Sunday, October 21, 2018

How We Work: A Reading List

One of my big themes with my modeling -- and my history -- is understanding something about what the Santa Clara Valley was like in the 1930s. What was it like to work in the canneries, or harvest an orchard, or switch boxcars of prunes? The stories I found tell me a bit about that... as well as the fun of drilling burned tomato paste out of an experimental boiler, or rolling tree stumps back up to Summit Road to avoid pissing off an angry neighbor.

I'm interested in how folks work in general, even if they weren't working in the Valley of Hearts Delight. I've come across a lot of great books about how engineers, or railroaders, or cannery workers work.

There's a lot of gems in those books I've read, so they're worth sharing. Here's my list so far. I'll add to the list as I remember more.

If you're also interested in this sort of thing, I'll point out four great reads.

First, Ignition: An Informal History of Rocket Propellants. It's not a railroad book, but it's full of explosions and toxic gases and poor choices. Although there's a fair amount of chemistry in the book, there's more about the rivalries between different research groups (Aerojet remembering to keep two chemists at different sites to avoid personality explosions), danger (grad students hiding lab apparatus to keep their advisor from blowing it up again), customer relations (Navy admirals unwilling to have fuels that react with chlorine on their ocean-going fleet), and when the best safety equipment is a pair of running shoes. Most importantly, he showed the death of an academic discipline; by 1970, every possible chemical that was energetic enough and cheap enough to serve as rocket fuel had been discovered. There was nothing left to research.

Ignition was out of print for years, and the best copy I had was a photocopied PDF. Rutgers recently re-printed it; if you like explosions, get a copy.

Second, Linda Niemann's Boomer: Railroad Memoirs. Niemann was one of the first women brakemen on the SP; when she got laid off at Watsonville Junction, she decided to become a boomer, traveling around the SP system wherever there was work. The book's a combination of her stories about working for the Friendly SP as well as her attempts to figure out her life when she was changing towns every six months and figuring out how to sleep when working insane hours expected for railroad crews. Boomer highlighted to me how little we really understand of the railroad crews when we operate a model railroad: the exhaustion, odd hours, crazy management, and isolated work sites.

Third, James Curry's Metallurgist for the Empire Star Mine and Newmont Exploration 1932-1955, Plant Manager for Calaveras Cement Company, 1956-1975. oral history about his time working at the North Star Mine in Grass Valley and running the Calaveras Cement plant at Redding. If you're curious what it's like to run a rail-served industry, Curry's stories might give you a hint.

Finally, there's Carol Lynn McKibben's book on Monterey cannery workers, Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, California 1915-1999. McKibben talked with many cannery workers; she heard the stories about why the women chose cannery work, which jobs were interesting, child care, and how the first generation of Italian immigrants became American.

There's plenty more on the full list; I'll add to it as I remember books worth sharing.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Cannery Crime Blotter I: Bye-Bye Buick!

This is the first in an ongoing series of true crime from the annals of San Jose canneries. This article was lifted from the editorial page of the August 10, 1919 San Jose Evening News.

F. H. Daley, is actually Fred Daley, better known as the husband of Edith Daley, San Jose News writer. In the 1920 census, he listed his job title as "cashier", but later described himself as a manager. In 1920, Fred and Edith lived at 179 9th Street, just behind San Jose State. Edith and Fred moved into the new Palm Haven neighborhood in the 1920's. If we wonder how Jack heard this story, a likely guess is straight from his spouse.

Edward. L. Perrault lists himself as a cashier at the Hunt Brothers cannery in 1920 (the actual owner of Golden Gate at the time.) He's listed as 21 years old in the 1920 census, and living in San Francisco with family by 1921.


Call the Police!

by Jack Wright.

Contrary to custom at some former times in this column, the following story is a TRUE one, but it seemed so good that even two columns in large ten-point type doesn't seem too much to give it.

Its moral is the danger of absent mindedness and its characters are local folks. It happened yesterday. Let's go!

E. L. Perrault is the efficient accountant of the Golden Gate Packing company. He has been so for years, and his mental completeness has never been questioned. Never has he come into contact with the local police, either as accused or accusing.

Yesterday, he made his first trip to the police station - two of them, in fact. The reason was as follows.

F. H. Daley, also of the Golden Gate company, is the proud owner of a new Buick. It has a self-starter, gas and electricity, side curtains, and would have hot and cold running water if those were common equipment. He is quite proud of his car - naturally.

Yesterday Perrault had to make a hurry trip to the bank. Perhaps payment for a few boxes of those worth-their-weight-in-gold 'cots had been made. What was more natural that he should borrow the resplendent new Buick for the trip?

In the machine, Mr. Daley had left a small cushion and his coat.

When Perrault left the bank for the return trip the coat and cushion were gone!

Upon his return to the packing house he went shamefacedly to the owner of the car, passed back the key, and said "Er - what did you have in the pockets of your coat?"

"I don't know; bankbooks, letters, etc. I guess." was the answer.

"W-w-was it a valuable coat?"

"About the only coat I've got. Why?"

"Well, someone must have been a fast worker because I wasn't in the bank more than five minutes and when I came out the coat and cushion were gone. I went to the police and they are working on the case."

Mr Daley didn't worry, particularly, but had occasion to go out to his car in the packing house garage a little later in the afternoon. He couldn't find the car! It was gone!! Heavens, was an organized band of thieves set on pursuing him and taking everything he possessed? He wondered if his house was still on its foundation.

He summoned Perrault hurriedly. "Well, the car's gone too." he said.

"No it isn't. I just drove it back here."

"It's not here now. They sure MUST have been fast workers."

Starting forward Perrault exclaimed "but there's your car!" He pointed to the Buick standing in the Daley compartment.

How the old bus had changed - aged! Gone were its new side curtains; gone its bright luster; the spare tire was no longer present; a crack slanted across the wind-shield and a fender was badly wrinkled.

Gradually a light commenced to dawn on F. H. Daley.

"Is this the car you drove home?" he questioned.

"Why yes. It's yours, isn't it?"

Bright day broke in the mind of Daley. "Young man you'd better hustle back to the corner of First and Santa Clara streets with that car or the police will transfer their attention from the thieves who stole the coat, to you! I don't know whose car this is. The only thing I know is that it's not mine!"

One leap carried Perrault to the seat. One motion started the car out of the garage. One dash skimmed through streets to the center of town, just in time to waylay a bewildered-looking man who was gazing where his car ought to be. One long explanation was all that was required to settle with the police.

And of course, this story has a moral: be very careful about doing silly things when your boss's wife works for the local paper.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Unleash the Scanners: Rosenberg Brothers and "Years Mature"

What can you get from a company’s self-written biography? Lots, in the case of Rosenberg Brothers "Years Mature" book celebrating their 50th anniversary in business back in 1943. While full of interesting facts - photos of the packing houses, and stories about crazy salesmen - it highlighted how I’d been missing half of the whole dried fruit industry.

When I started learning about the fruit industry, my point of view was completely focused on the product at hand. The farmers brought in fruit, the cannery or packing house put it in containers, the trains took it away. With this kind of view of the system, it’s no wonder that I only thought about the business in terms of the technology of cleaning, preparing, and boxing fruit.

Rosenberg Brothers: Abe, Adolph, and Max. From Years Mature.

But that’s a remarkably simple version of the business. Working in either canned fruit or dried fruit was just as much about finance - choosing a price for buying a future crop, and choosing a price for selling a future or current crop. The company’s buyer would talk with a farmer about buying a crop months before the crop appeared, and would have to set a price high enough to get the farmer to sign a contract, but low enough to ensure a profit could be made. We saw that in my Uncle Carl’s story - his father would act non-committal towards the buyer at 5 cents a pound, and would wait for him to return to the farm with an offer a half cent higher. Sometimes an orchardist might be having financial problems, and requires the packer to provide an advance on the crop assuming they think the farmer can deliver enough to pay back the loan.

Meanwhile, the packing house was also dealing with sales on the other end. The broker and packers were having to make sure they had sufficient money to cover the purchases they were making, had to be drumming up sufficient interest to sell fruit with a bit of a profit, and keeping track of the market enough to know when to sell futures. They had to set prices for selling the season’s fruit ahead of time, and decide how much to hold for later sale.

When you think of it this way, the fruit industry sounds a lot more like the stock market, with the buyers selling stock futures and the broker handling the day-by-day market. If it weren’t for the fact that America was relying on all four men - the orchardist, the packing house operator, the buyer, and the broker - to make sure that Santa Clara prunes were making it into breakfasts in New York... or Hamburg... or Buenos Aires. It might seem more like a casino than a drying yard. I suspect all the fruit businesses were like this to some extent, whether large firm, a co-op like Sunsweet, or a canner selling to a small number of New York wholesalers.

But that speculation on future prices was what made the fruit industry challenging. I was reminded of the complications of the real fruit industry when I was trying to track down more information on Rosenberg Brothers, “the most successful of the speculative packers.” Rosenberg Brothers was one of the largest packers and buyers, trading in almost any dried food product: rice, raisins, prunes, figs, or beans. Rosenberg Brothers operated in San Jose and Santa Clara for fifty years, and also had the dubious distinction of its packing houses being subject to the numerous fires. Their plant on Ryland Street burned down in 1905 (under George Hyde’s reign), while a fire in 1916 caused by a shifty-eyed socialist, destroyed the historic Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange plant.

Rosenberg Brothers Santa Clara packing house. From Years Mature.

Information about Rosenberg Brothers is sparse until you encounter the company’s own history. “Years Mature”, the history of Rosenberg Brothers, was written in 1943 for the company’s 50th anniversary just as World War II ended.

Along with descriptions of the company’s products and plants, it describes the early history of the company and the three founders: Abe, Adolph and Max Rosenberg. The three Rosenberg brothers were the children of a Gold Rush era general store owner. Adolph, a fresh fruit buyer, saw the promise of dried fruit selling on the east coast. He convinced his brother Abe, bookkeeper at a shoe company, to join in, and the brothers soon pulled in their youngest brother, Max. Adolph was the idea man and salesman, going to Europe to open markets for unfamiliar fruit. “Blond, jovial Adolph, always with a pad of paper in his hand, a flower in his buttonhole, was the human dynamo, the idea man. Adolph almost ran to the office every morning to be the first man there and open the mail and telegrams he constitutionally declined to answer.” Abe was the financial man and bookkeeper. Max was the buyer and broker. The description of the company’s early years talk less about the packing than the contracts: keeping their word on their contracts, being profitable with a small but well-selected staff, and expecting as much candor and trust on the part of their customers. The stories tell of help for customers needing help, but lawsuits if a buyer tried to renege on a contract.

The company’s own description mostly talks about the business. It mentions all three brothers as equals - a small and tightly knit company, profit sharing, and care with business. When quoting Mr. Abe, they noted a financial story. “Mr Abe used to say to one of his younger buyers “there are five fingers on your hand. I don’t expect you to check “right” against every one of them. But I do expect you to be right three times out of five.” Many of the wallopings that came their way were resounding, involving sums that made the “street” gasp. But usually from this month’s beating emerged next month’s reward. The brothers’ power of recuperation, their ability to turn disaster into victory, became legendary. And the rewards were plowed back in.”

The book also lists the many employees who had been with the company for many years - a mix of folks working in the back office, as buyers, or at the packing houses. 21 men and women had been with the company for at least thirty years, some at the Santa Clara and Fresno packing houses, or the Oakland warehouses, or the head office.

Rose Selene, for example, was a thirty-year veteran in the head office. She was cashier and later treasurer for Rosenberg Brothers, and a 1940’s city directory mentioned she was also working for Atlas Merchantile Co. Single, she lived at the Fairmont Hotel in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Albert Beitler was also a thirty year employee, starting off as a “car loader”, then “foreman” and eventually listed his occupation as “fruit man”. Clarey Armstrong from Fresno had similar roles in Fresno.

Box makers seemed to be tasks for senior men; both Mark Pasetta in Santa Clara and George Avakinan in Fresno had that job during their 25 year careers. George Lasater, a manager at the Oakland plant, had also been with Rosenberg for 25 years. James Wollberg, one of the salesmen in the San Francisco office had a similar tenure.

And Minnie Pacheco, a Portuguese woman from Santa Clara, had been a fruit packer at Santa Clara for 25 years, living her entire life in the Santa Clara Valley.

Rosenberg Brothers was big business. Rudolph Peterson, a long-time Bank of America employee remembered them as one of the larger buyers of grapes and raisins - large enough to require a several million dollar credit line for buying fruit each year. He also remembers them as aggressive on pricing:

Peterson: I knew them [Rosenberg Brothers] as a kid… the big buyers of grapes in the San Joaquin Valley. They were headquartered in Fresno. They had always come in and gotten their line of credit reestablished each year for several million to cover the purchase of grapes, and in due course it would be paid back.
This was in 1936, by the way. Ralph Heaton was telling me one day that someone from Rosenberg Brothers had come in and said he wanted to set up their line of credit for this year to buy grapes. Ralph Heaton asked him what he was going to pay per ton of the various types. He outlined it.
Ralph said, "Well, that's all right. Good luck to you, but you're not going to do that with our money." He asked, "What do you mean?" Ralph replied, "You know damn well that you're not paying them enough to cover grower's cost up to now on grapes, and we both know that . "
"Okay, what should we do?" "Well, let's sit down and review it," and, as Ralph said, "in due course before we were through, we had arrived at a figure that at least covered the farmer's cost and gave him a modest margin." But that story wasn't confined I'm sure to that platform. This was the key to a line of credit all through the Valley, unless he paid the rancher a fair price.

One of the Rosenberg customers, the Draper Gordon Brokerage Company in Duluth, Minnesota, even provided a congratulatory letter for the company, and gave hints about how fruit was sold. Many of the articles I’ve seen suggest that the principals of the company did most of the contact with the brokerages and grocery wholesalers buying fruit. Rosenberg, however, was large enough to have its own salesmen roaming the midwest drumming up sales. R.H. Draper described the experience of having the Rosenberg Brothers salesman blow into town:

One day we heard that a man named Frohlich, who put Steele-Wedeles on the dried fruit map, had gone with Rosenberg Brothers. We knew something about his operations but had never met him. Well, one morning he blew into our office and believe me there was plenty of breeze. We visited for a few minutes then he asked for our best stenographer, opened the window (he seemed to like fresh air) and started to work. When dictating he never sat down - paced up and down the room - talked loud and fast, with plenty of gesticulations. He went through this procedure every time he came here - he would always call for Sadie (Mrs. Cole). Duluth was usually a one night stand for Al - he was always in a rush but did a thorough job and never once drew a blank - he sold something to someone whether they wanted anything or not.”

That whirlwind of a salesman was Albert Frohlich, the sales manager for Rosenberg Brothers, who lived in Berkeley by 1920. Albert also made it into history when he was a witness in a lawsuit against lawsuit against S.F. Buffum, a New York wholesaler who wasn't able to cancel some ill-advised prune order - 2300 boxes of prunes worth $10,000. Frohlich didn't make it to the 50th anniversary; he died in 1938 at age 54.

Raisins arriving at Rosenberg Brothers' Fresno plant. From "Years Mature".

Even if the principals weren’t the ones in the packing houses, they built a huge infrastructure for packing the fruit. Rosenberg Brothers was one of the first food packers to have their own warehouse and packing house at the Oakland docks. They had 150 buyers scattered across California, and packing houses in Yuba City, Sebastopol, Biggs, Santa Clara, Brentwood, Modesto, Fresno, Orange, and Oregon; “together these and our other packing houses and mills have a capacity of 70 full cars [“70 cars normally make up a complete train”] each normal (8 hour) working day.” We don’t know exactly how big Rosenberg Brothers are - they provide many numbers on California’s exported fruit, but are awfully shy about quoting their own production - at best, quoting they handled 40-50% of the California rice crop in past years.

Written during World War II, Years Mature didn’t just talk about the business, the long-time employees, or the product. They also commented on how the world changed during World War II -when the book was published. They mentioned that all of the 1942 crop of apples, apricots, peaches, and pears were requisitioned by the U.S. government for both military and lend-lease use, feeding both soldiers and the civilians of Europe. They also listed the season for each of their crops.

Rosenberg Brothers didn’t continue for long after the war. The long-serving general manager, Arthur Oppenheimer ran the company from the early 1930s to 1947. Oppenheimer performed two rescues during the Great Earthquake and Fire,saving both the company’s books and ensuring the firemen could hose down the packing house. Shortly after Years Mature was written, the company was sold to Consolidated Grocers (better known now as Sara Lee); apparently there was no heir apparent to replace Oppenheimer. Louise Rosenberg Bransten, daughter of Abe, served on the board but apparently wasn’t willing to follow her father as a dried fruit baroness. She and her husband, whose family was involved in M.J.B. coffee, were content as directors of Rosenberg Brothers. (Louise does turn up in later history quite a bit; she and her husband were politically active in both socialist and civil rights issues; both were tossed out of the Communist Party in the 1930’s, and Louise was indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committing for refusing to divulge whether she'd donated money to the Communist Party.). A third of the company was owned by the Rosenberg Foundation, contributed from Max’s estate. The Rosenberg Foundation still exists in San Francisco, and the profits from prunes, rice, and raisins continues to support racial and economic justice in California.


“Years Mature” is scanned and available on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Counting Cars: Model Railroad Sudoku #2

One of my big internal battles is whether model railroading is re-enactment or a game - whether I’m going to give up a bit of reality to make operations more fun, or whether I’ll sacrifice challenge and fun to make folks think about how the real trains moved. For example, do I want more timetable passenger trains to interfere with the freight trains? I chose accuracy, and model the Los Gatos commute train going to Vasona Junction and Lost Altos even though I don’t get to mess up my switching crew’s plans with another commute train to avoid. Do I model the towns as they were, or do I add fake industries or towns? Accuracy won out, though a later extension to the Moody Gulch oil fields created a single non-historic (though plausible) location. Do I do reasonable levels of freight traffic, or do I add enough work to ensure all the crews get a good workout?

Del Monte Plant #51 on the Vasona Branch layout. The two tracks are often packed with freight cars.

That question of traffic’s a big deal for me. I love model railroads that challenge me in realistic ways. When I operate, I don’t want to solve puzzles like a timesaver - I want to do work similar to what a real crew would do, and I want enough work to get into the swing of things. Switching 4 or 5 cars in one town means that the fun will end just as I’m getting familiar with the task. I want to give folks a similar experience with my model railroad - that means I want more than five or six cars to switch, I want a few places to do that switching so I can get practiced at sizing up a town, and I want the experience to last for more than 30 minutes. Most trains on my layout end up being around 10 cars, involve significant switching at multiple locations, and take around 60-90 minutes to complete. To keep traffic levels high enough to support interesting levels of switching, I operate canneries that would have been shut down or bankrupt during my time period. I pack all the sidings full of cars. I also set up the switch jobs so each job handles multiple industries. I keep people busy, even if it means not being prototypical.

That desire for a lot of switching goes against my setting - after all, I’m modeling the Santa Clara Valley in the depths of the depression. Del Monte showed it worst sales ever in the years I model. The Hyde Cannery had been dark since the late 1920’s. America wasn’t buying prunes, and co-ops paid a pittance for the fruit they took. I don’t know if crews were really switching every industry like I’m doing. And who knows if all the sidings were packed like that? I might just have a guilty conscience, but I’ve always assumed my layout is modeling insanely unrealistic levels of traffic.

But let’s back up a second. How do I know that railroad traffic wasn’t as busy as I think? There’s three questions I have to answer to understand traffic levels: knowing which industries were open, how crews switched those industries, and levels of traffic. The first question’s relatively easy - we can check newspaper and other historical documents to guess at what businesses were operating. The second’s a bit harder: we can talk with old-timers, or we can ask how switching was done in later years and assume that railroad practices didn’t change much between 1950 and 1930.

And then there’s that final question - do we know how much traffic industries generated? Do we know how many cars per month were received by a particular industry? Do we know how many boxcars were sitting on a siding? There are sources out there; they take a bit of work, but it’s possible.

For traffic levels, sometimes we can find either switchlists, railroad reports on traffic, or government groups. Angelo Figone’s book on the Northwestern Pacific, for example, tabulates the number of loads generated in each lumber town along the Eel River. Tom Campbell found a California Railroad Commission document listing the exact cars being switched at a Sacramento grocery distributor in the 1930’s. If we’re lucky, we can find photos of particular industries - though that just gives us one day, and usually only one spur.

A while back, I also found some high-resolution aerial photos of the San Jose area. At first, I looked at them only for the existence and shape of buildings, but then I realized the photos also captured the freight cars at each industry. So let’s run through them and decide on typical traffic during the 1930’s.

I’ll look at several photos.

  • 1920’s overview of Del Monte Cannery #3, taken high enough to capture some other industries. (History San Jose collection.)
  • Aerial photos taken in March 1931 by Fairchild Aerial Surveys (San Jose Public Library collection - see images 12, 22, 31.)
  • Aerial photos, with a code of 5900 on the image, appears to be from the late 1930’s - after the Market Street station had been torn down. (See image 5900-56; I didn't record the source of the image.)
  • Aerial photos from July 1939, captured by a contractor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (U.C. Santa Cruz collection, see images 284-107, 284-106.)
  • The fourth is a photo of the San Jose College Park yard in 1940. It’s at an oblique angle so we can’t see all the spurs, but we’ll get an idea about traffic. San Jose Library collection.

These images don’t necessarily say much about 1933, but they do give us several data points for the 1930’s in general.

The full tabulation is in a spreadsheet linked at the bottom of the post, but there’s the good parts.

Photo of Del Monte Plant #3, 1931.

Overall, the number of freight cars is higher than I expected - I expected a lot of empty freight docks, but most of the known-active businesses had their spurs packed with freight cars. Del Monte Plant #3, and the Security Warehouse and Cold Storage plant on First Street, the Richmond Chase cannery on Stockton Ave all were packed with cars. Del Monte Plant #51 wasn’t always full, but certainly had activity. Even lesser industries: J. S. Roberts dried fruit packing house on San Carlos St, or the PG&E generating plant south of Diridon Station - always had at least one car around.

The exceptions were the industries that probably weren’t in action. There’s no sign of cars at the former Hunts / Richmond Chase cannery on Fourth Street. That could just be that the buildings make it harder to spot cars, but it also represented an older canning plant that might not have run regularly. J. S. Roberts shows no cars in 1939, suggesting the building may not have been in use. The lumberyard at Sunol and San Carlos seems to be in active use through the 1930’s, but I’m not seeing many cars there at all.

And regardless of businesses, team tracks and freight houses were constantly packed. Both the San Jose freight depot (off San Pedro Street) and team track off the Alameda (next to the PG&E gas holder) both were constantly packed with cars. Even the Union Ice icing decks on San Fernando St. (for the WP) and the one on Stockton Ave. (for the SP) were suitably busy. The 1931 photo even captures a 60 car train threading its way around Diridon Station; I’d make a guess at the locomotive, but it’s hidden under a cloud of black smoke.

The photos also hint at other kinds of activity. The photos of the railroad yards off of San Pedro St. show declining usage through the 1930’s, with the College Park yard (on the west side of the Guadalupe River) continuing to stay busy. We also see that the Security Warehouse and Cold Storage plant on First Street continued to get traffic even as the track leading to it - the former line down Fourth Street - got pulled up. All the cars there needed to be pulled back along the one block section between Second and Third streets - an awkward move for a busy business.

Even if these businesses were very active in 1931 or 1939, that still doesn’t say anything about 1933 - about when I model. But as accurate as I’m trying to be, I’m not trying to capture a particular month or a year. I’d always intended to model some time in the early 1930’s, but focused on 1933 just because I needed the choice for a few bits of scenery. The overpass over the Alameda, the raised embankment for Diridon Station, and the hints about the new main line all required choosing a later year, but I’m perfectly fine with setting my traffic in 1930 and my scenery in 1933 if it tells a big story. As much as the Valley’s suffering during the depression tells an important story, I’d rather keep my crews busy.

So, yes, it looks like it’s quite reasonable to assume that pack all my spurs with freight cars, and force my switch crews to move all those cars. It might not be accurate for 1933, but it’s accurate for 1931, or 1936, or 1939… and I’ve got the photos to prove it.


The full list of observed cars is in a Google Docs spreadsheet. Thanks to U.C. Santa Cruz, San Jose Library, and History San Jose for sharing the aerial photos used for the data gathering.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

3d Printing A Crowd of Passenger Cars: Harriman 60-C-1 to 60-C-4

In any operating model railroad, the engines and the cars are the characters in our play. And just like in a play, crowd scenes need a crowd - only in this case, our crowd are lots of trains and lots of freight and passenger cars. Collecting enough rolling stock for a model railroad can take a while as we build kits, shop, and otherwise put together an appropriate set of rolling stock for our layout.

On the Vasona Branch layout, I’ve accumulated my freight cars over years, slowly getting just the right mix of cars. The layout started out with some freight cars from my teenage years. A few years out in the wilderness of suburban New York City got me a bunch of PFE refrigerator cars, all picked up at Valley Model Trains's great location out at an abandoned mill in Wappingers Falls. I’ve bought and built additional models - some resin, some plastic, but all trending towards the era I chose. I’ve gotten rid of unprototypical cars, bought others that better match my 1920’s California setting, and now my layout has the depression-era look of a sea of brown boxcars. I’ve got my crowd scene.

With the Market Street layout, though, I’m back in the position of not having enough characters for my crowd scene. This time, my problem is a lack of passenger cars rather than freight cars. I haven’t had to model passenger operations significantly in the past, so I don’t own a lot of equipment. And I need a crowd.

My current Vasona Branch layout, after all, only needs two passenger trains - a Los Gatos commute and the Santa Cruz to San Francisco train. The commute is served with some ok 1980’s, Soho brass commute cars. The Santa Cruz trains use a string of 1960’s Ken Kidder cars. Both cars aren’t particularly detailed, but they’re affordable ($100 for the Soho cars, and $40 each for the Ken Kidder cars), take well to modification, and aren’t particularly rare so they’ll turn up on eBay if I’m lucky. I’ve got an assortment of other passenger equipment - baggage cars from the old MDC kits, a Southern Car and Foundry 70 foot baggage car that can’t quite make it around my 24” curves, and one or two odd brass cars - but otherwise that’s it. Great for a branch line out in the country.

The Market Street layout, in contrast, needs a crowd of cars. It needs four or five commute trains, each with at least three cars. It needs several baggage and postal cars that will be added and removed from some of the commute trains. And it needs at least a train or two to represent long-distance trains passing through.

That’s a lot of cars - fifteen or so coaches, four baggage cars, four RPOs, and another train set or two.

Well, I’ve got a 3d printer, and I’ve already made freight cars on it. What could be so hard about making Harriman cars?

These models represent the 60-C-1 to 60-C-4 Harriman passenger cars built starting in 1910. The actual cars were the first steel cars for the Southern Pacific. They ended up in wide use across the SP system. More importantly, they were common cars on both the SP commute and short-distance trains such as the Santa Cruz to San Francisco run. The cars originally had gas lighting, but switched to electrical lights by the late 1920’s - a key detail to add for later cars. The 60-C-1 to 60-C-4 cars were only the first Harrimans; there were other series (both as plain coaches and more comfortable chair cars). But these earlier cars were near-identical and look better to my eye. Later series had different window heights or spacing, differences in doors, and a bunch of other minor differences.

These photos show the first two presentable cars I've 3d printed. There's still some details to get right, and there's still some challenges in assembling them precisely, but these models do show that a crowd of passenger cars can come off of a 3d printer.

The cars have been a bit of a challenge. The cars are too long to fit in the printer, so they had to be made in sections that I'd assemble into a single car body. I ended up making the cars from four pieces: a vestibule and car end, the body in two halves, and another vestibule. I printed the bodies vertically, just like I’d done on the flat cars and Hart gondolas. This meant that only the cross section of the car was supported, minimizing support structure and keeping the support structures off of finished surfaces of the car. The car ends couldn’t be done this way; they print upright, with the support structure attached to the steps and to the coupler pad. The bottom ends up being coarse because the side facing the build platform never quite prints right because of lack of support, but the overall part prints fine.

Like all the 3d models I’ve done, the cars are also challenging because of all the niggling little details I need to understand in order for the car to look right. For example, the roofs on Harriman cars were overlapping steel sheets. The lower sheet always was placed between windows; the top piece always lined up with the windows. That’s a trivial detail, but needed to capture the look. Minor inaccuracies in window spacing is a glaring problem for anyone who's researched the car. Getting the roof curve correct took multiple tries, and I'm still not quite happy. Other little details - like the beading at the intersection of the roof and side - turn out to be more important than I expected. Without the beading, the cars looked wrong, and it was hard to spot the point where the roof curve ended. It also was helpful for brush painting - the brush could be drawn across the bead to paint it neatly, and the bead would stop the brush from going further. I could cheat on any of these details, save myself a bunch of time, and have complete cars sooner... but they wouldn't look right to my eye.

Enjoy these photos of the cars and the pilot models; I’ll talk in-depth about the cars and their construction in upcoming posts.


Thanks to Jason Hill - his experiments using Shapeways to print wall sections for MDC Harriman cars inspired me to try making a whole car.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Comparing 3d Printed Models Against Kits of the Past

When I talk about those Hart gondolas I made a while back, I like to highlight how the models represent freight cars that haven’t been done accurately in the past. There’s no resin kits or brass kits for Hart gondolas, let alone for SP's own version. However, combing through old Walthers catalogs will show two Hart gondola kits: the craftsman kits from Silver Streak in the 1960’s, and Train Miniature’s plastic shake-the-box kit from the 1970’s. Both are good for their time, but we can do a lot better in the 2010’s. How much better? I picked up examples of both the Silver Streak and Train Miniature cars at a train show a couple weeks back. Let's compare them against the 3d printed model and see how forty years of technology has helped model building. (Click on any of the photos for a higher resolution version.)

Let’s first look at the Silver Streak kit. For the time, this is a neat kit. It has the underframe trusses from the real car, brake cylinder mounted on the side of the car, and matches the SP cars with 8 spaces between posts on either side. Just like the modernized SP cars, the Silver Streak Car has grab irons on each end supported by a short vertical piece of wood.

However, the kit lacks the car sill and floor you'd see on the real cars. Instead, it has the car side boards going all the way down to the bottom edge of the car. It’s also missing all the door hardware; the real cars had castings at the bottom of each post, but that’s a pretty tiny detail to include. The modeler who built this kit didn’t quite get the bulkheads at the correct location - they should line up with the outer post.

The model’s a little coarse with 6x6 strip wood serving for the top rail and for the posts, but it’s a fair tradeoff for intermediate modelers building their first car. It’s nice to see the board detail on the inside faces of each side. Overall, the car is a bit oversize, with the sides measuring almost five feet high compared to three on the real car.

Here’s the Train Miniature car. Again, it looks like it got inspired by the Southern Pacific cars that would have been seen in the 1930’s and 1940’s… or they just copied the Silver Streak car. The car has the correct eight spaces between posts. The grab irons arrangement doesn't match any of the real cars, though. More importantly, the trusses are pushed out to be even with the sides - definitely not how the real car was built, and a detail that hides one of the neat details of the Hart design. Like the Silver Streak car, Train-Miniature left out the car floor visible on the sides. Again, the car sides are taller than they should be - partially out of scale, and partially fallout from removing the side sill.

And finally, here’s one of my models. I pulled out one of my “original” cars just to highlight the detail. 3d printing gives us a lot of advantages, including the ability to throw in all that detail for the door hinges , the door latch mechanisms on the posts, and the various bolts all over the model. The truss is lighter than the Silver Streak car, we can see the car side frame and floor sticking out beyond the car sides.

Here’s all three from the top: Silver Streak on the left, the Train Miniature, then the 3d printed model. The Silver Streak car did correctly model the sloping hopper. It’s not perfect; this kit shows the hopper as incorrectly extending up along the bulkheads on each end. But I’m pleased to see they included the supports that ran through the hopper, even if they’re not quite at the right location. There’s no detail on the hopper doors, but then that’s a pretty tiny detail.

The Train Miniature kit’s hopper is hidden by the load, but that brake cylinder and brake gear in each end is completely wrong for the car, and misses the fact that those partitions were meant to be removable so the car could be used as a typical gondola.

And finally, for the 3d printed version. We see the braces running through the hopper (with the notch to hold the 4x10 that supports the doors when closed. We see the end bulkheads definitely look removable. On the far end of the car, you also might see the hinged apron that allowed running a plow through all the cars - a detail that wouldn’t be needed on either of the other modernized cars, but does highlight how 3d printing lets us throw all that sort of detail on the car.

Finally, here’s the underside of each car - Silver Streak on the left, mine in the middle, Train-Miniature on the right. This photo highlights how the other two cars are a bit oversized compared with the actual cars. Both Silver Streak and Train Miniature made some parts oversized (like the trusses) and also placed the trusses differently to make the car easier to manufacture. Both also had to lose some of the interesting detail: braces for the trusses, side sills, etc. in order to make an economical and easy to build kit.

All in all, the Silver Streak and Train Miniature kits are fine for both their time and for what they’re intended for. They had to design parts to be manufacturable. Train-Miniature moved the trusses out to the car edges so they could be injection molded in one piece. Silver Streak made the trusses thicker to survive manufacturing and clumsy fingers, and left off detail on the hopper so the fiddly shape could be made in cardstock. Both kits needed oversized parts for easier assembly, dropped details to keep part counts low or permit injection molding, and did the best they could from the photos and plans they could find.

The 3d printed model gets to benefit from being 30 years in the future. I had access to the SP blueprints which the earlier manufacturers may not have had. 3d printing meant I could make parts closer to scale, and could easily add details and embossing that would have fouled up molds and part ejection. 3d printing also allowed me to refine the models, and quickly make variants: doors up vs. doors down, or the modernized cars without the side dump doors. If I found some railroad back east had a similar car but with a minor tweak, I could make that too. That's a luxury that anyone doing injection molding doesn't have. Cutting a new mold is an expensive, start-from-square-one sort of action. Anyone trying to run a business would want to cut those molds once, and getting a detail wrong isn't enough of a reason. Doing a different model requires a different set of molds; again it isn't worth doing unless you're going to sell a ton of the new design.

All three models also show how model building's changed. Silver Streak's kit dates from the craftsman kit era, and a time when you could run a reasonable model railroad manufacturer out of your garage. As long as you could cast white metal and cut strip wood, you could sell a model railroad kit. Because of the lack of good models, if you had an even partially realistic model, you'd have a hit. Train Miniature dates from the heyday of small-scale plastic kit manufacturers. You need a lot more skill and equipment to make injection molded parts, and even more to print the car sides. Worse, the effort needed to cut those molds meant you had to sell thousands of cars - great for a forty foot boxcar, but not so good for an odd misfit maintenance-of-way car.

3d printing gets us back to those garage days. My Hart gondolas were, after all, made in a garage. (Or at least I wash the extra resin off the printed models in the garage; the printer stays inside to stay away from dust and cold.) And yet the models still have some pretty impressive detail - approaching resin kits, but certainly better than the kits we saw in the 60's and 70's. We'll see more 3d printed models like these in the coming years, and it'll be great to see the prototypes that folks find interesting enough to manufacture in their garages.


In case you'd like a Hart gondola for your Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, or Pacific Electric layout, I've still got 3d printed kits available. Check out photos, prices, and ordering details over at Dry Creek Models site.