A few years back, I confessed that “Los Gatos was always sort of a compromise, a town crammed into too tight a space, added because I needed a destination but didn’t have room to do it justice.”
I’d written that before I started scenery - not that there was much space for scenery. A main track, passing track, and spur fill the foot-wide shelf it sits on; my layout’s main staging yard sits right in front of and below the town site. The Los Gatos space also short - just a six foot siding, with one end curving away behind a backdrop and into the helix, and the other end right up against the Vasona Junction scene. For a town with multiple photogenic locations - the station area, team track behind the downtown strip, Hunt's cannery, rural stretches - there wasn’t room to fit all of these, let alone do them justice.
Well, I’m finally trying to do it justice. I started scenery last year. My plan is pretty simple - omit the station area, let the downtown buildings serve as backdrop for much of the scene, and let the Hunt Brothers cannery serve as the dominant element - not too surprising for a model railroad where the freight trains are the interesting part.
Railroad tracks at Elm Street, Los Gatos. California Railroad Commission photo, Los Gatos Public Library collection.
My inspiration came out of a small set of photos. The California Railroad Commission (now the California Public Utilities Commission) came through Los Gatos in 1928 to check out the safety of the grade crossings, and photographed many of the intersections in downtown. The photos are particularly interesting - in that “lots of weeds and the back sides of buildings and fences” sense of interesting that would make a civic booster cringe. The photos show tracks running through an isolated right-of-way, with downtown buildings on the edge of the photo, and the back fences of houses along University Ave. framing the opposite side.
Railroad tracks at Grays Lane, Los Gatos. California Railroad Commission photo, Los Gatos Public Library collection.
Occasionally, a business shows up - a lumber yard at Elm and University (not rail-served) a modest building that was apparently an ice cream factory on the other side of Elm, and a corrugated iron building doing auto body work at Grays Lane. All this seemed just right for a freight railroad - a modest and industrial scene showing what was happening on the other side of the back fences. The location also still exists and is identifiable by visitors to my layout; the former railroad right-of-way now serves as the parking lots behind downtown Los Gatos. When I point out a scene, folks will be walking there the next weekend.
Of course, I needed more space to do all this justice. Years ago, Dave Bayless, a model railroader, suggested building a shelf over the staging yard. I finally took his advice, and added a simple plywood shelf over the staging yard. The new shelf was just the right place for the houses and back fences that the scene required. Better yet, the scenery could be taken out during operations. That whole back-fence scene means that there were no industries or details critical to operation, and the fence itself served as a nice way to block the gap between the real scenery and the movable scenery. When I’m showing the layout, the shelves stay on; when operators come over, the shelves come out.
All this leads to a few buildings to build:
- flats for the downtown area
- the lumberyard and its low sheds (originally Lynden and Sylverson, though operated as Sterling Lumber in my era. )
- additional buildings, such as the ice cream factory
- the Hunts cannery.
- Houses and backyards for the foreground (representing the houses along University Ave.)
Downtown buildings: Downtown Los Gatos dates from the 1870’s, so the downtown strip is a collection of brick and frame buildings. It’ll be easy to model with bits of plastic kits or scratchbuilt flats.
Lumber yard: Sterling Lumber, had been at that location since the 1860’s, though it never had its own railroad spur. Instead, it relied on the team track across the tracks. The lumberyard’s low sheds and fancy gate on the south end of the yard were obvious details to model.
Ice Cream Factory: The ice cream factory was the work of Hans Nielsen and the Eatmore Ice Cream Company. Sanborn maps show a simple concrete block building with an eye-catching cooling tower at its back. Old stories of Los Gatos remember Eatmore, so it’s worth adding.
The houses along University Ave.: sometimes I'll model the house, and sometimes the back yards. To be thoroughly correct, the houses would need to be a mix of Victorian, craftsman, and traditional.
So that's the plan - extend the shelf so there's more room for scenery, build the unfashionable parts of Los Gatos, and deal with the disapproval of the Chamber of Commerce for ignoring the attractive parts of Los Gatos. I’ll talk about each of these in turn and show some of the work needed to model each.
Photo of Elm Street railroad crossing taken by California Railroad Commission as part of a study. From the Baggerly collection, Los Gatos Public Library.