....

Which I include primarily because it has (hopefully) more than a passing resemblance to this prototype photo:

I won't be able to include that cool house to the left since it'd be in the aisle
If you haven't yet, I hope you'll try doing some structure mockups for your layout. They're really quick and a great source of modeling motivation - and you can start seeing right away how your layout will eventually look.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What's On My Workbench

The Valley Line just received a new NE-4 class caboose from Challenger Imports. It arrived just as you see it and needs only to have its couplers installed. This latest acquisition should fulfill my caboose needs for the foreseeable future and should be in service by the next operating session (after this Wednesday).

But the real news is that the Middletown Tower is NOT on my workbench any longer because it is FINISHED! (finally). Yes, my "quick & dirty" project that's lasted since June is finally done and on the layout. Proof below (along with the revised/extended Middletown freighthouse in the background):

And a quick prototype photo for comparison:

So - to paraphrase a popular ad slogan - what's on your workbench?

Modeling Motivation Monday: Middletown Freighthouse

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have friends in the hobby to help you get over your modeling doldrums. Bonus if one of those friend just happens to be a professional modelmaker.

The main point of the next ops session is to see how operators work around the buildings that I plan to have on the layout. Knowing how large those buildings are and where they need to go is critical in determining final structure placement and siding location. Mockups really are the way to go for this step - they're very quick, low/no cost, and easily replaceable. Click here for more about my process.

Usually - at least when I do them - mockups are no more than a 3D box. If I put on a peaked roof, that's gettin' fancy. During the recent worknight, Bill decided to tackle the freight house in Middletown. Good thing. Turns out the prototype is MUCH MUCH larger than I imagined and would need to be severely compressed. Bill's just the right guy for that sort of thing, having lots of experience modeling a prototype and having just the right 6th sense for conveying the impression of a prototype building without having to model it full size.

We start with a photo of the prototype.  This one's looking northwest:

Note that there is a flat-roofed wood office addition at the south end, a funky section, then a large peaked roof brick section. That brick section is the actual freighthouse and has an interesting history...

<begin quick sidebar>
Neither the Valley Line nor the Air Line were the first railroads to reach Middletown. The city had been bypassed by the Hartford & New Haven RR - one of the first railroads built in Connecticut. The town fathers raised such a fuss that the H&NH finally agreed to build a branchline from its main line in Berlin down to the shore of the CT River in Middletown, c. 1850. It was actually a fairly profitable branch - Middletown was full of mills that needed to ship product, and there were docks on the river for interchange with steamboats. One of the facilities the H&NH built in town - and which was still around in 1947 - was the freighthouse. Here's a better picture:

Original H&NH Freighthouse in Middletown, built c. 1850
<end sidebar>
As you can see, it's a huge building - even without the later additions to the south end. Fortunately, this is the non-trackside view and would be facing the wall. But we'd still need somehow to include it for the building to look at all like the prototype.

I only had a small triangular space in which to put this building - about 22" long total and tapering from 9" deep down to about 2".

The freighthouse has to go where that loading platform is temporarily placed.
Unfortunately, the prototype scaled out to almost 4 times that size!! So Bill took the measurements and photos home, said he'd "tinker with it a bit" and see what he could come up with.

A couple days later, I got a pdf which looked like this when I printed it out:
I've already started cutting - couldn't wait!
Not content with just a "box" of a mockup, Bill had basically produced a laser-printed kit! Way Beyond Fancy. All I had to do was laminate the printouts to some matboard, cut out the pieces, and hot glue them together.

Cutting everything out actually takes a while, and you need to be careful. I used a boxcutter with a metal straightedge on a piece of scrap masonite. When you're done cutting, you have your kit pieces as seen above.

If you have a large enough printer, you can print out multiple wall sections together. Then all you have to do is score them at the corners (on the front side of the wall) and bend. I prefer hot glue for assembly. Most of the assembly time was holding parts together while they set.

Assembly can get a little complicated when you can't work on a flat surface, as here with the loading dock. There's some freehand holding involved, but the glue sets up fairly quickly - and with a little creativity, you can figure out how to hold things still. You can see here I'm resting my hand on the table and resting the loading dock on my hand while it sets.

The result is nothing short of amazing. This is way beyond a mere mockup - I'd almost be tempted to let this be the final building. Almost (note Tichy part numbers in the windows :^) After the parts were cut and ready to go, total assembly time: 1 hr 10 mins(!!) - and that was mostly sitting & holding parts together while they set.

Here's how it looks in the space. You can't really tell from this photo, but it turned out we had a bit more space to the right we could work with - especially if we narrowed the loading dock. So we (Bill) actually lengthened the brick building a bit more. I'll post a photo of the final result later.

Compare this photo to the prototype photo at the top of this post - I think you'll agree that this building does a great job of conveying at least the impression of the actual Middletown freight house - especially for a mere mockup, albeit a very fancy mockup. And sure, it's nowhere near a scale replica, but I also had nowhere near the space for a scale replica.

But this is where the true Art of model railroad really comes into play, especially for prototype modelers. No matter how much money, time and space we have, there's really no practical way we can ever hope to duplicate the prototype perfectly and with absolute fidelity. Every model railroad, no matter how wonderful, is chock-full of compromises. But the best model railroads work around these limitations and convey the look and feel of the prototype very effectively in spite of them.

I don't at all pretend that my model of the Valley Line is doing that as well as I'd like, but if the Middletown freighthouse is any indication, I think I may be well on my way.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

October 2014 = October 1947?

The days of October 2014 line up exactly with those from 1947. If I'd had myself together in time, it would have been cool to have multiple operating sessions this month, during my era - the exact month & days from 1947.

As it is, I'm running out if time to do even ONE ops session during this most-perfect of months. But I DO have an ops session scheduled. The Valley Local will be running this coming Wednesday, October 29, 1947. Er, I mean 2014. ... Um, well you get the idea. 

The days won't line up like this for another 7(?!) years. I wonder how far along the layout will be by then. With any luck - and some good progress - maybe the Local will be making regular runs to Saybrook!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Perfect Modeling Setup?

Old time radio show playing on the iPad, a fire in the fireplace, and structure pieces to cut out and assemble. Just a fun Saturday Night on the Valley Line...

Hartford Rayon

And - again, thanks to Bill - yet another building gets started. We're really on a roll now! Construction details to follow ... 

Patching a Backdrop Seam

If your backdrop is more than 8 feet long - or if, like me, you need to splice on an extension - you're going to have a seam. My recent "backdropping" created a seam over 10' long(!) - but I (re)discovered a solution: Fiberglass Mesh Tape. It's the bomb!

Here's the extension - and you can see I have a looooooong seam.
And here is the mesh tape. It's sticky, so just stick it over the seam. It'll hold the topping together and won't let the seam crack. Be sure to sand the seam down all nice and even first.

Here's the tape down the entire length of the seam.

Then it's just a matter of adding topping, making sure to put on a thick enough coat to cover & hide the mesh.

And if you sand (and sand and sand some more) and add a couple coats of paint, it'll eventually come out like this.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Working on Middletown Freight House

Thanks to artwork from Bill Schneider, Middletown freight house should go together a LOT quicker than Middletown Tower. ..

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Yet More Backdrop - and some scenery base (and Middletown Tower?!)

You've no doubt heard of chainsaw layouts - well, lately I feel like Wethersfield has been a chainsaw scene. If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that originally there was a bit of a hillside toward the back of the scene, necessitated by the bottom of the backdrop being too high. That slope was making it very difficult to model Wethersfield as flat as prototypical, so out came the cardboard/plastercloth scenery base and down extended the backdrop. To read more about this process, click here, and/or check out the "Backdrop" topic. The lesson here - other than doing it right the first time, of course - is that you can do things over. So don't be afraid to get started and at least try.

When last we left the backdrop, I had just one more sanding/painting to do. Here's another lesson: make certain that your topping is sanded down as much as you want before you paint it. You can - like me - sand after you paint when you discover you didn't sand enough. But all that paint will clog up your sandpaper and make a mess. But like a lot of things in this hobby, I'm discovering that you can (yup!) Do It Over. See below:

Goff Brook looking "north" - after painting, I wasn't happy with how some of the topping ridges were showing through. Plain sky shouldn't have texture (ahem). So I sanded it down some more.

It wasn't difficult - just added another couple of steps. But in for a penny in for a pound. Heh - the result almost looks like clouds. Um, if you look just right. Ok, maybe not. This view is Wethersfield looking "south."

After sanding, another coat of paint. One thing about doing things over (and over and over again) is that you get better and quicker. This whole process (topping/sanding/painting) which used to take hours now takes minutes. Really. BTW, check out where the road hits the backdrop - that's the original bottom of the backdrop.

Once the paint dried, I decided that the terrain still wasn't flat enough, so I lowered the cardboard strips some more. You can see some places where they had attached. I only dropped them 3/4-1", but I'm much happier with the result and that's what matters.

And I finally figured out how I want to deal with the terrain surrounding Goff Brook. Before the backdrop was dropped, there was no way I would have been able to avoid it looking like a gorge here - and the prototype is actually a pretty flat CT River floodplain. I think this is turning out much better.

I even tried a different method of scenery base support on the south side of Middlesex Tpke - the old tried and true bundled-newspaper-and-masking-tape method. Don't be afraid to try and mix different methods - they all have their pros and cons. In this case, cardboard strips would have been pretty unwieldy.

As you can probably tell, I'm getting happier and happier with how this scene is (finally) turning out. And this area has been a HUGE source of lessons learned, but please let me know if you see anything in the pictures that I should do differently and/or be warned about (that sort of feedback is, frankly, one of the main reasons I post so many pics). I'll certainly do things a bit different as I work my way around the layout and "south" to Rocky Hill and Middletown.

Speaking of Middletown, I even got to do a little bit more on the (no longer quick and dirty) Middletown Tower project. . .

Ever try to piece together a broken-up staircase? Maybe I should have just built a new one from scratch. Heh - that's what some folks have said about the tower itself, that it would have taken less time to scratchbuild than to try and salvage, re-kit and rework a previously-built building.

But my approach seems to be in line with the theme lately: Just Try It (with apologies to Nike). It's a hobby, after all. And I'm learning more and more that most learning in this hobby comes more from trying, not from just reading about it.

Hope you're able to try something new on your layout soon - and if you do, let me know! Even if your experiment doesn't meet your expectations, if my experience is any guide, I guarantee you'll learn something.