Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Semaphore Signals

As much as I like complex kits, I'm a big fan of models I can build while watching TV. Most of my Red Caboose refrigerator cars got built in front of the TV on cold winter nights in New York. Sometimes, it's just really nice when all I need to do is build, and not worry about anything time consuming - painting, waiting for glue to dry, etc.

These American Limited semaphore are shipped in kit form, with all the painting--including the signal blades--already done. All I had to do was glue the models together with plastic cement and superglue, and after about two nights of work, I had this line of signals ready for my Market Street shelf layout. They were quick, easy, and very satisfying. The kits are particularly neat because they're customizable; you can either choose to have one or two semaphore blades (or, if you want to break rules like me, you can even add a third semaphore blade to your signal.) You can choose one or two equipment cabinets at the base of the signal. (Normally, the two cabinets would be used for the upper and lower blade mechanism. I made a couple of my single blade signals with two cabinets just to keep the signals at similar heights for visibility and attractiveness.) You can even choose what sort of blades to use - the red home blades, the white blades, or yellow pointed blades for distant signals. I was happy I could customize the signals to match my particular scene. They also average around $7 a signal / $42 for 6, so although they're not operable, they're much cheaper than the movable semaphores on the big layout.

Helpful hints: colored markers (red and green sharpies, and a yellow/mustard art marker) do a great job on coloring the lenses for the semaphores, just as black sharpies are great for coloring handholds on the Red Caboose refrigerator cars. All the blades will eventually be painted red, but the kit didn't come with enough red-painted blades for my particular setting.

These signals are going at the east end of the San Jose Market Street station. This area was controlled by the 4th Street Tower, which controlled the east entrance to the station, switches directing trains to the north (via the line to Fremont and Niles), and south (down the middle of 4th Street and eventually to Los Angeles), and industry spurs for the Borcher Brothers Building Supply and Richmond Chase (later Hunts) Cannery. There's a great photo of this area in John Signor's Coast Line book circa 1906, taken from First Street looking East down the tracks. Old timetables even have the whistle sequence arriving trains were supposed to blow to get the towerman to set the switches. A switch engine blowing two short whistles, a long whistle, and a short whistle could get the towerman to set the switches for the Hunts Cannery.

The signals controlling the southernmost station tracks are single blade semaphores with red blades. Red blades indicate home signals and control the immediately following track, so each signal indicates whether a train is allowed to exit the station and proceed on the track towards LA. The northernmost station track has two red blades, one for each route (LA or Niles/Oakland.) The signal on the LA line has three red blades to indicate which route the engineer will take - which of the three tracks into Market Street station.

Monday, December 7, 2009

...and some specific kit ideas...

Just in passing, here's three buildings that would all make great models. I'll get around to 'em some day.

I'm a big fan of the Library of Congress's Historic American Buildings Survey / Historical American Engineering Record, and think are a great resource. What's the most interesting California-appropriate building you can find there?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Top-five, all-time favorite Model Railroader issues? Well, there's December 1979...

I'm thinking in terms of top-five lists today. Something about reading High Fidelity does that to me. Either that, or it was the fever from the flu. One or the other.

Top five favorite model railroads I've seen in my life:

5) JoJo Hansen's Lake Tahoe Railway and Navigation Company. I saw it as a teenager on one of the 1981 NMRA National convention in San Mateo. He had the first double-deck layout I'd ever seen, and it all fit in the garage of a row house in Daly City. He reminded me I didn't need to wait for the perfect space before I could build a great model railroad.

4) Gene Martin's Lodi layout in Los Gatos. Wow - an entire layout modeling a single town, with huge amounts of switching! I want to do that some day. (Check out Jim Lancaster's Historic Packing Houses website for several pages carefully documenting
Lodi's industries. I'd love to see it again, and be even happier to switch some industries on that layout.

3) The narrow gauge layout at the East Bay Model Railroad Society. I remember visiting there as a kid, and stared at it for hours wondering where the train would appear out of the maze of tunnels.

2) Ed Merrin's Northwestern Pacific Railroad. I saw this at the National convention in 2001. His double-deck layout was torn up after a move, but I loved the size of the layout, and how he had lots of switching and lots of scenery in a modest space.

1) Jack Burgess's Yosemite Valley. No question, it's magic. It convinced me that modeling a real prototype in detail was the way to go, and Jack's modeling inspires me to do better on everything I build.

That took me a fair amount of thought; I guess I don't normally think in top of my "top five" or "top ten", unlike the character in the book (or John Cusack in the movie.)

But my favorite model railroads is not what got me thinking about lists. As part of my usual California-centric structure bias, I was thinking about model railroad buildings that I wish someone would produce in kits. And in the most recent Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette, my number 1 kit appeared.

So what's my top five California-theme model railroad structures I wish someone would produce as kits? It's a hard list to put together, but here's my guess:

5) Large wooden warehouses or sheds with clerestory windows at the peak (like Walther's Mountain Lumber Company). It seems like most large shed-style warehouses from the 20's have windows at the roof level to let more light into the building, and I have at least two sheds like that I need for my layout. I could buy the Walther's kits, but they're pricey and I'd hate to throw away all the other bits of the kits just so I could keep the central building. Looks like I'll be scratchbuilding these.

4) Stucco storefront building with bay windows. I've built my own for downtown Campbell, but I wish some of the folks doing brick main street structures would do a couple buildings with bay windows. There's no way to reproduce your typical California main street without 'em.

3) More Southern Pacific specific buildings. There have been some great SP-style speeder sheds and section houses produced lately, but I'm waiting for kits of an SP-style interlocking tower.

2) Airplane bungalows. It seems like half of the houses in older parts of Oakland or San Jose are airplane bungalows. These are small wooden houses that have some details from craftsman houses, but tend to have very low roof pitches hipped towards the front. I could imagine scratchbuilding one or two, but I'd love to be able to build a whole row of them.

Wait, no let me change #5. I don't want sheds, I want sawtooth roofs. I can make shed roofs all I want, but making something with a sawtooth roof is much more painful. Let's move "sawtooth roofed warehouses" to #3.

And maybe replace the stucco storefront with more spanish style buildings. Maybe. I'll need to think about that one.

And what's my #1, most wanted structure? A 1930's public market-style strip mall. Years ago, I was at Moe's Books in Berkeley and found an architecture book on strip malls and supermarkets. (The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941 by Richard Longstreth, MIT Press.) My friend thought I was nuts to pay $30 for a used book on strip malls, but it's been a great resource for me both for 1920's pictures and for inspiration for commercial businesses.

It turns out the first strip malls were outgrowths of filling stations: the service station added storefronts around the court, and the bays got filled with with a set of businesses just like the large public markets downtown. There was always a butcher, a grocery store, a vegetable seller, and a sundries store, each a separate business. By the end of the 1920's, developers even had a formula for building these: choose a busy street between the residential neighborhoods and the city center, make sure to be on a corner for visibility, but on a light street so it was easy for customers to drive in. Check out this one still standing alone San Fernando Road in Glendale.

I've always thought one of those strip malls would make a nice model building, and I was really pleased to see Rail Scale Miniatures is building one: their Horwood Brothers Service Station. It's not quite right; they've modeled a more cluttered scene to make it look busier, and they've intended it as a service station only, but all he key aspects are there: small stucco buildings, the corner lot, multiple storefronts, and some really nice mission-style details. Now if only I had a place for it on my layout.