Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Perils of Modeling a Prototype

One of my favorite parts of my Vasona Branch layout is researching what the area was like in the 1930's, then building models based on photos, track plans, and other details about what was really there. Now, I can't actually match reality; building a model railroad in this way requires occasional compromises to figure out what will fit on the layout, what makes the layout fun to operate, and what makes for an interesting scene.

Occasionally, I get caught and learn that my idea of reality was completely wrong. The last time this happened, I found out my nice shed-style building for Borcher Brothers building materials near the old San Jose Market Street station had been torn down and replaced with a nice Spanish revival facade in the 1920's. Oops.

My latest historical crisis came from History San Jose's Cannery Life on-line exhibition. Del Monte's Plant #3 on Auzerais St. finally closed down in San Jose in 1999l, and was torn down and replaced by housing last year. The article describes the history of the plant. It was once the largest cannery in the world, and some claim that fruit cocktail was invented there.

Del Monte used "the whole hog" when it processed fruit. The choicest pieces of fruit were sliced and canned in their own cans. Smaller bits and parts of damaged fruit went into fruit cocktail. Even the pits from apricots had value, so Plant #3 also had an apricot kernel processing plant which is visible on Sanborn fire insurance maps for the time.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps have a small problem. These huge books were used to help insurance companies figure out how much to charge an industry looking for insurance. If a business was next to a dangerous industry or if the containing building was shown not to have fire protection, the insurance company could charge more. Some of these books still exist (San Jose Public Library has several), and University Microfilm also sells access to images from these books. However, it's hard to find a "1930" Sanborn map because most books were updated with glued-in sections as facts changed. University Microfilm's collection, for example, has 1915 and 1950 versions of San Jose, so I have to guess what was there during my era of 1930-1935.

History San Jose kindly included this image from the 1930 map showing the kernel processing part of the plant. (It's labelled here as a separate company.) Unfortunately, there's also the nice pencilled note mentioning that the building burned down in 1932. Now, I don't model the kernel processing buildings, and the corner where the buildings existed holds the end of a siding, but should I be modeling these buildings? Should I be modeling the empty space?

Ugh... a little knowledge causes a lot of pain.

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