Sunday, February 22, 2009

Choosing an Era

I'm often asked why I model the 1930's. After all, I'm only 40, I'm in high-tech, and I'm a bit lazy about reliability issues. Why wouldn't I be modeling the 1970's, or modern day? I could run nice, reliable diesel locomotives instead of balky steam locomotives. I could spend hours computerizing the layout so I had automatic signals and dispatcher control instead of avoiding the computers and electronics problems I normally like.

It's a complex question to answer.

First, modern-day railroading just wasn't that interesting for me. One obvious reason is that modern trains are big. The locomotives are big, the freight cars are big, and the industries that have rail service are big. Fitting those kinds of scenes into the space I have - either a shelf layout or a single garage layout - just isn't easy. Older trains are smaller, so I can model more.

Even if I had the space for long trains and big engines, I'm not a railfan. Spending a day going out to the tracks and watching trains run by isn't that interesting. Even worse, I grew up on the San Francisco peninsula in the 1970's. I grew up watching dirty, unmaintained Southern Pacific diesels going by, and watching all the industries disappear. The steel mills and warehouses in South San Francisco either got torn down or stopped getting rail service. The canneries and food processing plants of the South Bay closed. San Francisco's Bayshore yard turned into a ghost town as all the warehouses in San Francisco turned into office space, dance clubs, and outlet stores. There's just no romance for me in that era, so trying to model the SP in the 1970's just doesn't sound fun.

My strongest reason, though, is to learn more about and recreate my grandparent's world. I've seen photos from the 1920's and 1930's, and I like the reminders of California's agricultural past, and of a time when railroads were the new and modern thing. I can see the pictures of my grandmother and her brothers and sisters in Santa Cruz for the day; they've just driven down from Hayward, they're dressed up, and they look like they're having a wonderful time. What was the drive on Highway 17 like for them? What sightseeing did they do?

My mom's family was from Hayward. My great-grandfather came over from the Azore Islands in the 1870's, earned money as a shepherd for the Miller and Lux, and bought ten acres above Hayward in the 1890s which he planted in apricots. He lost two wives, then met my great-grandmother and raised four children with her. The family dried the apricots on the property; every year for the harvest, my great-grandmother would prepare food for the family and the workers they hired to pick, cut, and dry the apricot. This photo of my great-grandfather shows him proudly looking over a drying tray of apricots sometime in the 1930's. Those apricots would get sold to one of the dried fruit packers down at the railroad tracks; the packing houses in Hayward probably looked a lot like the ones I model in San Jose and Campbell. My grandmother even worked as a bookkeeper for one of the packers for a while. My great-grandparents' fruit ranch probably looked like every farm in the Santa Clara Valley. When I'm researching and building my models, I'm also learning more about the world my family came from.

I also see the pictures of what the Bay Area was like. In this case, my grandmother took a photo of one of her friends sitting on top of a "gravity car" on the Mount Tamalpais Railway. My father took me and my sister hiking on Mt. Tam pretty often when we were growing up; I hadn't realized then that my grandparents had gone hiking on the mountain too, or that they'd stopped and taken photos at places like the Double Bowknot where I'd walked by 50 years later. My grandmother would have ridden the Northwestern Pacific to visit relatives in Sonoma County, or taken commute trains on the Peninsula when they lived in Redwood City. A couple decades later, my dad remembers working in the Hunts and Del Monte canneries in the summer, and knows that he got paid well for unloading cans from boxcars and checking the fruit cutting machines.

It's all memories. It's learning about family and the world they lived in. It's learning about how the Bay Area's changed from agricultural to high-tech, and from empty spaces to wall-to-wall suburbia. It's knowing what kind of orchards occupied the space where our house is, and knowing the importance of Sunnyvale's historic apricot orchard. It's about understanding the San Francisco Bay Area during one of the other booms the area's gone through, from the wheat fields to orchards to industry to electronics to the Internet.

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