Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another Cool Photo!

I've been spending evenings adding online library and history photos to Lookback Maps; it's been a good way for me to organize photos I've seen at the Bancroft Library or Los Gatos History Museum's websites without downloading and saving them all. I've also been finding all sorts of cool photos available online, ranging from some of Dorothea Lange's photos of the last days of the Berryessa Valley before Monticello Dam flooded the region to photos of William Wurster's modern office building for the Schuckl Cannery in Sunnyvale.

I've also found a few wonderful photos for planning the Vasona Branch. Here's a neat photo from History Los Gatos's collections of photos from the Jesuit Novitiate above town; it shows some of the Novitiate students on a hike up Los Gatos Canyon to Wrights Station in December, 1938. I like this picture because it's a really clear shot of the station location, though it's obvious that the station was torn down sometime before 1938. The water tank is still available for any trains that come by, but it'll be useless as soon as the line is abandoned in a year and a half.

The surprising detail for me in this photo is the huge size of that cut behind the water tank - the hillside's been cut away up to fifty feet above the tracks. Wrights had a short passing siding here, but I don't know why the railroad cut such a huge bench out along here. The sign is located where the post-1906 station had been; before that, the station had been behind us, across the river and just before the tunnel. I wonder if the railroad needed to carve out more of the hillside to give the tracks room to curve across the creek and to the mouth of the tunnel? Or was the canyon just so narrow and steep that digging space for the tracks required so much earthmoving?

Time to start combing through those online history web sites to find more photos like this one!

Alma Progress

This weekend was the time for landscaping, inside and out. Outside, I exploited our little break in the rain, and mowed the front lawn, pulled all the dandelions in the flower beds, trimmed back the lemon tree, and collected a bucket of lemons for friends. Inside, I continued working on Alma.

Last weekend, I tore out a bit of the Alma scenery, built up an embankment for the Alma station on the correct side of the tracks, and cleaned up the rough scenery in the whole area. This weekend, I covered everything with some fine, sifted dirt from the backyard, put down ground foam, and applied a bunch of flock-style tall grass with my home-made electrostatic flocking device. (Search for "flyswatter static grass" for details, though it looks like the article I used has disappeared.) I even managed to ballast the tracks, and things still appear to run ok. Here's progress photos from this weekend's work:

Here's what the scene looked like before two weeks ago. The station is a freelanced model I made about ten years ago when trying to survive through an East Coast winter. It's been a placeholder at Alma for a few years now, and while there was space for it against the backdrop, it never quite looked right.

Here's the scene with the static grass and ballast in. The dirt near the foreground tracks is sifted dirt from our garden. Living in the same area I'm modeling means that I can get accurately-colored dirt any time I want to. I dig some from the parts of the garden that haven't been tended for a long time. The color is close to a raw siena, and matches the base paint I use. The cut on the opposite side has the same dirt underneath, but the top is a sandy pinkish rock from Arizona Rock and Mineral. I was trying to capture some of the changes in soil color as we get closer to the San Andreas fault, but this stuff's worked better for portraying a sandy, unweathered soil for the cuts. I'll give it a few days and see if I still like it.

Here's Alma station and the first mock-up of the backdrop. I'm using images clipped from Google Earth again here, though this panorama's either a different time of the year, or just prints darker and greener. I'm still trying to figure out how to make the backdrop images match between Wrights and Glenwood. The hills are a bit too high here; I'll probably cut an inch or two off the bottom before installing the real backdrop, and it'll also be screened by oak trees and various decorative trees.

That retaining wall holding up the station is an obvious sight in the published photos of Alma (which I'd include except I'm getting a bad case of copyright infringement phobia - we'll see if I'm brave enough to scan photos another time.)

The hillside above Alma held the Alma Hotel, as this 1880's photo from Frank Rodolph shows. I'm thinking of putting up some tall, non-native trees and perhaps a whitewashed fence with a faded advertisement for the hotel on the far hillside.

Here's the completed scene as it looks tonight. This was taken before I removed the locomotive and painted all the rails with the Floquil rail color paint markers. They're much easier than trying to airbrush the track!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Leafing Through Old Newspapers

I've heard stories about how the canneries were frantic when the fruit was in season, but I don't think I realized just how boom-and-bust the canning business was. Searching on Google is currently turning up articles in the San Jose Evening News, and a search for the Ainsley Cannery turned up this article from July 3, 1901, describing how the canning season really was either going full blast or completely idle:

Canners Expect to Begin Upon Apricots Next Week

"Early next week the canneries, which have been running but little in comparison with former years, will open for the season. The cherry crop has been so light that it required but a short time to dispose of the entire amount secured, and since that time the establishments have been idle. It was not certain today when the canning establishments would begin on apricots further than that they will begin within a very few days...

"The Ainsley cannery at Campbell has sent out word that if present expectations are fulfilled a start will be made with a good force Tuesday. From advices of growers it is expected that a quantity of apricots will be delivered Monday. The Golden Gate cannery has set no date certain yet, but yesterday believed that the start would be Wednesday or Thursday. The Sunol street cannery [which will become Del Monte Plant #3] will probably stasrt about Tuesday or Wednesday on apricots....

"The shipment of fruit from Santa Clara county as compared with the amount shipped up to this date last season, is just one hundred and twelve cars short. Last season the shipment up to this time was 155 cars, but up to July 4, but 43 cars have been shipped."

[Check out the whole article, including cursing at the strong morning winds recently.]

Another article from the 1920's talked about the huge production from the Los Gatos Hunt Brothers Cannery that is on my layout. In 1928, they canned 582,000 pounds of apricots, 12,000 pounds of plums, 1.3 million pounds of pears, and 6 million pounds of peaches. (I wonder if the pears and peaches were local, or if they were grown across the Santa Clara Valley.) Those boom years didn't continue; another article pointed out that the Hunt Cannery was closed during 1931 and 1932, and didn't produce anything.

1932 is pretty much the year I model. As much as I want to model the Santa Clara Valley accurately, I don't think I want to reproduce the business problems of the Depression. I'd prefer to be running trains than rolling past empty canneries.

Anyway, try archivesearch in Google and see what newspapers you turn up. I've also subscribed to Newspaper Archive when doing some family history research. They're also interesting if they have local papers for the area of interest. In my case, I liked searching the Hayward newspapers for family history, but was frustrated they didn't have any San Jose newspapers for railroad research. I'm happy Google has access to the San Jose Evening News, even if the paper seems a bit hysterical on the front page at times. Guess some things never change.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Alma Station

The ground cover's only half in at Alma (and there's still newspaper protecting the backdrop), but the Alma area is starting to look real. The Alma station is also getting into shape, as this quick photo shows. I still need to touch up the station walls, paint the roof green, and add a few details. The faded paint behind the sign is a detail from a circa-1940 photo.

I built the Alma station from three pictures of the station. It wasn't too hard to figure out the station was 12 feet wide and 15 feet high by counting boards and comparing them to the height of the door. The roof supports at 8 foot intervals showed the building was 48 feet long, as I modeled it. It's all made of styrene sheet with Grandt Line window and door castings from my box of parts - buying the Grandt Line window assortment was a great deal all those years ago. Those roof supports - which almost match the ones on the real depot - are from an $8.00 set of window and door castings for an "1890's station" I bought on Ebay. They're much preferable to making the pieces by hand.

More photos as the scene develops.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Alma, facing the right way!

One of the rules for building a model railroad (if you're trying to model specific locations) is to keep maintain geographic accuracy. If people know the location you're modeling, then shuffling towns ("first the train goes to San Francisco, then Los Angeles, then finishes in Sacramento!"), building a town in its mirror image, or making the mountains climb the wrong way will only confuse visitors and folks running trains on the layout.

You can't always help it, though. On my layout, I assumed the tracks out of Los Gatos stayed on the west side of Los Gatos Creek til past Alma. Unfortunately, when I started modeling Alma, that meant that if left was toward Los Gatos and right was towards Santa Cruz, then I should be looking down the hill when looking into the scene, and the station should be on the far side of the tracks. I couldn't make that work both for space reasons and making the scene easy to view. The scene was flipped front-to-back, but I couldn't do much about it. I just assumed it wasn't too noticeable, and moved on.

Luckily, I was looking at old photos today and getting confused about the arrangement. Where was Alma? Where were the railroad tracks in relation to the old road? I'd look at photos like this one and think "ok, I'm on the west side of the canyon on Highway 17, looking east across the canyon, and there's the creek, and the road must be somewhere between me and town." Then I'd see pictures of the gas station at Alma which looked like it was in the bottom of the canyon. Where was Alma?

Luckily, I finally double-checked. The USGS now has old topographical maps on line (huzzah!), and I found the attached 1915 snippet for the area around Alma. It turns out I was completely backwards; Alma was on the east side of the creek, and the panorama is looking towards Los Gatos, not Santa Cruz. The road crosses the river twice, and the gas station was on the floor of the canyon. That road crossing wasn't just an access road; it was probably the state highway to Santa Cruz! Best of all, my Alma scene was arranged correctly, where looking left leads to San Jose, right to Santa Cruz, and straight ahead leads to the ridge with Mount Umunhum. My scene is correct!

It's an awfully minor detail, but it's fun knowing that the scene worked out right in the end!

"Wow, you modeled Plant 51 without modeling the funky smokestack? You must not be a serious modeler!"

Great, just what I needed. A new picture of Del Monte Plant 51 from the track side that doesn't quite look like the model I built.

Keeping Track of Photos on the Internet

Every time I go searching on the Internet, I find some interesting photos related to the Vasona branch. For example, History Los Gatos has some unique scenes of the railroad tracks through Los Gatos in 1928. They were probably taken by the railroad or city to show whether the crossings had adequate visibility enough to avoid car/train collisions. For me, they're create because they give a view of the side of town the historical photos usually don't show. The Elm Street crossing photo here shows the Sterling Lumber Co., tracks leading up to the station, and the team track, along with lots of characteristic clutter and detail such as the fence for the lumber yard, the empty ground near the tracks, and the nice stack of ties.

This picture isn't a new find for me; I know I've seen it before, but I hadn't taken the time to download and save it. Normally, I sketch out a town in my town notebook, and then annotate my map sketch with the location of each photo I've found in books. I haven't done this with the Internet photos (though I should.)

Jim Betz once suggested we needed a web site where random people could cite photos they'd found in books, and mark the freight cars, locomotives, or buildings they saw in those photos. I started doing this (see here for the prototype), but for me, the freight cars and locomotives weren't as interesting as the buildings and photo locations on a map.

Luckily, someone already did something similar. Jon Voss's Lookback Maps is an attempt to create a geographical index of historic photos available on-line. It's also an attempt at crowdsourcing - if each of us only enters a few pictures, then the site can be immensely more valuable than if we all kept our own private lists. Jon's interest is San Francisco and many of the photos are local to San Francisco and the Mission, but I've added a bunch of San Jose, Campbell, and Los Gatos photos in so I won't forget about these photos next time.

Do you have favorite photos you've found on museum websites? Are they worth sharing? How about adding them to Lookback Maps?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thinking through some changes: Designing Alma by picking details from photos

It's short, shameful confession time again - I don't really plan ahead very far. Although I planned some of the towns in detail (such as West San Jose and the Del Monte plants), I only sketched out the rough idea of other towns. I would name what real place I was modeling and maybe hint at ideas for a couple buildings, but otherwise delayed deciding what the scene would look like until after I started building. Wrights evolved; I knew I wanted the creek scene, the station, and the general store, but the rest of the details - the road going under the trestle, and the abandoned packing house - got added only after I had rough scenery in place and could think about what might fit.

The latest example of a town designed after I start building is Alma, the next town downhill from the Wrights scene I've already finished. I roughed in scenery right after I built the shelf for Alma so trains would not fall to the floor, but never quite figured out scenery and structures for the area. This weekend, I finally took another look at the location and decided to plan Alma out once and for all. This little episode gives a nice example of how I model prototype locations.

Alma was a railroad siding up at a wide spot in Los Gatos Canyon, three or four miles up the canyon from Los Gatos. Alma started out as a railhead when the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge line was building up this canyon; the passengers would get off the trains and board stagecoaches for the remainder of the trip over the mountains. When the line was completed, Alma was operationally was important for the narrow gauge as the only decent passing siding between here and Glenwood on the Santa Cruz size of the mountains. Trains would wait here til opposing trains could make it through the narrow canyon and tunnels. Photos from the 1880's show three tracks here, with the Alma Hotel, farms, and orchards all in the area. But by the time I'm modeling, Alma was just a place people went through. There was a general store for the locals and the folks driving through on the new state highway, there were some ranches, and in the middle of this, the Santa Cruz branch tracks ran through the middle and passed a closed station that occasionally served as a flag stop for the passenger trains.

My model version of Alma is an awkward place. It's located on the narrow shelf where the second level of the layout starts. There are no industries, just a single passing siding on an eight inch wide shelf, half-hidden behind the Los Gatos scene. It's also flipped from the actual location - if we were looking uphill at the real Alma and past the station, looking to the left should be towards Santa Cruz, but the arrangement of the track and shelf means that Santa Cruz is right.

To be fair, Alma was also a town without a strong purpose. I had intended Alma to be a handy place for trains to meet when going between the upper and lower levels. I assumed I would enough trains to require the extra passing siding to avoid congestion downhill at Los Gatos or uphill at Glenwood. When I started operating the layout, I found we did not run many trains on the upper level, so the passing siding has turned out to be deserted most of the time.

But the tracks are already there, and even if Alma's not that important operationally, it's an interesting place to model.

When I try modeling a scene like Alma, I tend to search books and the Internet for photos of the location, then try to figure out the three or four details which set the scene. I found two photos of Alma from the 1940's, one looking uphill towards Wrights and eventually Santa Cruz, and the other looking west and downhill. (The first is in "South Pacific Coast: a Narrow Gauge Portrait", and the second in "Prune County Railroading".)

Both photos center on the station at Alma. So what are the details that immediately catch my eye? Alma's station is interesting because it's so small - maybe twelve feet wide and high (from counting clapboards and looking at the height of the door), and 48 feet long (assuming 8 feet between each of the roof supports.) It's also got the neat crossed roof brackets seen on all the former South Pacific Coast depots. Railroad tie retaining walls support the wall, implying there's a slight slope to the ground away from the station, and there's an older car at the bottom of the hill. In the background, there's a crossbuck for a road crossing the tracks, and it looks like there's an old boxcar with peeling paint, just behind the tracks. Maybe it's a maintenance-of-way shed? There's a line of flatcars with telephone poles on the far track. The tracks disappear into the trees - probably oaks and bay laurels. The grass around the station is short, and the station platform is dirt.

A few of those details end up being the core for the layout: the station, the retaining wall, the gentle slope, the road crossing, and the maintenance-of-way boxcar. I'd obviously need the station and the small retaining walls because they are present in all the photos, and those details are the ones that folks who've seen the photos would identify. The photos also remind me that I'd need the ground to slope gradually so the retaining walls are only a few feet high, instead of the 20 foot slope that the existing scenery has. The crossing is an interesting detail that will both join the space in front of and behind the tracks, and remind viewers that there is something on the other side of the tracks. The old boxcar's a great detail, but it won't really fit in the scene in the place where it would have been in real life; maybe I can put it on the other side of the crossing, or place it elsewhere in the scene.

All that gives me a to-do list for the next week or two:

  • Redo the scenery to get the gentle slope of the hillside up to the tracks.
  • Add the retaining walls, and fill in the station embankment.
  • Build a model of the station.
  • Extend the scene and add the road crossing.
  • Add dirt and ground cover to the scene.
  • Add lots of dry grass, and some oaks in the distance.
  • Perhaps add a flat representation of the old Alma hotel in the distance.
  • Paint or print out pictures of dry hills in the background.
  • Figure out a place for the MOW boxcar.

I've already re-done the scenery, the retaining walls, and the crossing over the last couple days. I've also started building the Alma station from styrene - small, square buildings like this are remarkably easy to build if I've already got the needed plastic sheet and window castings on hand.

More details as the scene progresses...