Monday, July 5, 2021

Visiting the Vasona Branch: NMRA 2021 "Rails By the Bay"

Virtual visitors for the NMRA 2021 “Rails by the Bay”: Welcome to the Vasona Branch!

Thanks to the challenges of organizing a national convention during a pandemic, the National Model Railroad Association’s annual in-person convention in Santa Clara was cancelled. However, the local Pacific Coast Region has arranged an all-virtual convention, Rails By the Bay" this week, July 6-10, 2021. Sign up to attend (just $49!), watch presentations, ask questions of the presenters, hang out in the meeting rooms, and continue to watch clinics until August 7.

The Vasona Branch layout is one of the layouts on the “virtual tour”. For all you virtual visitors, here’s a quick good-parts summary of the layout. If you've got questions, ask in the comments below!

Check out the NMRA Magazine's November 2020 issue for a summary of the layout. (More on prep for the article and Dan and Doug's photographs of the layout.)

Layout plans: Lower deck, Upper deck.

Watch videos of the layout:

I’ve also written lots on the history of the real branch on my Vasona Branch blog. Some sample articles include:
I’ve used 3d printers to make lots of freight cars and passenger cars for the layout:
The Vasona Branch models the real crossing with the Western Pacific Railroad, and uses a real interlocking machine from Australia’s Modratec to control the crossing.
The Vasona Branch is an layout designed for operations; I invite two two-man crews operating layout for four hour operating sessions. I use my own switchlist generator for deciding which cars to move; trains move via yard limits and informal train orders.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Life of Railroads

Bill Bowdidge

My father, Bill Bowdidge, died a few months ago.

When my grandfather died, my father stood up at the funeral, remarked that most people there had only seem small aspects of my grandfather’s life, and proceeded to just share the full story of my grandfather - tragedy, immigration, family, work, garden - to assembled friends and family. I remember sitting in the audience and being aware that some day I’d have to do the same.

I wasn’t able to give that eulogy for my father. COVID restrictions, elderly friends avoiding groups, and a majority of friends who have already passed away meant that we didn’t hold a funeral service for my father, and I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to share about my father’s life.

There’s a lot of ways I could tell his story outside of a funeral - share stories of his career with friends and co-workers, recount family stories, ask friends for hiking stories. This venue, though, might appreciate the important fact is that my father was a railroader. He worked for the Western Pacific when U.S. railroads were connected to every American business. He was a model railroader. He helped me catch the same bug, getting me interested in railroads, model building, electronics, and computers. If there’s a true story most suitable for this blog, my father’s story story is it.

The Bay Area, Orchards, and Canneries

My father was born in the Bay Area, child of a British immigrant and a rule-breaking Irish girl from San Francisco. My grandfather had emigrated from England to New Zealand in the 1920’s, and kept going ‘round the world. He ended up in California, met my grandmother, overstayed his visa, left, returned, and settled down for good in the San Francisco Bay area where he spent his career as a newspaper printer. My father grew up in San Leandro, playing around former orchards as suburbia invaded. My father had been interested in trains from the early days; British relatives got him hooked on trains by sending railway books from the UK and teaching him about the Flying Scotsman, the Great Western Railroad, and remote branch lines. Like many young boys growing up in the 30’s and 40’s, Lionel trains were the best toys to receive. To give him a place to set them up, my grandfather bought some recycled lumber left over from the 1939 Treasure Island World’s Fair and extended the garden shed to make a train room. My father eventually moved on to HO; I’ve got his Varney F7, custom painted and lettered for the Western Pacific.

His grandfather, on the ferry boat.

His grandfather was a ferry captain on San Francisco Bay, sailing auto ferries for the Southern Pacific Golden Gate ferry company. Occasionally, my grandmother would take my father over to San Francisco, and they’d try to time it to be on one of Grandpa’s vessels. My father remembered trips down to the engine room with the noise and the huge machines moving about ominously.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Bay Area was still full of orchards and canneries. Bay Area kids knew that summer jobs at the cannery were always a good paying option. Dad spent multiple summers at Hunt’s and Del Monte’s canneries; his stories of those summers made me think about the cannery business as I was planning the Vasona Branch. One summer, he unloaded empty, loose cans from boxcars. He remembered using a long fork that could pick up a dozen cans at a time so they could be put on a conveyor heading into the warehouse. Another summer, he punched the piecework tickets for women filling cans with fruit. He also remembered an assignment watching an experimental automatic peach-splitting machine to make sure it would correctly center on the fold on the side of the peach. Dad also remembered the challenges of getting the popular jobs - connections and who you knew still mattered at the canneries. He’d remembered going to Del Monte and asking about jobs, only to be told he needed to be in the union. The union said they wouldn’t take him on unless he already had a job. Luckily, a neighbor who worked for Del Monte managed to get him in the door.

Dad went off to Cal Berkeley in 1948, commuting for the first few years, then finally living in Berkeley for the last year. He’d planned to be a Chemistry major, but problems understanding the thick accent of his Chemistry 1 professor convinced him it wasn’t the right path. He also met other railroad-crazy friends, going off on railroad club adventures on the Sacramento Northern and Northwestern Pacific with friends including Dudley Wesler, a prolific Bay Area railroad photographer and railfan. He ended up graduating in business administration. When he graduated, he did a stint working for Tidewater Oil. He found the job was “just an office job” which he found boring. He started looking around for alternatives. Railroads seemed exciting, but the “Friendly” SP wasn’t interested in him. Luckily, he’d done a report for a class on the Western Pacific Railroad. He contacted a rates and legal office manager he’d talked with, Tex Wandsworth, and got an offer to “join the railroad.”

Railroading And Two Martini Lunches

We usually think of railroading from the operations side: engineers, brakemen, folks working in the yard. Dad was always on the business side. His first job was as a clerk in an off-line sales office in Portland, Oregon. In those days, Portland was practically a foreign country. My grandmother wasn’t sure she’d see her son again when he got the job so far away. Traveling to see family involved two days of driving US99 in the days before freeways. “Bill and Kathy’s” restaurant in Dunnigan was his usual stop when heading back in his ’48 Chevrolet. But he liked the work, made life-long friends, and loved life in Portland

Oregon City excursion with social club.

Although he wasn’t on the WP, the small office meant he had a lot of freedom and different tasks. He helped an older gentleman arrange railroad tickets for a fraternal order’s tour of the East Coast by train, and got a commendation letter from the customer sent to his manager. He got to interact with the other railroads in Portland when tracing WP loads in their yards. One time, the Western Pacific had an order of new boxcars sent from Seattle; the cars had the new load restraining “DF” equipment. The San Francisco head office didn’t want to bring them to California empty, and asked the Portland office to find loads for them. My father contacted canneries in the Willamette Valley who were eager to use the cars for California-bound loads.

More importantly, my father learned about railroad rates, and started serving as a rate clerk, navigating all the strange Interstate Commerce Commission rules and regulations about how much railroads could charge. In those days, freight rates needed to be approved by the ICC, and all railroads needed to hold to the same prices for the same commodities. Classifying freight the wrong way would result in nasty fines to the railroad and the shipper, so correctly interpreting the rate books was a key task.

My dad managed to score some nice artifacts during his time in Portland. When he showed up in Portland in late 1952, there was a document in the trash describing a “manager’s tour” of the railroad to help sales agents in distant locations understand the WP infrastructure, and also the industrial parks they were hoping to develop. The local sales agent didn’t care about that document after the trip, but my dad saved it. I ended up scanning a copy when he showed it to me a few years ago.

Eventually, though, the position in Portland wasn’t the right place for an ambitious young man. Multiple folks told my dad that he’d better go elsewhere unless he planned on staying in Portland his whole career. Being in a job “on-line” was the only way to be taken seriously on the railroad. When a rate clerk job opened up in Sacramento, my father took it and moved south, leaving some happy memories in Portland and a disappointed girlfriend.

He arrived in Sacramento on a Friday in summer. He immediately went in to meet his manager, a curmudgeonly old railroader who warned him “Bowdidge, if you expect this to be like that sweet pension job you had in Portland, you’ve got another thing coming!” His desk, sitting in the corner of the depot looking out over the railroad tracks, was covered in amendments and insertions for the rate books; his predecessor had left three months before and the office was a mess. Dad didn’t like that; he went in Saturday morning, filed all the files, inserted the insertions, and got his desk cleared. On Monday morning, the salesmen were ecstatic - the office had been unorganized for so long. But quickly: “Bowdidge!” The rate clerk was a union job; someone had seen my father working on a weekend and filed a grievance.

Being on-line was more exciting; he could watch the WP trains pass his office window. He could see the cars he was filling. The Western Pacific carried lots of steel coil cars from Geneva Steel in Utah to the U.S. Steel rolling mill at Pittsburg, California. My dad remembered these cars were so heavy that they would shake the depot as they rolled by. Years later, on a family vacation in Sacramento, we went to the Old Spaghetti Factory in Sacramento, located in the former WP depot. Dad pointed out the location in the bar where his desk had been.

He also got to see the operations. WP’s dispatchers were also in the depot (or nearby). He saw their office a few times - older gentlemen chain-smoking as they avoided running trains into each other. Dad met Peter Josserand, one of the WP’s dispatchers and author of the “Rights of Trains”, the bible of dispatching practice. When I took a shift as train order operator at the La Mesa club’s Tehachapi layout, I brought my copy of “Rights of Trains” to read during the slack times and learned I could ask the dispatcher for a read back when I made extra copies of an order intended for all trains. The model dispatchers went through a lot less coffee and cigarettes than the prototype dispatchers.

In the late 1950’s, my father transferred to the WP headquarters on Mission Street in San Francisco. He’d always point out the building when we headed to San Francisco for Christmas shopping. He’d started out as a rate clerk in San Francisco. He also upgraded his role, becoming a salesman responsible for businesses in Oakland and San Francisco. Dad spent his days visiting WP shippers, encouraging sales, keeping up relationships and solving their recent problems. Encouraging shippers to use the WP was always a challenge; the SP dominated the California market, but Del Monte and other shippers would would send a token percentage of shipments by the WP just to make sure that the Southern Pacific wouldn’t take them for granted.

The ICC rules meant that railroads couldn’t compete on price, but instead had to work on service, so lunches at all the San Francisco restaurants - Schroeder’s, the World Trade Center, and Tadich’s Grill - was a key part of his job. Dad said he often got called on the carpet for not taking enough customers out to lunch during a month. Unlike what we might expect from Mad Men, two martini lunches weren’t common. My father remembers one shipper encouraging him for a second drink at a restaurant at Oakland’s waterfront, and my father remembered that wasn’t wasn’t a day to return to the office.

My father remembered white-collar San Francisco business well, even after he was working in the suburbs. When I was a teenager, he took me up on a “businessman’s lunch” day to see San Francisco at work, and made a point to take me to Schroeder’s and talk about how women hadn’t been allowed in the restaurant at lunch until 1970. He assumed that the working world I’d be in would likely be downtown, and likely suit-and-tie. Instead, my working world has always been suburban and much more t-shirt and jeans.

San Francisco’s “men-only” policy wasn’t only in the restaurants. Lela Paul was a longtime employee in the rate department at the WP. The WP didn’t normally hire women on the business side, but she’d gotten in the door during World War II and refused to leave quietly. My father remembered she got more than her usual share of abuse from her male co-workers and managers, but stayed her ground to keep her job.

With his mother on the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge.

Dad also enjoyed life as a single young businessman in San Francisco. He lived with a bunch of guys in “the bunkhouse”, an old house on Divisadero in the Richmond. He’d work late at the WP, eat at the communal table in family-style restaurants in North Beach like La Pantera. (He’d talk about how hard it was to cook at home as a single guy because all the meat markets would close at 6pm.) He hung out with a youth social group at Old St. Mary’s Church near San Francisco’s Chinatown, and went hiking and skiing with the crowd. One of the other hikers was a coffee broker who was getting frustrated with the corporate coffee business. In the mid-60’s, that fellow hiker, Al Peet, quit the broker job and opened his own coffee house in Berkeley where he roasted the beans the way he thought they should be roasted. My father remembered Al talking about growing up in Indonesia, and and life under Japanese occupation during World War II.

Among all the customers, my father visited the Oakland Army Terminal frequently. The base handled all material going to army bases in Asia, and received a lot of freight traffic. My father would drop in on the officer in charge of rail shipments in order to hear his problems, offer solutions, and hopefully pick up some WP-routed loads in the bargain. My father figured out that if he showed up at 10:00, the office waiting room was packed with vendors hoping to talk to the officer. Instead, my father would stop by the office at 7:30. The officer was in but there was no competition, so my father would get right in and would get extra time. In 1964, that officer gave my dad a hot tip - he’d be receiving a lot more traffic soon because of troops being sent to Vietnam. “Where’s that?” my father asked - Vietnam wasn’t a household name yet. After he visited the officer, he’d head over to the WP offices. He’d show up from his early-morning sales call just as the other salesmen arrived for coffee before beginning their own calls.

That Oakland Army Base transportation officer also encouraged my dad to take night school classes in order to get the ICC Practitioner certificate - giving him the right able to argue rate and tariff cases. It always seemed like halfway to being a lawyer for transportation rates. My dad took the classes at Golden Gate University and became an expert at rates and how to argue for exceptions. Dad was only one of maybe six people at WP with an ICC license - half were probably the company lawyers. It’s all a lost art now; all the ICC rules and tariffs disappeared during deregulation in the 1980’s.

Dad’s rate knowledge also helped romance. When my father was courting my mother, my grandparents probably had all the usual questions of whether this young man was suitable for their daughter. However, my grandmother had spent several years as the accountant for a vegetable packer, and she’d spent a lot of time working with the railroads to route cars to vegetable brokers back east. When she found out my father worked for the railroad and knew rates, she found him quite an acceptable son-in-law.

While Dad was in San Francisco, those steel coil cars came back into his life. He also was the salesman responsible for U.S. Steel. The steel company had an office in downtown San Francisco, and one of the staff there was the “traffic manager”, responsible for making sure the railroad cars of steel sheet arrived regularly at the Pittsburg mill. The WP had a dedicated set of short gondolas for the steel service; if there weren’t enough in Utah, then steel couldn’t be loaded. If there weren’t enough at the rolling mill, the plant would shut down, tin can production in the Bay Area would stop, and the Santa Clara Valley’s apricots wouldn’t be canned. Keeping the cars moving was essential. The U.S. Steel traffic manager in San Francisco kept tabs on all cars, and would complain to the WP if there were any hitches.

Sacramento Northern ferry, probably with one of the Cal railroad club's excursions.

The U.S. Steel rolling mill at Pittsburg wasn’t on the WP - it was actually on the Sacramento Northern’s trackage. The WP used to hand the cars over to the Sacramento Northern at Sacramento; they’d be pulled across the delta by the SN, and then taken by barge across the Sacramento River to Pittsburg. In 1951, though, a key Sacramento Northern trestle collapsed, severing the line from Sacramento to Oakland. The WP instead negotiated trackage rights with the Santa Fe to take WP trains on the ATSF tracks from Stockton to Pittsburg to serve the steel plant. It was a pricey move for a single shipper, but U.S. Steel was worth it.

One day, though, there were some car delays and the Pittsburg rolling mill began running low on coil steel. The U.S. Steel traffic manager demanded a special run to carry over a few cars of steel. It wasn’t one of the days for the WP run on the Santa Fe, so scheduling a special train would be expensive and troublesome. My dad took the traffic manager out to lunch, heard the problem, and noted that the steel was certainly going to be able to arrive the next day, and asked for U.S. Steel to wait a day for the steel. U.S. Steel agreed to the one day delay. My dad submitted reimbursement for lunch; his manager called it the “$500 lunch” because it saved WP so much expense and aggravation.

Full story here: The $500 Lunch

Damming Conduct

My father left the Western Pacific in 1966. The WP had its economic challenges as a small railroad. They’d had several years of potential mergers considered and dashed, first with the Santa Fe, then the Southern Pacific. The railroad was also a bit slow and stuck in its ways. He got a call looking for a traffic manager to handle rail and road shipments for Guy F. Atkinson, a large dam-and-freeway construction company, and he jumped at the offer. Many of his friends weren’t so lucky; many stayed in rate roles at either railroads or shippers; when deregulation hit, there no longer was a place for them.

A few years back, I was at one of the NMRA meets in Sacramento when I got talking with another attendee. He’d worked for a railroad - which one? WP! Oh, where did he work? San Francisco! Oh, did you know my father ? He was in the rate department. Yes, he certainly did remember my father - they worked in the same department! “Your dad made a smart move leaving the railroad. Your father’s problem at the WP was that he was smarter than everyone else there.” What more could a son want to hear?

Dad spent the rest of his career handling shipments of large construction equipment around the world. He sent construction equipment to build California freeways, Israeli airbases, Chilean and Canadian dams, Washington nuclear plants, and Arizona irrigation projects. He dealt with truckers carrying oversized loads, roll-on-roll-off ships hauling the largest bulldozers, and finding appropriate unloading spots for rail shipments. He also was responsible for all the personnel moves. He had a constant stream of moving company salesmen stopping by for a chat, and collected a pretty impressive collection of Allied, Mayflower, and United moving van models for his window sill. He’d constantly have a chain of frustrated spouses wondering where the moving van with their entire household was.

The railroad knowledge paid off multiple times in his career. When Guy F. Atkinson won the bid to build New Don Pedro Dam in 1967, Dad worked with the Sierra Railroad to find convenient spurs for unloading construction equipment. As part of that relationship, he manage to score tickets for several “shippers specials” on the railroad over the years, and we headed up to Jamestown several times for a ride on the railroad. He dealt with the Canadian Pacific to get equipment to Mica Dam above Revelstoke, B.C., and had a promotional photo of the spiral tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass in his office. As a kid, my knowledge of geography tended to be much better around the location of Atkinson job sites.

He also had some great adventures. Atkinson won a contract to build the Colbun dam in Chile, and he took multiple trips to plan sending equipment down to Chile, and bringing it back afterwards. He was particularly proud he’d practiced his Spanish enough to talk with some of the government officials to talk about importing rules, and so he was able to talk with the vendors. We’ve still got an advertising banner from one of the Chilean truckers that hung on the Atkinson loads. My father wanted to travel, but never did as much as he hoped. The multi-week trips to Chile were high points of his life. On the return from one trip, he stopped over in Peru and visited Machu Picchu, the city of the Incas high in the Andes.

When my father returned from that trip, he had such great memories; he’d tell us about all the people he’d worked with. He visited Santiago and the walked streets named after the great liberator of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins. He enjoyed the stay in Talca, the town closest to the job site and remembered the hair-raising drive to Talca. He remembered business lunches in the port cities of Valparaiso and Concepcion. He remembered the gruff owner of one of the trucking companies, SeƱor Gordo. He struck up a friendship with the representative of the joint project’s local company, and saw more of Chile as a result.

He’d often tell about the great deal they’d gotten for the ship returning the construction equipment from Chile. They found a roll-on-roll-off ship that was taking cargo down to South America that was motivated to give a good deal to avoid coming back empty. Dad loaded millions of dollars worth of equipment on that random ship, though he had some nagging concerns that a random ship and a random captain might run off with the company’s bulldozers and trucks. When the ship reached the U.S., my father got a call from the import broker at the port. “I’m on the ship and sitting with the captain, but he won’t turn over the bills of lading.” The bills of lading were important; without them, the process of importing the equipment couldn’t begin. My father called the ship broker who put them in touch to understand what the hold-up was. “Mr. Bowdidge, what we have here is a lack of trust. The captain doesn’t trust that you’ll pay him, and you don’t trust him that he’ll provide the bills of lading.. I suggest you both trust each other a bit.” Both sides backed down, handed over paperwork, and the ships were unloaded without incident.

All his stories had been really positive at the time, ten years after the military coup had deposed Allende. In recent years, I heard the other side of those stories; he remembered one lunch with some vendors where one of the men was treated more distantly by the others. It turns out that man had been part of the right wing in Chile at the time of the coup. As the rest of the table sat silently, the man proudly shared stories of torturing dissidents.

When I asked folks from Atkinson for memories, they told me about all my father had done for the Chile project. Folks remembered the complications getting dump trailers re-imported into the U.S. The project manager for the Colbun project mentioned my father’s stories of Peru convinced them to also visit Machu Picchu. One person in the purchasing department remembered typing up my father’s yearly review. One of the questions was “what improvements could the company do to help you do your job better?” My father responded “Get out of the office more understand more about the job sites.” She was always impressed he had the courage to say that.

My dad's favorite story, though, was the time he had to ship a horse to Venezuela on short notice. He wrote up the story, which I'll share in its entirety:

The Day I Flew a Horse To Venezuela

One afternoon, Ron Shumway called me and asked how much it would cost to fly a horse to Venezuela. I was puzzled, but put some numbers together and got back to him.

A year or so later at about 4:00 pm on a Friday, [Atkinson Construction Company's president] George McCoy called and said the horse was a go. "What breed, where is he?" George says to call Sgt. Edney at the San Francisco Police Stables to get details.

I was going to wait until Monday, but something told me to call now. The sergeant says "I've been waiting for someone to call. I'm sure glad you called! The horse "Dudley Do Right" has to be in a parade in Caracas on October 14 (about four weeks away), and worse yet various tests are required for the Vetinary Export permit required to export a horse and take weeks to incubate and have to be sent to labs in Iowa, Kansas, and Southern California."

It seems George McCoy was on the San Francisco-Caracas Sister City Committee, who donated the horse to Caracas for crowd control. Atkinson was to pay the freight and my services were volunteered to ship the horse.

Well, it was a real scramble, but we got the horse there for the parade. I found a good freight forwarder in Long Island who made the arrangements and consolidated several horses to fill out the pallet and share the cost of the groom. Because of the short fuse, I started the horse towards Miami with a trucker specializing in horses before we had all the veterinary permits, the export and import permits which gave the forwarder gray hairs. "You don't do anything before all the permits are in hand" they kept telling me."

Nothing new. We always faced time constraints with Atkinson.

Making a Model Railroader

Author, in front of Flying Scotsman locomotive, San Francisco, 1970.

When I was growing up, I remember the train case on the wall containing the special models for my father - the Varney F7 he painted himself, his British and European trains he picked up on different visits, and the Pennsylvania GG-1 he got after an east coast trip. As soon as I was old enough for trains, he made sure I had a Lionel layout; it rolled under my bed, and I ran it incessantly. A neighbor had salvaged a former Lionel display layout from a store, and my dad saved the baseboard and restored a bunch of the signals. That got my dad hooked on trains again, and he passed it onto me.

The Lionel trains got me interested in electricity and electronics - understanding how to power the trains, and also how to power the accessories. I scotch taped wires under the layout to light up a station. We had a Lionel crossing signal that didn’t flash; my father talked with one of the electrical engineers at work, and came back with a handful of transistors and capacitors to make a flip-flop circuit - it seemed like magic to me. He also wanted to learn how to make the signals work, so he bought a copy of Linn Wescott’s venerable “How to wire your model railroad”. I quickly usurped it, and read the whole thing cover-to-cover. I tore it to pieces, learning about switches and relays, detection circuits, block power, and strange combinations of rotary switches to allow multiple trains to be controlled automatically. Dad also had bought a couple Model Railroaders, and eight year old me wore those magazines out as I read about zip texturing and brass locomotives.

Dad also gave me a lot of freedom. He showed me enough about tools to work safely, then turned me loose with his tools. I ended up building two model railroads, first in my bedroom, then re-using the old Lionel display layout for my larger HO layout in the garage. I made quite a mess there with scenery and wiring. After reading about the Sunset Valley’s engine terminal in Model Railroader (thanks, home town public library, for having the MR subscription!), I decide to build a 1x4 foot extension for a diesel engine terminal. My father stopped me with that attempt at usurping space, and highlighted the extension had to be removable and moved out of the way when I wasn’t operated. He regularly took me down to Trains-Nothing-But-Trains in San Mateo as soon as I was doing HO modeling. When he took me to the dentist, we always made a stop at Berkeley Hardware for a boxcar - some of those kits are still on the layout.

Yosemite, with author's grandmother. My dad remembers vacation trips to Yosemite with me and my sister as highlights of his life.

All that shaped who I was - I got interested in electricity, electronics, and digital logic. I got comfortable with tools early, and stole a bunch of my dad’s for my tool box. (Somewhere, I’ve still got side cutters I liberated years ago, as well as some jeweler’s screwdrivers from his tool box.) The model railroad electronics got me interested in taking electronics classes in high school, which taught me how to scavenge components from the junked electronics at the back of the lab.

Dad also encouraged my interest in computers. I’d used some of the early microcomputers at school. When Dad took a computer class at the local junior college, I’d go with him to evenings in the computer lab, and would write my own programs on his account. The instructor would delete programs unrelated to the class because of disk space limitations, so I learned how to use the teletype and punch out my program listing so I could reload it the next weekend. (Meanwhile, Dad wrote his own programs to estimate costs to ship large objects via oceangoing ships.) When a friend got a TRS-80, I ended up going to visit him but would ignore him as I got caught up in programming his computer. His mother “suggested” that maybe I should have a computer of my own. My mother and father managed to get me a TRS-80. When I started learning to drive, Strawflower Electronics in Half Moon Bay was a common destination because they sold all the TRS-80 games I couldn’t get in Radio Shack stores. All that experience with early microcomputers got me into computer science, and also gave me a chance to learn about microprocessors and electronics. I’m now working for a company making computer chips - insanely complex microprocessors - but the model railroading gave me an appreciation of electronics and a decent knowledge of what’s happening down at the computer chip level to keep up with the hardware guys. The Kalmbach books on wiring the model railroad and assembling electronics is still helping me forty years later.

A Grown-up Model Railroader

Dad’s always been supportive and appreciative for the model railroad, though I suspect I took it much more seriously than he ever would. He liked what I was building, but his interest was still in the models he’d collected and their history - his Lionel trains from his youth, the HO models he’d built, the european models he picked up on vacation, and the occasional models he’d pick up because they caught his fancy. He occasionally passed on some of his older models to me. Somewhere, I’ve got one of his 1940’s “Crazy Crystals” refrigerator cars.

He liked passing on stories, and indulged me when I’d push for operational details about the Western Pacific. He tended to remember more about the personalities than the day-to-day operations. He didn’t know much about how WP’s Sacramento R Street freight house handled traffic, but he still remembered the name of the guy ran the place. He didn’t necessarily know about how trains were routed, but could pull out an old rate book and explain how to argue about how to disassemble dump trailers to get a better rate.

Mom and Dad, Vista-dome, over Donner Summit

Back in 2006, my wife and I wanted to do something special for my parents, and found out about a private car group trip to Reno and back over Presidents’ Day weekend. The group had assembled three private cars - a streamlined dining car and a dome car, and Beebe and Clegg’s “Virginia City” observation car, all to be placed on the rear of Amtrak's California Zephyr. We picked my parents up, took them to Emeryville, jumped on the train, and crossed the Sierras. We chose a good weekend - we crossed the Sierras as a big snowstorm hit, and got to watch the snow pile up as we passed the traffic jams on I-80. It was an impressive ride, both for getting to sit in a real dome car, and getting to watch a real snowstorm crossing the Sierras.

The Virginia City on the back of the California Zephyr.

The trip also spurred memories from my parents. My parents got married just before my dad left the WP, and he made a point to arrange a trip by the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City and back. They may have ridden in the cars we took that trip to Reno in. We heard more stories of that trip as we sat in the bar at the Nugget casino - the Italian restaurant owner slipping them wine in Salt Lake City, newlyweds in a sleeping compartment, finding others with our rare last name in the Utah phone book. On the way back, our Amtrak train was delayed because of a broken rail somewhere out in Nevada. Our assembled group stood trackside at the Sparks station waiting for the train until the organizers managed to hire a bus to get us all to the warmth of the Reno Amtrak station. While we stood out there, snow flurries started falling - something I’d first seen during a few years living out on the east coast. My mom had never seen snow flurries before; she'd spent her life in temperate California.

My father, by contrast, had been a skier and interested in the outdoors, so snow wasn't so unusual for him. Somewhere, he's got his record of climbing Mount Hood during his days in Portland. A few years ago, I opened one of the Southern Pacific Technical and Historical Society's magazines to find an article on the special trains that would take skiers up to Norden Summit and Sugar Bowl during the season. In the front and center, there was my dad, caught in a publicity photo. He'd also made the trip up to the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. In one of his few recorded cases of lawlessness, my dad paired up with friends-of-friends who managed to sneak into the US-USSR hockey match, the hottest ticket of the Olympics.

My father's family including his not-yet-train-crazy grandson.

Age slowed my dad down a lot over the last ten years. We’d occasionally go to train swap meets, and we’d talk a bunch about trains or about his time at the WP. When my nephew got to five years old, Dad and I pulled out our saved Lionel trains and cleaned them up for his grandson. We’re not sure he caught the train bug. My nephew wasn’t too interested a few years ago, but he set up a “sushi train” a couple weeks back in the style of a sushi boat restaurant he missed visiting. Dad heard my updates on the Vasona Branch, but hadn’t been down here for a few years because of mobility issues. As I mentioned a few months ago, the Vasona Branch got photographed for the NMRA Magazine in preparation for the NMRA National Convention in Santa Clara. The magazine issue with my layout got sent out in October. I sent Dad a copy when he was in nursing care at the end; he got to see how he’d encouraged and inspired me, and what I’d managed to build. He proudly showed it off to the caregivers.

My father saw a lot during his life. He saw San Francisco before bridges and a city where men wore hats and women gloves. He saw the Bay Area change from industrial and agricultural to high-tech and suburban. He saw the changes in transportation with the decline of the railroads, air freight, and deregulation changes. He saw entire job categories disappear and appear. He saw early computers at Berkeley and the WP (but chose not to pursue that side of the business.) He still loved using his Macintosh to read the world’s newspapers, but the iPad was a little too newfangled for him. He saw Europe and South America, and remembered all his travel fondly. He raised a family, and saw his grandson become an energetic young man.

He also helped his son become train-crazy, and inadvertently encouraged me in what eventually became my career.

I’ll miss you, Dad.

Original story extended with the "Day I Flew a Horse to Venezuela" story.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

More Model Railroad Sudoku: Cow Cars to the Ainsley Cannery

If we want to understand how a railroad and a cannery worked together, we need some data - preferably details about the number and types of freight cars doing to a particular industry. We’d done that in the past with Tom Campbell’s data about the grocery wholesaler’s siding in Sacramento a few years ago, but there’s always more we’d like to learn.

Getting information on the actual freight cars heading off to canneries is always a challenging task. Summary data often survives, either in terms of how many carloads the Santa Clara Valley sent, or canneries bragging about their canning prowess. Lawsuits might suggest the amount of traffic, such as this description of the fruit produced by several canneries. Although I’ve found occasional other facts (such as delivery notifications for freight cars at the Golden Gate cannery), the information’s spotty.

Luckily, occasional gems turn up. The Campbell Museum shared this Ainsley Packing Co. letterhead as part of reminding us of Campbell’s cannery heritage. They were most excited about the letterhead. I was most excited about the contents.

The letter gives the “pear account” of fruit coming to the Ainsley cannery from the Treat Ranch. It’s unclear where this ranch was. One possibility is a 160 acre ranch in Elk Grove run by the Gage family — which would explain why the fruit was arriving by rail on the Southern Pacific. There’s several other Treat Ranches that show up in searches; I’ll let someone else decide on the right one.

We see a carload of pears arriving every couple days from late July through early September. We see multiple carloads on August 3, but otherwise there’s usually a couple days between cars. There’s a larger gap at the end of the season, with 16 days between the arrival on August 24 and September 8.

What do we know about the freight cars? We can use the Official Railway Equipment Register (ORER) to track down what these cars were. The ORER was a frequently-published list describing each railroad's freight cars: reporting marks, size, weight, and special characteristics. Indexes in front can help us identify the owner from reporting marks. It was intended for use by shippers and others to check on the features of the cars they were assigned for loads.

We see 14 cars listed on the Ainsley receipt. (I’ve put them in a Google Docs spreadsheet if you’d like to examine the data in detail.) All are SP or subsidiary cars, suggesting the Treat Ranch was on the SP. Many of the cars come from the Texas subsidiaries, so they may not be familiar to us West Coast SP modelers. The GHSA is Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway, LW is Louisiana and Western, MLT is Morgan’s Louisiana and Texas.

They’re a mix of new and old cars; Most cars at least 15 years old, but two or three are new cars, built in the last few years. The twenty year old CS-2 ventilated fruit boxcars were common, showing up four times. Only one load is carried in a regular boxcar.

Half the freight cars are actually stock cars. I've certainly heard of stock cars being used for carrying fruit in high season. Melons were frequently carried in stock cars as late as the 1950's. However, this is a nice reminder how prevalent use of stock cars was for tree fruit. There’s also several mentions of “boxcar/stockcar” hybrids which I don’t know much about, and couldn’t find pictures.

The use of stockcars as a cheap ventilated boxcar is interesting, and could potentially be fun to model on the Vasona Branch. There's explicit evidence that stock cars carried fruit to canneries in the 1920's. Here's a photo showing workers unloading fruit from stock cars at the Richmond Chase cannery in San Jose. The Feb 1926 reweigh date for the nearest car indicates that apricots were still being carried in stock cars in the late 1920's. Note all the lug boxes are marked with the Richmond-Chase logo. If the cannery supplied the lug boxes, then that probably means the boxes needed to be shipped out to the farm by rail too. Doug Debs also pointed out a 1928 wreck of the Shoreline Limited passenger train at Bayshore involved the train slamming into several stock cars of apricots. The accident overturned the engine and forced some poor soul to go and recover the less-damaged apricots.

So, 14 carloads of pears, and 150 tons of fruit just from Treat. What does that tell us about the total amount of fruit arriving at the loading dock at the Ainsley cannery? How many more cars would have been arriving during the year? We can guess that from some of the news reports about the production at the Ainsley cannery. A 1918 news article, four years after these loads, mentioned that the cannery canned 5.5 million cans of fruit during the season. They spent $300,000 on fruit alone that year. Treat’s $7500 in pears would have been 2 to 2.5% of Ainsley’s total purchase, so if Ainsley bought the same amount of fruit in 1914 (and if all the fruit had the same price), we’d expect the equivalent of 750 cars of fruit coming in during the year, or six cars a day for 120 days. Now, not all of Ainsley’s fruit would have come by train; this is the Santa Clara Valley, after all, so pears, peaches, apricots, and plums would have been arriving by wagon. But I could also imagine that Ainsley would want to lengthen their canning season as long as possible, so bringing in fruit from elsewhere would allow them to can even when the orchards in Campbell weren’t producing. (On the other hand, we’re seeing fruit from Treat Ranch from mid-July to the beginning of September - a pretty wide season already.) It’s easy to assume that we’d have a few cars of fruit a day arriving at the Ainsley cannery throughout the season.

For my model railroad, this information gives me more details about the Ainsley Cannery, and how to make freight operations at the cannery better match what really happened in the 1930’s. First, this data suggests I should have cars coming to the cannery bringing fruit. If Ainsley was receiving fruit from elsewhere in the ‘teens, I can guess they were also receiving fruit from outside the valley in the 1930s. The use of stock cars for fruit is interesting and eye-catching, so I should should build a bunch of SP, EP&SW, and LW stock cars to bring in fruit. Finally, with so many cars coming in from Treat, I should definitely keep the Ainsley cannery busy - pushing many carloads at the industry, and also perhaps considering switching more than once a day to get realistic amounts of fruit into the cannery, and keeping my operators extra busy.

All of the research and guessing I’m doing here can be done for your favorite railroad or industry. Keep an eye out for paper and documentation, or check photos to see if you can spot the cars being loaded or unloaded at your favorite industries. Finding information on specific cars is easier than ever; Google Books has a bunch of ORERs on line. Westerfield also used to sell CDs with scans of particular years. I use Tony Thompson’s Southern Pacific Freight Cars books for more information and photos on the car classes.

Thanks to Ed Gibson for noticing the reweigh date on the stock car in the Richmond Chase photo, confirming that stock cars were used in the 1920's. Thanks to Doug Debs for pointing out the 1928 Bayshore wreck. Most of all, thanks to the Campbell Library for scanning and sharing the letterhead!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Keeping Up with Jason: 3D Printing Beet Racks

If you've been following Jason Hill and his Owl Mountain Models, you might see that some of my personal projects have mirrored his commercial projects. He cut molds for his injection-molded F-50-4 flat cars; I 3d-printed the earlier CS-35 flat cars. He's done steam locomotive parts (3d printed and otherwise), I experimented with a 3d printed boiler for a C-11 Pacific. He's experimented with Harriman passenger car customization, and I've 3d printed some C-60-1 bodies.

Some of our overlap isn't surprising. We've got similar interests; we're interested in the steam era on the SP. We're both likely working from the easily-available plans in some of Tony Thompson's SP books (at least until we get curious enough about details to wander up to Sacramento and the California State Railroad Museum library and archives to see the actual blueprints.) We're interested in making lots of particular models - commercially and injection-molded in Jason's case, and for my own use and 3d printed in my case. We've also just been talking lots and comparing parts produced by each other. Many of my conversations with Jason about interesting models and manufacturing encouraged me to try building various models.

The Tony Thompson freight car book on flat cars had more than plans for early SP steel flat cars to inspire us both. He also included photos and plans of the various temporary sides and sugar beet "racks" that the SP used to make the flat cars useful for occasional traffic. Sugar beets were a big commodity on the SP, often seen up into the 1970s going from the fields to the various sugar beet processing plants located in the Bay Area, Salinas Valley, and Central Valley. SP track diagrams from the 1960's even show a track in Mountain View labeled "sugar beet dump" - about where the Microsoft, Google, and LinkedIn shuttle buses pick up folks at the Mountain View station... or at least where they picked up employees in the days before COVID-19.

Sugar beets were heavy, large, and were shipped in huge volume during the harvest season, so the SP needed a cheap and easy way to ship them. The crop was too seasonal to deserve dedicated cars, too bulky for low-sided gondolas, and too low-cost to deserve anything too nice. So during the first half of the 20th century, the SP would build latticed sides out of two-by- lumber that they could put on any ratty flat car, dump the beets in the top, and open the sides to let them pour out at the sugar refinery. When those cars got too worn in the 1950's, the SP took steel gondolas, then added wooden sides to increase the capacity to haul more of the relatively-light sugar beets. The early cars with the latticed sides are much cooler in my opinion than the later cars - the airy, slatty cars always looked a bit jury-rigged, and battered and worn enough to give a modeler lots of weathering fun.

Close-up of beet rack

Jason and I chatted long ago about the beet racks and how they make interesting cars. Since then, Jason took the effort to cut injection molds for his Blackburn patent beet racks, sized to fit his F-50-4 flat cars. They're beautiful models, with much finer detail than I can get with my 3d printer. All those conversations also encouraged me. I went after similar cars a couple years back, 3d printing a few beet racks based on an earlier, non-patent design also in Tony Thompson's book. If you want a few beet racks for your layout, I'd go buy some of Jason's. I'd still like to tell you about mine because they say a bit about what's easy and hard with 3d printing.

Jason's beet racks are separate plastic parts sized to fit his existing flat car models. Injection molding's good for that; it's a reliable process for high numbers of parts, and parts keep the same dimensions. To keep costs low, making parts flat, thin, and consistent thickness makes the molds easier to cut and run, and minimizes warpage of completed parts. For the beet racks, that means that making the slides as four flat pieces is easiest and the most inexpensive. In contrast, large 3d structures are hard to do with injection molding. Trying to print the flat car and the beet racks simultaneously would require large, deep molds with several pieces that need to slide together to close the mold - a challenge for the major hobby manufacturers, and near-impossible for the garage manufacturer.

3d model arrangement in the printer: bodies printing vertically, with rack ends as a separate part.

With 3d printing, the rules about what's hard and easy are completely turned around. Because of printer miscalibrations, a printer might have slightly different scale in different directions, making it hard to keep parts the same size unless they're printed in the same orientation or axis. Printing thin, flexible things can be hard with the Form One because the part will flop during all the movement as each layer is printed. As I've mentioned before, my Form One's temporary support structure relies on many little sprues to hold up the part and form the surface it begins to print from. Where a part starts printing is often roughest because of these supports; the best detail is usually much better in the middle and top of the parts. I like to think of it as "the 3d printer doesn't like to start new parts". If I can print a new layer that's well-connected to the previous layer and requires no outside support, I'll have better quality and more successful prints.

I'd started trying to do the beet racks as separately printed parts, but found that didn't work at all. The resulting parts were floppy, inaccurately sized, and rough where the supports attached. I ended up redoing the model so that the beet rack sides were part of the flat car model, and the ends were separate parts printed on a separate support structure. I also printed the models vertically, again omitting part of one end so that the support structure wouldn't join to a visible face, and then 3d printed a separate part with two feet of deck and the car end. As a result, I only needed supports along a short edge of the beet racks rather than along one of the longer edges. The attachment to the car body also stiffened the lattice structure.

As always, detail that's close to the plane of major parts is easy to apply and comes out fine. The hinges and door latches are just embossed designs raised up or lowered relative to the rest of the design. The slats printed well as long as the board was well supported, and connected back up to posts frequently. Rather than trying to fiddle to get posts and stake pockets to match, the single-piece body made it easy to have everything look realistic and fitting well.

The beet racks also showed how 3d printing works great for variants. For Jason, cutting a new version of a flat car often means designing and cutting new molds from scratch. With 3d printing, it's much easier to borrow the flat car model, combine it with the beet racks, and print a combined model. It also made for an easier model to assemble, without any need to get the beet rack sides and flat car body aligned correctly, or to figure out how to trim posts to make sure the sides matched the stake pocket locations.

The area I model around San Jose, Campbell, and Los Gatos never had sugar beets as far as I know. All the local sugar beets were grown in the flat lands around Moffett Field, rather than further south in the Valley. For example, Henry Mitarai, a Japanese-American farmer, grew acres of sugar beets on his farm off of Mathilda Ave. in Sunnyvale during the 1930's. Dorothea Lange photographed him in his fields in 1942; shortly after, he and his family were sent off to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming for the duration World War II. Mitarai didn't return to Sunnyvale after the war; he and his family stayed in Utah and grew sugar beets.

Even if the sugar beet cars aren't appropriate for my orchard layout, they're cool cars. They're also a nice reminder of the history of the Santa Clara Valley: we grew many crops besides fruit orchards, our current urban towns had agrarian beginnings, and we made money in some interesting ways before social networks.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Rebuilding Glenwood

A string of maintenance-of-way gondolas heads uphill.

Like I mentioned last time, long-suffering Glenwood got some serious rework recently. I had some good reasons to finally return to Glenwood. The ProRail invitational was going to be in San Jose in April (before COVID-19), and the visitors from around the US deserved to see the layout at its best. I needed a distraction from work, and wanted some projects that could fill a weekend.

I also had several years of pent-up frustration waiting to be unleashed. Glenwood’s also an old part of my layout; I laid the track on the upper level about two years into the layout, and roughed in some scenery. The model doesn’t accurately capture the real location. It’s not up to my later standards for prototype scenes. It's not eye-catching enough to be a focal point for the layout. Glenwood’s also in a darker corner of the layout, and in a location that’s not central to model railroad operations, so it’s never gotten a lot of scrutiny. Glenwood deserved better.

But being generically dissatisfied is one thing; I need a list of things to fix. Let’s run through the problems at Glenwood.

Glenwood before the rework.

Problems with Glenwood:

  • The road’s unrealistic, just badly-levelled Sculptamold on foam scenery, with sheer drops and no shoulders.
  • The building just above the tracks isn’t prototypical; although there was a small house there, the building on stilts doesn’t match the location, nor does it look realistic for the 1920’s. It also draws attention away from the prototype portions of the scene, hiding that great curve into the cut and tunnel.
  • I'd built a station building, but it’s a coarse plastic model. There’s none of the maintenance of way buildings or outbuildings seen on the maps.
  • The grassy hillside doesn’t quite match reality; prototype photos show more trees. The grassy hillside doesn't hide the unprototypical terrain, and misses the chance for trees as a view block to frame the scene.

So my plans? Tear out the hillside, improve the tunnel entrance, make the scene more realistic overall, and detail the station area.

Redoing Scenery

Step one was ripping out a bunch of bad scenery - taking out the hillside, the cut, and the house-on-stilts.

Before any of that, I took a pass at a bunch of other unfinished business. The turnout in front of the tunnel was a frequent derailment site. I ripped out the track, leveled it out with spackle, and relaid the track. The old Tortoise switch machine was a problem; it stuck out too far below the bottom of the deck, and was difficult to adjust. I swapped it out for one of the tiny MP-5 switch machines. I also took this opportunity to check on the track in the tunnel, pulling up even more track, using spackle to again ensure the roadbed was as level as possible, laid the track better, and sealed in the tunnel so that stray light didn’t ruin the illusion of a tunnel through a mountain.

With the track done, I hit the rough scenery.

The new hillside started out with the focal point: the road climbing over the hill and curving around the top of the tunnel portal. This road’s actually the Glenwood Highway, the first paved road across the Santa Cruz Mountains, and first state highway over the mountains. The Glenwood Highway, built between 1912 and 1921, split off from the current Highway 17 on the ridge between Glenwood and Laurel, dropped down into the Bean Creek canyon, then headed through Glenwood towards Scotts Valley. The concrete road, 15 to 17 feet wide, had banked curves and oiled shoulders. It was the height of modern highway design. When the Glenwood Highway was widened in 1939, the town wasn’t big enough for the highway and the railroad; the SP lost that battle, and the depot was torn down to encourage more space for cars. The current route of Highway 17 later won out, but the jazz-era Glenwood Highway still remains if you drive through Glenwood today.

Road during rework.

Road after rework.

Old photos show the key details of the Glenwood Highway: precise curves and straightaways, the odd slalom around the top of the tunnel portal, and an even descent. I followed an approach I’d used elsewhere. I’d started by roughing out scenery to match the rough slope I wanted, and tore out as much of the old road as I could. As I’ve done elsewhere, I used 1/16” styrene sheet for the roadway, scribed with expansion lines. I cut the styrene at the workbench so I made sure curves were accurate and straightaways were smooth. I glued the sheet to the scenery with Liquid Nails contact cement, and used weights and straight lumber to keep the road flat until it dried. Once the road was glued in place, I used Sculptamold and spackle to finish the fills and shoulders.

Time for detailing the scene.

SP 84 heading out of Glenwood tunnel towards Santa Cruz.

SP 31 coming out of tunnel.

This photo of train 84 coming out of the tunnel shows that the bottom of the canyon had a bunch of pine trees in the 1920's. I'd always intended to capture scenes like this: the conifers in the canyon, oak trees higher up, and the privacy screen of trees between the highway and the railroad tracks. Rearranging the hillside and roadway helped this a bit. Filling in undergrowth and deciduous trees is easy; I've been using either Supertrees or Woodland Scenics Fine-Leaf Foilage. The redwoods and other conifers were more of a problem. I'd covered the hillside around Wrights with Woodland Scenics conifers, but I'd found these slow and tedious to build. I'd started trying to do the same at Glenwood, but eventually figured out that gluing tufts of sponge to the plastic armatures was not how I wanted to spend my hobby hours. Luckily, I'd gone to a model railroad train show right before COVID-19 struck. Grand Central Gems out of San Diego was there with their pre-made trees; I bought a few bags of tall pines, and loved how quickly I managed to get the scene finished. I bought a couple more bags later, quickly filling the hillside. I've always been cheap and unwilling to buy pre-made trees, but spending less than a locomotive to get this scene finished was worth it. With enough trees, it was also easy to give the look of separate areas of fields separated by tree lines. Static grass and a barbed wire fence made of wood posts and fishing line completed the scene.


In the earliest track plans for the Vasona Branch, I’d sketched in a location for the pit for the former South Pacific Coast turntable. Glenwood had been a key spot for narrow gauge lumber traffic; many short trains would carry lumber up to Glenwood; from here, a single engine could pull a longer train through the summit tunnel and down to the Santa Clara Valley. One of Bruce MacGregor’s South Pacific Coast books mentioned the filled-in turntable, so I added it to the track plan as an interesting bit of history. I’d cut a half-moon hole in the homesite for the turntable at a convenient location when I first laid track.

In the last episode, I mentioned finding the valuation maps and spotting the actual location. There were actually two turntables. The one at north end of town that apparently was filled in and tracked over during standard gauge times. The other turntable was at the far end of the siding, hanging over creek edge. Neither matched my guess when I'd first sketched the track plan.

I’d already cut the notch in the layout for the turntable in… oh, 2005, and wasn’t up to moving it. Stories claim the turntable was mostly filled in, but I took the existing hole, added stained balsa wood around to support it, added some debris on the bottom, and called it a day. It'll be a good location to throw whatever clutter I happen to have kicking around.

Glenwood Station:

I scratch built the Glenwood depot using some existing plans, and inference from photos. Gary Cavaglia published plans for the Glenwood depot in the March/April 2003 Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette. His drawing laid out the original narrow gauge depot building from the 1870's. That building contained a waiting room and tiny baggage area, and was completely sided in shiplap siding. All the photos from the times I model show a different structure. Apparently, the station was extended some time before standard gauging. The 1920's station extended the office portion of the station, built on a long addition for baggage and freight, and added a large raised freight platform matching SP's standard station designs. The station, however, kept many of the details seen in other SPC depots in Alviso, Agnews, Alma, and Wrights: similar doors, roof supports, and roof peak decorations.

Cavaglia’s drawings of the depot gave me the rough shape: walls were 12 feet tall; the gable peaked at 17 feet, and end walls were 14 feet wide. The drawings also laid out the rough sides of the passenger section. During the reconstruction, a door moved; I assumed the windows stayed in the same location. Using these measurements and various expectations (doors 30” wide, windows three feet off the ground) I could infer other measurements. The waiting room originally had two windows with a door between; later photos show a solid wall and a door to the right. Apparently, the reconstruction kept windows in the same locations but blocked up the original door location.

The later extension to the freight side of the depot was board-and-batten which made guessing at lengths easier - the battens appeared to be spaced 12” apart, so I could make guesses about the overall length of the extension. I sized the freight dock to the space available on the layout, rather than the size of the prototype’s.

SketchUp model of Glenwood Station

I sketched the whole model in SketchUp because I could do so quickly - I already had 3d models for the SP-style windows, so putting together the rough shape was fast. Once I had a rough model, I could compare it to photos and confirm that it looked about right. I could have done the same with pencil sketches or with a cardboard model.

I built the model using sheet styrene, window and door castings from my hobby stash, and vacuum-formed shingle material from Plastruct. I was lucky that all the supplies were already in my hobby stash, for I started the model just as the Covid-19 shelter-in-place started here in Silicon Valley. Like many of the SP stations I built, I used the Grandt Line 5031 windows (12 pane double-hung windows) to match the main windows, and the narrower Grandt Line 5029 windows for the sides of the operator’s bay. (I use those windows a lot, so my box-of-windows-for-projects usually has some on-hand.) I scratchbuilt the freight doors from styrene sheet. It doesn’t take a lot of styrene to be able to knock off one of these models; I usually keep a couple sheets of board-and-batten material, a couple sheets of shiplap, and then strip styrene in 1x4, 6x6, 2x6, and 2x8 dimensions, and that’s all that’s needed for most buildings. I also keep large sheets of 1/16” sheet styrene from TAP Plastics because it’s cheap and useful for bases or backing support. I also had some very beefy .156 x .250 sticks of styrene; these turned out to be really handy for building up a base for the loading dock. I could have done the same with Plexiglas, but that would have required shopping, and also required using power tools in the garage. Building from styrene let me build quickly with just a #11 X-acto knife, a square, and a straightedge.

Overall, scratch building a model like this is quick - probably a week of evenings including design and painting. The worst part is cutting out the window openings. If you haven’t tried scratch building, find some simple building, get $25 in plastic from your favorite hobby store, and start cutting!

Maintenance of Way Buildings

Who was around in Glenwood? Even with the large station, Glenwood never attracted the business one would expect; it didn’t become a wine center, didn’t have a major lumber industry, never attracted farmers. The August 1916 Southern Pacific payroll on showed Campbell station had an agent, warehouseman, and clerk, and apparently had a part time “fruit checker”. Wrights had an agent and warehouseman in their little hamlet. Meanwhile, Glenwood’s large station only had Alfred Feldt, operator, making $80 a month. Feldt eventually moved to San Lucas; in 1920, Edom N. Davis had the agent role. The abandonment proceedings in 1939 declared that only 196 people lived in the Glenwood area.

The section gang was a big chunk of that population during the teens and twenties. 1916 payroll records show six laborers and a foreman in Glenwood, reminding us that the section housing and work sheds deserve to be prominent. The August 1916 records show similar section crews at Campbell, Los Gatos, Wright, and Santa Cruz. The 1916 crew included V. Simoni as foreman, P. Simoni as watchman (perhaps for the tunnel), and G. Simi, M. Mariani, J. Jilla, A. Scarponei, U. Balleroni, and G. Berlacgua on the crew. The 1920 census showed a similar crowd: Benjamin Capp, Vigellio Elli, Toni Gianti, G. Luciano, Joseph Menta, Sam Chientilli, and Angelo Fideli. The railroad apparently was a good gig for the new immigrants. A separate continent of Mexican workers listed their occupation as wood choppers in the same census pages. Valuation maps don't show housing for the workers, but a few 1920's photos show what appear to be bunk cars on the siding next to the tunnel. Twenty years later, a Vernon Sappers photo of the Felton depot in 1935 shows maintenance of way bunk cars on the siding behind the Felton station, suggesting the maintenance of way workers moved closer to the bright lights of civilization.

I'd hoped on hinting at the folks who worked in Glenwood. I've got some bunk car models (care of Jason Hill of Owl Mountain Models fame), but I hoped I could include the section house where the foreman lived. Unfortunately, I'd started figuring out a location too late - I already had the station and an Atlas water tank in their rough locations. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out an arrangement that didn't appear too crowded. Instead, I added a tool house built from a A&LW Lines laser-cut kit, and an outhouse next to a privacy fence.

Scenery improved? Check. Unrealistic buildings removed? Check. Prototype station in place? Check. Tons of trees? Check. Glenwood was always a place I modeled because I wanted to capture the real look - the curve into the tunnel, the redwoods, and the interaction of the new highway and the old railroad. It’s now got that look I intended.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bring in the Photographers!

Full disclosure: all photos here are mine documenting the weekend, not the shots the pro guys made.

Well, that was an interesting weekend. As part of preparations for the NMRA 2021 National Convention, Rails by the Bay, I got a chance to get my layout photographed for articles about the convention. Model railroading’s a lone wolf hobby for me, so I’ve never had anyone else doing serious photos of the layout. I instead got to sit and see how others thought of my layout, and how they worked to get great photos. I also changed a bit how I think about the layout as a result.

So let’s talk about aiming for good photos in terms of planning, preparation, and the photos.

If model railroading taught me anything, it taught me project management. Building a model railroad always involves a long effort to build something significant: deciding what to build, sequencing all the work, rolling with the voluntary and involuntary changes, and ending up with a completed model railroad. I found out about the photo sessions at the beginning of the year, and realized I had some time to finish a couple scenes that had been lingering. I used my usual tricks for deciding what to figure out what to do: fix what annoyed me the most, and fix what I was in the mood for.

Two projects won. First, long suffering Glenwood’s scenery finally got redone. I’ve written a bit about that previously, but to recap: it has the potential for an eye catching scene, the prototypical curve makes it easy to stage reproductions of historical photos, and who doesn’t like model trains in mountain scenery? I’d first ripped out the old scenery and fixed some notoriously unreliable trackage near and in the summit tunnel. I redid the hills and Glenwood Highway to better match the terrain. I then covered the area in trees. Normally, I try to build trees from Woodland Scenics kits, but this time I bought from Grand Central Gems at a recent train show, and had a redwood forest ready in days. I ballasted track, detailed the former turntable pit, and built a quick reproduction of the Glenwood station from styrene. (I’ll talk more about the station another time.). Glenwood needed a water tank, so I quickly grabbed one of the venerable Atlas kits and put it into service.

By the time the scene was done, COVID-19 had hit and the original deadline for the work - the Prorail operating event had been cancelled. We rescheduled the photoshoot for August, which gave me motivation for another project. This time, I decided to go after downtown Campbell. The Campbell scene’s always been a focal point for the layout, but the scenery and structures have been half-done for years. I’d built the station model years ago and scenicked the station side of the tracks. However, the opposite side of the tracks was still temporary buildings and little scenery. That included downtown Campbell, Sunsweet, the Hyde Cannery, and Ainsley cannery. This area provided some great scenes - space to photograph long trains, switching action, and lots of canneries. I started on a big push a couple months back to redo everything. For downtown Campbell, I redid the road and building bases, and started trying to pull all together.

I’d already done four of the five buildings for the downtown Campbell Ave., but had held off on the most impressive of the group - the Growers National Bank building that had been downgraded to the local movie theater by the 1930’s. (The building still exists in 2020, though I think they're still fighting about whether to allow it to become a night club.) I’d made a couple attempts at starting the bank, finding a suitably regal plastic model, but the space on the layout was tiny - only about twenty feet wide - and the model wouldn’t fit. Unable to do things perfectly, I just gave up and decided I’d do the model another day.

That day finally came as I cleaned up Campbell Ave. I tossed out my ideas of a "perfect" model and decided to just start building and see what turned up. Like the Dutch signal box, I finally got annoyed enough to just start building. Like that model, I used styrene sheet primarily. Again, large dimension styrene rod worked really well - the 2 foot inset for the doorway was simply 0.250 styrene bar, simplifying the construction. A leftover door and window served for entry. I used brick sheet for the walls; the detail along the roofline were strips of board-and-batten siding standing in for carved stone. I crafted the theater sign from styrene sheet. I would have liked to 3d print it to get the lettering perfect, but my older SketchUp software doesn’t seem to want to render 3d characters.


Campbell Theater

Bank of Camera Close-up

With Campbell Ave. in, and the road glued down, my next project was fixing the Ainsley Cannery. The Ainsley site’s had a posterboard mockup ever since the layout was built; I still remember Byron Henderson complimenting me during an early operating session because the freight door spacing matched my 40 foot freight cars. Back in 2006, I had a great solution for the cannery - I’d found a YesterYear Models “fruit packing house” - actually a former Sunkist packing house from Riverside, California. The box has been gathering dust ever since as I waited for just the right inspiration to use it for the cannery. This was finally the time to pull the kit out of storage. The overall shape of the buildings are similar - both were a row of wooden barn-like buildings. Like Sunkist, the Ainsley cannery had an office in the end closes to Campbell Ave, and a loading dock dominating the front of the building. As a result, the rough arrangements of windows and doors would work fine as-is. One big difference was that Sunkist’s building had two joined wooden sheds, while the Ainsley cannery had two corrugated iron sheds and two wooden sheds in a line; historic accuracy went out the window in order to get a "good enough" model done as I ignored the corrugated iron sheds. I ended up cutting the Sunkist building in half, and using both ends side-to-side, and ignoring the different materials in the various sheds.

The Drew Cannery, formerly Ainsley


All that major work took me up to last week. However, I still hadn’t done much of the preparation work, so I kicked into a big cleanup mode. Our photographers recommended doing a serious cleaning so extraneous dust or debris visible on photos. I also got rid of all the little problems I'd ignored over the years. Some was operating session damage - having folks handle models is always going to trigger a bit of damage. I fixed broken signs and bumped trees, repaired damaged cars, fixed scratched paint or bent grab irons, and filled in ballast holes triggered by past cleanups. I dusted off a set of “good cars”, and stashed away cars that were the wrong era or had visible damage. I fixed long-lingering projects -holes in scenery I’d never addressed, half done patches, and rough surfaces. Some were really quick - I’d never patched scenery when I’d rearranged the Wrights tunnel. Some were larger, such as finishing half-done spackling in the Meridian Road scene.

Most of the preparation work was the same I’d do for an operating session. For operating sessions, I’d also be worrying about reliability, cleaning car and locomotive wheels, testing that engines were working fine, testing couplers and trucks. None of that sort of work mattered much here - the trains would be stationary in the pictures. I was pretty relieved not to be doing a serious cleaning. Serious cleaning's always a huge time sink, and I always want to over-prepare - I’m always worried before operating sessions whether a balky engine or dirty track will make for an unpleasant operating experience.

Another great advantage of photos is that locomotives don't need to run well. The real Vasona Branch likely had small 0-6-0s switching the canneries. On my model, larger 2-8-0 locomotives instead get the job. I really like the little 0-6-0s, but can never use them for operations. They tend to be balky runners and stall way too easily. When operators are focusing on how to solve a switching puzzle, the last thing they want to do is deal with a stalling or broken locomotive; it interrupts the illusion of working on the railroad, and usually ends up with waiting for the layout owner to clean track, fix the engine, or provide another locomotive. With photos, however, a balky or stationary locomotive isn't a bad thing, for the trains don't need to move in a good photograph. I cleaned one of the rarely-used 0-6-0s, and it got a few chances to be on center stage. To be fair, it's still good to have working locomotives if only to quickly pull cars around the layout to a new photo site, but a photo session removes a lot of the worry of mechanical problems.

While some tasks such as wheel-cleaning and locomotive tuning don’t make sense for photos, other tasks not needed before operating sessions were needed. I’m usually a bit hesitant about putting detail on the layout. It’ll often get damaged during operating sessions. I’ve hoarded some details so they’re available when I need to fill in a scene to be photographed. The layout hasn’t always been at a stage where it’s ready for detail.

But hey, if the layout’s going to get photographed for real, this is the time for all that detail. I pulled out my box of various details I’ve hoarded during my time in the hobby. Every Woodland Scenics pallet I’d ever gotten from a detail kit went on the layout. Extra parts from a Fine Scales Miniature kit that couldn’t handle more crowding. All the 3d printed boxes, bags, lugs, and can stacks I’d printed went on any available loading dock. I plopped down figures where they were appropriate. I took a pair of 3d printed flagmans shanties and phone booths and placed them wherever they’d fit. I took the large fruit bins from the YesterYear kit and made a box yard for Del Monte #3, just as can be seen in photographs.

I also put in a bunch of telegraph poles along the right-of-way. I’ve had these on the layout before; they tend to get a lot of abuse, but they’re eye-catching. This time, I spent an evening assembling and painting a set of telegraph and power poles from Rix Products and Atlas. I also painted them a bit more carefully than before. Previously, I’d just painted the telegraph poles a quick brown and added a bit of green for insulators. This time, I made the colors stronger than last time - darker posts, silvery supports, green insulators. In place on the layout, they really catch the eye. For the Meridian Road scene, I also made a point of doing a power/telephone line paralleling the road which helps to make the scene even more realistic.

And thanks to some crazy times at work, I crammed a bunch of this work into the last week, and into a mad three days. We were also in the middle of a serious heat wave here in San Jose, so the hardest part was avoiding heat stroke in the garage, but on the plus side the matte medium dried really, really fast. The roof of the Ainsley cannery got painted just as soon as the glue holding the paper tarpaper on appeared to stick. I laid ballast in a bunch of places that had never been ballasted, and managed to paint and clean the rail in time. I decorated new scenes - bushes hiding a farmhouse along Meridian Ave, a path to the bathroom around the edge of the Rio Grande gas station, and a row of posts to keep parked cars away from the Campbell depot. I was bouncing back and forth between touching up scenery, weathering cars, and touching up structures. When I was checking old photos to get the sign on the Ainsley cannery declaring it to now be the Drew Cannery, I noticed a speed limit sign, and quickly printed up several of those to control the HO scofflaws. I was still touching up ballast and fabricating a set of stairs for the Glenwood depot a half hour before the photo session.

I never completely believed those model railroad magazine articles where someone built a well-detailed layout in a year or two. I couldn't imagine they had time to decide on models, do the construction necessary, or add the details. This week's mad rush convinced me it was possible. All I needed was some definite ideas of what should be built, an urgent deadline, a bit of wiggle-room on what counted as "good enough", some well-stocked supplies, and way too much manic energy.

And the Photographers Arrive

Dan and Doug, the photographers, were spending several days just photographing layouts in the Bay Area. They've also done this before for previous conventions and other layouts, and came fully prepared. Although I've read about model photography in magazines, this was my first chance to see pros in action.

They came prepared: lights, power cords, and various secret photographer paraphenalia. The extension cords helped when the breaker blew on the garage circuit - our 1960's house wasn't designed for this kind of model railroad lighting, and we quickly found another circuit to share the load.

Dan also had lots of cool tricks so he could get into the scene with his SLR - mirrors to capture scenes the camera couldn't reach, beanbags to hold the camera steady on the layout, high tripod for the upper level photos.

And they took photos different from me, too. Some of that was expected: they visited the Vasona Branch for only a couple hours, so they were very careful to make their plan of shots, then slowly move around the layout to hit each.

Big difference number one from my attempts at model photography: they bring in lots of light. The Vasona Branch has a mix of lighting: the garage lights are cool white fluorescent strips, but I've got various cool white LEDs and warm white fluorescent fixtures lighting the lower deck. I'll usually just use the existing lighting when I take photos; if I'm really taking care, I might borrow a couple bright lights from one source or another. As a result, my photos often have weird colors if a scene has a mix of LED and fluorescent lights. Dan and Doug used two or three photo lamps. Their lights quickly overpower any layout lighting. They also didn't seem to worry about the narrow space between decks - bounce light off objects was enough to light the scene. Their biggest concern seemed to be getting the scene evenly lit, and avoiding shadows on the backdrop. In places where they couldn't get lights, they assumed they could photoshop in some sky into the black background of the garage door.

Dan and Doug use mirrors and a hand-held photo light to capture a train approaching Alma station.

Big difference number 2: The big surprises for me was just seeing what caught their attention. I haven't seen their photos yet, but they understandably looked for interactions between trains and the world. Signals were a common tool to add some action, as were road crossings. My best guess is that model photos need the extra busy-ness and action, and really need some focal point other than the train. The Vasona Branch's semaphore signals were common places for photos. (That was also true on the prototype; one real photo that inspired me is a 1920 photo of a passenger train coming into Glenwood. That photographer, like Dan, made sure to catch the train as it "split the semaphores".

I also heard a bunch of interest about the farmhouse and orchard sitting in the blob where the tracks turn from San Jose to Campbell. This scene's always been half done and cluttered - details not glued down, ground not quite sloping correctly, the orchard too small to be realistic. I'd done a big cleanup of the scene in preparation for the photos - pulled out details, removed structures, and generally made it innocuous. But interest kept drifting back towards the farmhouse and barn. I'd started thinking about details as I was doing cleanup; I'd added a hedge to protect the farmhouse from the busier road. But the interest makes me think I should more seriously plan the scene out.

Dan and Doug also focused on the large details - freight cars and car models - rather than smaller details - not surprising because of the short time. They did spot one broken crossbuck that would have detracted from the scene; we pulled it out.

And that was pretty much it; they got ten good photos, and moved onto the next layout. I got to stare at the layout for a while; it's always fun to see the layout when it's been cleaned up for an open house or an operating session, and doubly-good when all the usual clutter in the garage has been relocated. Even though I'd crammed a bunch to get the layout in shape, I was still excited enough at seeing the layout in good shape that I finished off a couple projects that hadn't been done in time, replacing a remaining broken telephone pole, putting in some gravel around the Ainsley cannery, and fixing up the famous black walnut tree that sat at the start of Campbell Ave.

What did the photos show? I've seen the first photos, and they're great - Dan uses Helicon to combine photos taken at different focal lengths to get more depth of field. Looking at the photos, I see a few things to do differently.

  • I'm vertically challenged. In a few of the photos, it's obvious I've been less than good at making sure everything's standing up straight. They're close, but as soon as several objects are in a photo: semaphores, building, water tank, telephone poles - it's obvious each has a slightly different idea what "up" is. I'll need to work on this, both ongoing, and fixing the more obvious offenders before I next take photos.
  • Prepare for the story. I'd made sure to have cars set up in sample trains, but hadn't been good about choosing cars or trains to illustrate themes I'd want in an article about the layout. For example, large industries and lots of indistinguishable red boxcars is a big part of my layout, but I neglected to have a switcher ready at Plant 51, and also didn't make sure that the cars there were the uninteresting ones. I need to sketch out the story I want to tell beforehand, and share it with the folks doing photography.

What's next? The layout's clean and in good shape, and I'm excited to do some more building. Finishing Campbell is an obvious next step: the Hyde Cannery buildings are screaming out to be build. I'd held off on building the Campbell Theater and Ainsley Cannery because I wanted to make sure I did them right. However, my quick-and-dirty building rush seemed to work with these. Maybe I should just go build Hyde and see what happens?

The orchard scene's another obvious project.

Once both of those are done, there's obvious holes to fill. One advantage of cleaning the layout was that I got rid of all the building placed on the layout "temporarily" for lack of better space - a couple of farmhouses that never found locations, a drive-in market built for fun, a bunch of cars that needed repair. Now that the layout's opened up, I'm reminded that the area between Campbell and Vasona Junction is still completely empty. The Del Monte Plant #3 property's also still occupied only by foamcore buildings. There's also a stretch of bare plaster up on the upper deck near Alma. I'll need to take a pass on any of these scenes going forward.

If the last week's any indication, I know how to get those scenes done quickly: lock down my idea of the scene, build something that's "good enough" rather than waiting for perfection, and pull a bunch of all-nighters during a heat-wave.