Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Diesels in the Drawer

Although my layout is set in the 1930's, there are occasional inconsistencies. For example, if you look in a drawer under the layout, you'll find a pair of 1950's diesel locomotives on hand. They're still SP, one in the Black Widow paint scene, and the other in the simplified "pumpkin" black and orange scheme. They're important - they're my insurance policy.

One of the big rules in operations is that a layout needs to run well, and that means the locomotives need to run well. No locomotive, no train, no operating session. Worse, an operating session is much more wearing on the trains - hours of running, multiple locomotives running at the same time, rougher operators, less respect for known trouble spots - so even engines that work perfectly for you on your own can fail during an ops session. Having a few spare locomotives on hand becomes necessary when one of the locomotives develops a hitch in its mechanism, or a coupler breaks, or a locomotive stops running completely.

My operating sessions tend to use the same locomotives - a few nice-running Consolidations - that can pull all the needed cars. Some lesser trains run during the operating session use some weaker locomotives that can be commandeered in a pinch, giving up pulling power or sound. The passenger train locomotives can also be useful in case of problems, but my two 4-6-0's tend to derail going backwards which makes them poor choices.

And if all goes completely wrong, then the two diesels get pulled out, and finish the operating session. The show must go on, and the trains must complete so the crew has fun.

Luckily, the diesels hardly ever get pulled out.

Unfortunately, they were needed when I had some neighbors over earlier this week; the layout hadn't run for months and I'd just started on cleanup when they stopped by.

  • Engine one stopped moving as the motor whined. (Pulley started spinning on axle in a painful-to-disassemble Bachmann Spectrum locomotive, annoying to fix.)
  • Second engine was stalling on the dirty track.
  • Third had a bind in the mechanism.
  • Another had electrical contact problems.

Each one got pulled aside and it's replacement took over the train. Finally, no more spare steam locomotives were available; the diesels go pulled out and saved the day.

That's why I'm spending the next couple days on tuning locomotives, including tearing apart the very awkward locomotive to get to the slipping gear. It's time to fix those mechanisms, touch-up paint, and get some new locomotives ready for the layout.

Moral: always have spare locomotives if you're planning on doing operations. And don't forget to hide a pair of diesels in a convenient drawer.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Those Old Buildings Were Young Once Too

Before you read any further, do me a favor and examine the close up pictures of the Market Street warehouses.  Those photos are from 1906, so they're a good twenty-five years before the era I model.  When you look at them, how worn, dirty, or unmaintained do you expect them to be?  How much is your opinion based on photos from the same era, and how much is based on similar buildings you've seen recently?

One of my big challenges modeling an era that I didn't live through is that I don't have a good idea of appropriate weathering for the various buildings.  I remember some of the old warehouses and buildings along the railroad right-of-ways from my childhood in the 1970's, but the condition of SP's warehouses under what's now Pac Bell (er... AT&T) Park probably doesn't hint at what they were like in the 1950's, or in the 1930's.  Photos help a bit, but my own biases mean I'll aim my industrial buildings too worn if I'm not careful.
With the Market Street warehouse, I'm doubly cursed - the buildings I'm modeling on appeared some time between 1915 and 1935, but other warehouses and packing sheds in the area probably date to the turn of the century, or perhaps even to when the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad first visited San Jose in the 1860's.
On top of just deciding on age and era, most of the packing sheds and other buildings used for part of the year don't appear to be well maintained even in good times, as can be seen from these photos of contemporary packing houses in Central California.
I decided to model my warehouse with moderate to severe weathering, trying to capture the look of paint that's wearing away and wood that's darkening.  I tried a technique I've used before to model weathered, bleached wood: distress the styrene, cover with primer or gesso, then use india ink and brown washes to bring out the texture.  Here's a photo of the warehouse so far with the walls painted, but no roof or view block to keep the sky behind the building from poking out - it's not perfect, but it'll do for now.
So how do you determine how worn your buildings should be?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Inside the Packing Houses

The packing house model's taking shape - I'm currently painting the basic model to get the weathered warehouse look.

Meanwhile, it's worth changing the focus from the outside of the packing house and warehouses to the inside.  What happened in a dried fruit packing house?

Luckily, the San Jose Public Library and San Jose State library can tell us.  Here's some photos from the John C. Gordon collection.  All three of these photos appear to be from the same packing house, and the last photo shows that it's a Sunsweet co-op associated plant from the box labels.

First, a photo of the prunes being boxed.  Many of the packing houses were multi-story, and the Sanborn maps note that the fruit bins and grading were done on the upper floors.  This photo shows why - the chutes from the upper floor drop the fruit into the packing machinery where it's all boxed.  Note that the women doing the packing are actually weighing each individual package as prunes are dropped in--automation hasn't gotten rid of the boxing jobs y as she drops prunes into it - automation isn't being used here.

Second, here's another photo of the women packing.  Another chute's visible at the back right of the photo, and this photo shows the simple interior well--wooden posts, exposed rafters, simple lights. Note the metal sash windows at the back; they're a nice touch, and probably catch at least a bit of a breeze so the plant floor isn't so hot.

Finally, here's the end of the production line with the boxes being labelled and packed in crates.

I'm not sure which Sunsweet plant is pictured in the photos.The metal U's between the posts and beams is an easy spotting feature for noting photos taken in the same packing house.  The Arcadia photo book for Campbell borrows one of these photos, but the horizontal, tipping steel sash windows don't match either the photos of the Campbell packing house next to downtown, or the Lincoln Ave. downtown; both had wooden sash windows.  However, the photos do explain all the work that's needed before those boxes of fruit make it into my railroad cars.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Modeling Small-Town California

Tony Thompson's first blog post showed that he's a freight car modeler first - not surprising, considering he's written the definitive books on Southern Pacific freight cars. Meanwhile, I keep showing that I'm a structure modeler first, whether it's with a week of angsting about the design of an old warehouse, a few too many of my childhood plastic freight cars on my layout, or rambling on forever about what a typical small town in California's Central Valley looks like.

Specifically, I had a note from a European model railroader who's interested in modeling the California Northern short line on the west side of the Sacramento Valley around Davis, Vacaville, and north. He was curious about what sort of buildings would be typical. The poor guy unfortunately got an earful of advice from me, and I hope he didn't mind it all. I'll repeat it here because I really like the small towns along the west side like Esparto, or Winters, or Dunnigan, or Orland, and I like reflecting on what really makes those towns memorable and unique.

So for all the other locals: how does this description match what you think is photogenic about the small towns of the Central Valley, and what would be the key details if you were going to model a short line going through some of the little towns on the west side of the Valley?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's a Composition Roof?

So the Sanborn map keys show that many of the 1950-era roofs were "composition" roofing. I usually think of this as asphalt shingles, but would these have been used on an old warehouse, or would rolled roofing have been more common?

The Forest Service wrote a nice document on Early 20th-Century Building Materials: Siding and Roofing which states that asphalt roofing existed in the 19th century, but really took off in the 1920's to cut the fire risk of wood shingles. Asphalt shingles were popular by World War I because they were easier to transport. Colors for asphalt roofing with embedded aggregate was limited to black, red, and green until the 1930's when ceramic granules of other colors started appearing.

So, it's a toss-up - shingles or rolled roofing? Time to keep researching.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mr. DeMille, I'm Ready for my Close-up!

Here's some nice close-ups from the Library of Congress aerial photo of the San Jose railroad yards in the summer of 1906. I suspect the photographer convinced some of the local businesses to paint their names on the roof so they'd be visible in the photos.

The H.L. Losse packing house at 392 San Pedro St. is a name I hadn't already seen.

Another fun detail: Those look like Santa Fe boxcars in front of J.B. Inderriedden! The three story Rosenberg packing house also is another example of how packing houses aren't always low to the ground and temporary.

Aerial Photo of Market Street Station

Here's one more shot of the warehouses around the Market Street station. This aerial shot was taken in 1906, after the Great San Francisco Earthquake, by G. H. Lawrence. I snagged this copy from the Dome of Foam SP railroad site, but they got it from the Library of Congress. This picture is oriented roughly northeast. Downtown San Jose is to the lower right corner, Santa Clara (and eventually San Francisco) to the left. If you went to the right along the railroad tracks, the tracks would curve south onto Fourth Street then head straight for Los Angeles.

Interesting details:

  • All the buildings have peaked roofs, even the Inderrieden packing house at 236 Ryland that was listed in 1950 as having a parapet on top. Flat roof buildings appear to be a modern convenience still to arrive.
  • The 1915 map shows empty space between 405 N. First (the J.W. Chilton packing house) and 392 N. San Pedro St. I don't know if this is a scale issue, or if buildings were appearing and disappearing so quickly. Chilton's building obviously has a taller east half and shorter west half.
  • The Warren Fruit Packing Co. packing houses is very bright, and looks very likely to be corrugated iron as mentioned on the map.
  • The Farmer's Union warehouse at 395 N. San Pedro Street has the same boxy ventilators that the Souther Pacific Freight Station on the south side of the yard has. I'd be suspicious both were railroad built.
  • The 1901 hand-drawn 3d view at the Dome of Foam is surprisingly accurate in terms of rooflines and ventilators, capturing the odd ventilators of the SP Freight House and the Farmer's Union warehouse. The same ventilators are seen across the street on the building that was the Mark-Lally Plumbing Co. in 1905; was that a former railroad warehouse too?

See anything else interesting?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Table: All My Warehouses

In our last episode, our heroes struggled bravely against the question "So, what are you using for a roof?" That question led to some half-assed guesses, which led to the Sanborn map key, which led to possible roofing materials. But which roofing materials were generally in use in San Jose in 1930, and which roofing materials are appropriate for the generic warehouses our heroes are building.

Needless to say, our heroes did the only correct thing: they gathered up all the data and made a big honking table.

Here's a quick summary of the warehouses north of the tracks around the Market Street station. My schematic map shows where the various warehouses were in relation to the railroad tracks, the Market St. passenger station (disused after 1935), and the San Jose freight station. Note that the row of three warehouses (395 N. First, "395 N. First (back of lot)" (my name for it), and 386 N. San Pedro St) appeared between 1915 and 1950, and on top of the former site of several yard tracks. These warehouses might be the ones I see in the pictures such as the one from 1935 of SP locomotive 3105. I've used these warehouses as my prototype for the latest model.

Obvious details from all this information? Wood shingles were seen in 1915, and metal roofs were common on corrugated buildings, but composition and metal roofs were the norm in the 1950's. Buildings existing in 1915 otherwise didn't change much between 1915 and 1950. Sounds like my best bets are wood shingles or composition roof, and be safe either way I ought to go with composition. Unless, of course, I find a 1930 Sanborn map and learn the actual truth.

(Thanks to Tom Campbell for explaining that a small x in a corner of the building box indicates wood shingle roof; hollow o, metal roof; solid o, composition roof. The only Sanborn key I have must be a bit more modern than that, and doesn't indicate any of those symbols.)

Address1915 Sanborn map1950 Sanborn map
405 N. First St. (east end)J. W. Chilton Fruit Packing. 3 floors, 35' high, composition roof. Firewall between west and east halves of building.C. L. Dick Dried Fruit. 3 floors, 33' high, wood posts on first and second floor, composition roofing., boiler.
405 N. First St. (west end)J. W. Chilton Fruit Packing. 2 story, 24' high. Three rows of wooden posts, truss roof, composition roofing.C. L. Dick Dried Fruit. 1 story, 12' high, only occupies portion of original footprint. Boiler in separate building. (Hmmm.. fire in the past?)
395 N. First St.No building.Fruit packing. 1 floor, 18' high, truss roof, composition roofing.
395 N. First St. (back)No building.Shelling Plant. Same as above.
386 N. San Pedro St.No building.Fruit packing warehouse. Same as above.
392 N. San Pedro St.Mark-Lally Plumbing Warehouse. 1 story, 14' high. Corrugated iron on studding, metal roofing, one row wood posts, no chimney.Fruit packing. 1 story, wood floor, metal roof, patent chimney.
391 San Pedro St.No buildingVegetable packing. 1 story, composition roof.
395 San Pedro St.Farmer's Union Warehouse. 1 story, 16' high, truss roof, wood shingles, no chimney.Warren Dried Fruit in western half of building. Beer warehouse in eastern half. 1 story, 16' high, truss roof, composition roofing.
100/200 Ryland St.Warren Dried Fruit. 2 story, 20' high. Corrugated iron on studding. Wood posts and truss roof, metal roofing.Warren Dried Fruit. Unreadable.
236 Ryland St.J. B. Inderrieden & Co. Dried Fruit Packing. 2 story, 24' high, wood posts on frist floor, wood shingle roof. Receiving and shipping on first floor, grading on second.Abinante and Nola Packing Co. 2 story, 24' high, 2' parapet on top. Composition roofing. Boiler.
280 Ryland St.No buildingWestern Metal and Export tin salvage plant. 1 story, 16' high, wood floor (4' open underneath), truss roof, metal roofing. No chimney.

From the "You Can't Make Stuff Like This Up" department...

I was poring over old Sanborn maps to answer Tom's "what's the roof going to be?" question. I wandered a bit south of my target area and was checking out the Guggenhime packing plant when my eyes saw the warehouse next door at 175 Julian St.

Eggo Food Products Co., Inc. - food product manufacturing.

Yep, Eggo waffles are the San Jose treat.

Who says you don't learn important facts in the model railroading hobby?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Progress on Market St. Station Warehouse

The first of the Market Street warehouses is taking shape. As usual, I'm scratchbuilding the model in styrene. Scratchbuilding basic square buildings is pretty easy, and styrene is fun to work with because I can pretty much build as fast as I can cut, and don't need to worry about painting til after assembly.

Like most of my styrene models, this one's built out of the usual small number of "staple" styrene shapes; I keep a supply of basic styrene for anything I'm building up from scratch, and only buy sheet styrene for siding and Grandt Line windows and doors when I figure out a particular project to make.

My staples for plastic are 12x12" HO (1/8" square) styrene rod for bracing, 2x12 strip for large boards (in this case for the sheathing on the loading dock), 2x6 strip for cross-bracing and railings on the stairway, 4x4 rod for posts for the stairway, 1/16" sheet styrene for the core of the object, and any handy width of scribed siding for large wood floors such as the loading dock and stair platform. I normally don't like the very thin (1" scale) plastic, but I use 1x4 strips and scribed sheet to make the baggage doors from scratch. Other than the staples, this model took a couple packs of board and batten siding (suitably weathered with a brass brush and occasional removed boards), and some Grandt Line doors and windows from a large stash. A while back, I bought the Grandt Line window and door assortment so I'd always have some window and door castings available; I restock the particular pieces I use, but if I'm not picky on a project, I can usually find something in the box to use. I also keep one or two of the Central Valley stair sets on hand so I don't have to fabricate those from scratch.

All the staples make for about $20 in plastic, and I'm good about buying additional plastic whenever I visit the local hobby shop. The only item not in the hobby shop is the 1/16" white styrene sheet, which I buy from Tap Plastics, our local plastics supplier, for around $1.50/square foot. I'll buy a few 1' x 4' sheets for backdrops, and any extra gets borrowed for other projects.

This model represents about three evenings of work at this point - most of the effort was just in deciding what to build, and feeling familiar enough with the various warehouses to be able to guess at dimensions.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

It might be easier to list who *wasn't* swallowed up by Sunsweet

After all the comments this week about whether Silicon Valley is getting a little too frothy with the various company buyouts, offers, and alliances, at least we know things weren't like that in the old days, right?

Uh... maybe not.

Sunsweet, also known as the California Prune and Apricot Growers co-operative, was obviously a popular group in the Santa Clara Valley. The co-op provided fruit dryers and packing houses for member farmers, provided marketing support for the brand, and as a result raised the prices that farmers could get for their crop. Several of the packing houses I've modeled in the San Jose area were either Sunsweet facilities or associated with the group. However, this history of Santa Clara County from around 1920 (via shows just how wide the organization's roots ran.

Here's the list of Sunsweet facilities in 1922:

"The California Prune and Apricot Growers, Inc., have organized growers', packing and warehouse associations with plants in Santa Clara County as follows:

  • Plant No. 1, Campbell (building still standing.)
  • No. 2, Morgan Hill;
  • No. 3, Gilroy;
  • No. 4, San Jose, Fourth and Lewis streets (south side of town along the old 4th Street portion of the line to San Jose.)
  • No. 6, San Jose ;
  • No. 7, Vasona, Los Gatos ; (hmmm... wonder where this was?)
  • No. 8, Mountain View ;
  • No. 10, San Jose ;
  • No. 11, San lose, Cinnebar and Senter streets; (Rose Garden neighborhood. The railroad tracks go down what used to be Senter Ave. )
  • No. 13, Los Gatos;
  • No. 14, Lincoln Avenue, San Jose. (north of Parkmoor Ave., no longer standing.)

"They also have plants in various sections of the state, and the list extended to forty in 1921. The following packers of the county are affiliated with the association:

  • Plant No. 14, W. Chilton & Co., San Jose (don't know if that's the warehouse on Ryland I'm modeling)
  • No. 15, J. B. Inderrieden Co., San Jose; (another name we've seen on the warehouses near the Market St. Station)
  • No. 16, Pacific Fruit Products Co., San Jose; (perhaps what became Abinante and Nola in the 1930's on San Carlos St. next to the Los Gatos branch)
  • No. 17, Warren Dried Fruit Co., San Jose; (another name on the warehouses near the Market Street Station
  • No. 22, Geo. E. Hyde & Co., Campbell; (on my Vasona Branch layout, buildings still existing)
  • No. 37, Warren E. Hyde, S. E. Johnson, Cupertino;
  • No. 38, West Side Fruit Growers' Association, Cupertino.

"In addition to the above, there will be established at numerous points in the state receiving stations. Growers' Packing and Warehousing Association, Inc., has already negotiated the purchase of several properties necessary for these plants. "

None of these plants were particularly tiny, and they were scattered all across the Santa Clara Valley. For a model railroader, a huge number of medium-sized industries is heaven because it means I'll have lots of switching locations for the local freight trains. This Sanborn map (showing the Lincoln Ave. Plant #14) shows a small building, but photos show it as a three story high barn-like structure with a huge facade on Lincoln Ave.

Don't think for a moment that the crazy dot-com boom was a one time occurrence in Silicon Valley. The various alliances, conglomerates, and mergers in the fruit canning and packing businesses in the teens and twenties seem very familiar.

A dried fruit packer such as Sunsweet may not seem like they've got much to do other than get the dried fruit from the farmers. However, check out their guidelines to the member fruit dryers to see what's needed so that the dried California apricots you buy at the store are high quality.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Warehouses at the Market Street Station

Today, I'll go through some of my thoughts when trying to research and scratchbuild a particular building.

One of the lingering projects has been the warehouses at the back of my Market Street Station scene. The far side of the San Jose yards, near Ryland St., had a row of warehouses up until at least the fifties.

This aerial photo from 1940 (from Silicon Valley History Online) shows the rough area; this photo is looking northwest to southeast; downtown San Jose is to the right, the San Jose yards (now the shopping center on Coleman Ave.) are in the foreground, and East San Jose is in the background. The large white building on the right side of the tracks is just after North First Street. The old Southern Pacific freight house is in the center of the tracks in the middle distance, and the old Southern Pacific Market Street Station would have been in the open space on the right side of the tracks just before the last warehouse on the right. All this track is sparsely used in the 1940's; the line to Los Angeles got rerouted through Diridon station five years before, so the track you see is just going to loop through Japantown and past the Del Monte and Mariani plants before heading back to Oakland.

The specific warehouses I want to model are those on the left side of the tracks just before North First Street. Checking out these warehouses on Sanborn maps shows the occupants of the warehouses changing with each year, but some of the names are quite familiar. Here's a list from east to west from First Street, past the Ryland Park swimming pool, and past N. San Pedro St. along Ryland St. That's roughly from opposite the old passenger station to opposite the SP freight station:

In 1915, the warehouses held:

  • J . W. Chilton and Company dried fruit packing. (383 North First Street) Mentioned in 1922 history of Santa Clara County industry. Chilton was local; San Jose's Preservation Action Council's newsletter mentions that his house was at 1050 Bird Ave. in Willow Glen, and was designed by Andrew Hill.
  • Mark-Lally & Co Plumbing supplies. (San Pedro St.) Plumbing and heating supply company out of San Francisco.
  • Farmers Union General Warehouse. (152 Ryland St.)
  • Warren Dried Fruit Co. (200 Ryland St.) My grandmother supposedly worked for them in Hayward in the 1930's.
  • J. B. Inderrieden & Co Dried Fruit Packing (236 Ryland St.) They're not locals-they're from Chicago.

In 1950:

  • C.I. Dick Dried Fruit Packing. (405 N. First St., but same as the Chilton warehouse)
  • "Shelling Plant and Warehouse". On the site of former yard tracks, closer to the SP station.
  • "Fruit Packing" (386 N. San Pedro St.)
  • "Fruit Packing and Warehouse" (392 N. San Pedro St.)
  • Beer warehouse. (395-399 San Pedro St.) Shares Warren's warehouse.
  • Warren Dried Fruit Co. (100-200 Ryland St.) They're doing pretty good to be in the same place 35 years.
  • Abinante and Nola Packing Co. (236 Ryland St.) They occupied the Inderrieden warehouse. It's interesting to find them on this side of town, as their former plant on San Carlos St. is on my Vasona branch layout.
  • Western Metal and Export. (280 Ryland St.) Tin salvage plant.

1970-era SPINS maps marking locations of industries on the SP shows all these warehouses were vacant by 1972, assuming the buildings were even still there.

There were more businesses on the other side of the street close to downtown, but that's still an awful lot of industry for a small area, and quite enough for any self-respecting model railroad.

There's not a lot of close-up's of that neighborhood, but I found some photos when diving through books. As usual, I took maps of the area (this time photocopies of the Sanborn maps of the neighborhood rather than hand-drawn) and went searching through my books for potential photos showing the warehouses. As I found photos, I'd mark the location of the photo source on the map for later reference. The aerial photo leading this blog entry gives dates from 1940 and shows the row of warehouses on the left (north) side of the tracks. They're the long warehouses standing alone with the little clerestory peaks to get light into the buildings.

Detail shots are sparse, though. "Prune County Railroading" has a couple photos. One shows the roof lines of the warehouses peeking out over the tops of passenger cars at the old SP Market Street station. This nice photo from 1935 of SP 3105 crossing San Pedro Street showing the board and batten warehouses with covered loading docks and signs running the length of the roof peak advertising "A. Levy & Co." and "… Fruit Company". From the Sanborn maps and my guesses at the location of the photos, that would be either be the C. I. Dick warehouse and one of the generic warehouse which were up against the neighborhood in the aerial photos, or a new line of warehouses built on former yard tracks just behind the old station. The new warehouses appear as that row of three brighter warehouses in the aerial photo. The old Market St. station had been torn down by the time this photo was taken, but it appeared on the right side of the tracks opposite the newer warehouses. Just for trivia, the larger building on the right side of the tracks in the distance is a cold storage warehouse just on the other side of First Street. That space had been a house/estate up until the twenties, and the warehouse appeared sometime in the 1930's.

So with these photos and a bit of guessing, here's my assumptions about what these warehouses look like, and what my model should look like.

Generally, what I've seen in the photo are tall (16-20' high) one story warehouses with sloping roofs, covered loading docks, and occasional large freight doors; the Sanborn maps confirm this, with exact wall heights, notes about boilers and motors for power, and addresses. One exception was the Inderrieden / Abinate and Nola warehouse which had 24 foot high walls and was marked as having two floors. None of the Sanborn maps show locations of doors, but all show how the buildings were divided up, and where the non-railroad loading and unloading docks must have been.

From comparing building sizes to the widths of the roadways, the warehouses appeared to be on the order of 150 feet long and 50 feet wide. The photo of locomotive 3105 shows that the loading dock to the right was sheathed below the dock, and the one to the left was not. The Sanborn maps don't give much more detail - 18' high walls, truss roofs with wood posts, covered platforms, occasional motors for running machinery, fuel oil.

I'm guessing they're mostly board-and-batten structures from textures on some of the photos, and that they should appear a bit worn both from age and from lack of maintenance due to intermittent use. They'll be simple to build except for those clerestory roofs. Because my warehouses will be up against the backdrop and at an angle, getting all the rooflines correct will be a chore.

Anyway, that's all I've learned. I've done my research using photos from books, photos (like the aerial photo) from library collections on the Internet, explored Sanborn maps thanks to San Jose Library's Sanborn subscription. (Yes, a great use of my tax dollars!) I've made a good guess at the appearance of the warehouses, and started on construction. I'm not sure my guess at the building is perfect, but it's a starting point, and I'll have an interesting model as a placeholder til I learn more.

And if you're looking for a historic project to get started, how about doing some searching on those fruit packing company names and addresses on the Internet, and see what you turn up?

Next time, I'll show some construction photos.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

SwitchList: Feedback Wanted

If you tried out my SwitchList program for the Mac when I mentioned it a couple weeks back, I'd appreciate any feedback you've got.

I made the app public in hopes of figuring out what next to do with it. I knew it worked well for my layout and was a great improvement for me over car cards and other routing systems, but wasn't sure whether it would be useful to all of you out there. I wasn't sure which features to add or bugs to fix to make it particularly useful. Should I stay with the small layout focus or aim for more complex layouts? Should I finish the feature for spotting cars at particular doors of an industry? Are there better ways of printing the switchlists? I'm also trying to decide whether to keep working on it on my own, or whether there are others out there who might have features they think are worth adding.

If you tried it and had comments (and especially if you tried it and found it wouldn't work for you), I'd appreciate hearing your comments, either on this post or via e-mail.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modelling Diridon Station

Anyone interested in railroading in San Jose ought to check out the latest edition of Model Railroad Hobbyist for a great set of model photos of Diridon Station in the 1950's. Vic Roseman, famous for his realistic east-coast dioramas and photos in Model Railroader magazine in the 1970's, appears to have switched coasts, and he's done some beautiful models and captured the scenes nicely.

Welcome to the Left Coast, Vic! We'll try to make sure you'll never have to model snow again!

Personally, I'm holding off for my chance to build a large and operable version of San Jose's old Market Street Station circa 1930, and try to run the tons of daily commute trains that left that victorian-era three track station on five minute intervals.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Busman's Holiday

I spent a good part of the weekend on a busman's holiday - cleaning up the computer program I use for deciding which boxcars get switched during an operating session. It's cleaned up enough so that I'm willing to let others try it out.

Go check out a very early version of SwitchList if you've got a Mac, and could use a computerized switchlist generator for your layout.

Now, if you don't know why you'd need that, let's talk about model railroad operations.

If model railroad operation is a game, then figuring out what has to be done during the game is a key detail. For the operations game, the question is "where do the trains run" and "what freight cars do the trains need to switch?" There have been all sorts of ideas proposed over the life of the hobby. Some use car cards that can be picked randomly to figure out where a car should move. John Allen, a famous modeler from the 1960's, drilled holes in his freight car roofs and stuck colored tacks in to indicate the destination of each car. (Rumor has it a real railroad tried this once, but stopped after accidentally drilling holes in the roofs of new cars held in a car carrier.) Others have placed scraps of paper with placement instructions on the top of freight cars. Others go with the simplest approach and roll dice at each town to figure out the number of cars to pick up and drop off in each town.

When I first started operating the Vasona Branch, I tried the car cards approach. I photocopied a couple hundred of the cardboard slips to represent the cars and the cargo they carried, and spent a couple nights on the repetitive task of writing down potential actions. "Take a boxcar from Plant 51 back to staging." "Take another boxcar from Plant 51 back to staging." "Take a stockcar up to the passing siding at Alma." "Take another boxcar from Plant 51 to staging, but this time pretend you're sending it to Cleveland." It was slow, painful work.

At the operating session, I dealt out a card for each freight car, and paper-clipped the cargo card to the card representing the freight car, gave a stack to my operators, and let them start. The cards worked decently - the print was a bit small, but they weren't too hard to handle, and they were easy to find if someone dropped his cards on the garage floor. I needed a place to put all those cards, so I glued together some small plastic pockets out of styrene sheet to hold the cards for the freight cars at each industry.

It worked ok, but after a few sessions, I wasn't as happy. The cargo cards just specified a kind of car - "this car is for a tank car, that for a refrigerator car.' But the process of picking an appropriate car for appropriate lading in the real world is much more complex. There are elaborate rules about what to do to return a boxcar after it's carried a load to another railroad. Generally, the rule is that the car can be reused for a load heading back towards the owning railroad, but if no loads are going in the right direction, the freight car needs to be sent back to its owner as fast as possible. (Read a bit about demurrage here or here too if you'd like a future in transportation law.) One bit of fallout of that is that cars on my layout from a non-Southern Pacific railroad -- such as those East Coast boxcars -- should only appear on industry sidings that might either send or receive lading from the east coast.

And so, one day I look at the concrete warehouse spur in front of Plant 51, and I see a Florida East Coast ventilated boxcar sitting there, and I know that there's absolutely no reason why that car should be there. No one would have *any* reason to ship cement from Florida to California in the 1930's. Nothing in that warehouse would be heading the other way from California to Florida. It's just wrong for that car to be there, and I'm annoyed. Obviously it doesn't take much to annoy me.

Now, there's ways of tuning car cards to avoid that sort of problem. Maybe mark certain cards according to which railroad's cars can hold them. Similarly, when I got annoyed that the dirtiest boxcars were ending up hauling canned fruit for Del Monte, I could have started marking which cargo cards required "clean" boxcars, and which cargos could go in the dirtiest, most weathered boxcars. But that requires writing a lot of car cards, and I'd had my fill of that.

There are some commercial Windows-only programs for generating switchlists or waybills, but they were all for Windows only. I found some free switchlist software, but found them cryptic and hard to use. Yes, I'm proud I can tweak some strange configuration file for a twenty-year-old command line program to add a couple new freight cars to the system, but I don't really want to do that regularly.

So the solution was to write my own program for the Mac, and it's been sitting on my computer for a few years now. It's usually worked ok, but I've never spent enough time to actually polish it or get it in a state where others might be able to use it. One of my biggest problems was that that car assignment algorithm was messy, and I didn't have any easy ways to test that any change I made wasn't going to break the software completely. Fortunately, I tried using the automatic unit testing code for the Mac (specifically the OCUnit Objective-C unit testing framework), and spent the weekend adding hundreds of tests to make sure that cars moved reasonably correctly. Between that and some cleanup of how stuff is stored on the computer disk, SwitchList was finally at a state to let others check it out.

So try it out, see if it's useful for you, and let me know how it works!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Santa Clara Valley Mill and Lumber and Cheim Lumber

One of my industries on the Vasona Branch is the Santa Clara Valley Mill and Lumber yard on San Carlos St. near Sunol St. I'd done a bit of research on it - enough to know that the company was run by William Doughtery, who did significant logging in the Felton area. Although the old Sanborn Maps showed this name on the property, it became Cheim Lumber some time in the 1930's, a business that ran at that location until 1997. Leo Cheim's obituary also mentions the business.

I don't know much about what the business looked like in the 1930's, but Rick Sprain shows some photos of what their retail store on the Alameda looked like in the 1950's. Sadly, they were photos taken as the store burned down, supposedly because of children playing with matches in the yard behind the store. Searching the Internet also turns up the lawsuit by Pacific Hardware complaining that Cheim Lumber should have kept those kids out of the yard. Rick's photos are nice views of San Jose in the 1950's, with the landmark (and recently gone) Andy's Pet Shop in the background.

History San Jose also has a picture from the fire showing employees saving the business records as the fire rages behind them. There's also a water tank visible in the smoke; my guess is it's for Del Monte Plant 51.

Here's what the site looks like today.

Freight trains on Fourth Street?

Along with the Vasona Branch layout in the garage, I've also got a shelf layout focusing on the old San Jose Market Street station inside the house.

Originally, the Southern Pacific line from San Francisco curved east near present day Coleman Ave., crossed north of downtown San Jose, then turned onto Fourth Street and proceeded through downtown San Jose on its way to Los Angeles. The Espee had a fifty year franchise to run trains on Fourth Street starting in the 1870's, and by the 1920's, San Jose was sick of mainline trains snarling traffic and dirtying laundry hung outside. After a good deal of fighting with the locals, the Southern Pacific finally re-routed their mainline around the west side of town, and built the current station on Cahill Street near the Alameda. Any traffic jams after that point could only be blamed on the automobiles.

This photo from the Willow Glen Resident newspaper shows why the town wanted the Southern Pacific off Fourth Street. Apologies for the bad reproduction, but the newspaper hasn't gotten around to put the photo online.

One obvious detail I can see I need to add to my shelf layout: lots of cars stopped at the railroad crossing, cursing the railroad. I could even play a tape loop of drivers cursing to make the scene realistic, but then my layout would be rated NC-17.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Work like that doesn't happen instantaneously...

Articles about model building always seem to happen quickly and flawlessly, but my models never come together that well. Luckily, Bill Hambly actually kept a diary as he built a railroad station, and mentioned the mistakes (wall built backwards. Oh, I've never done that!) as well as the parts that went well. He also names the nine work sessions required to build the kit, with one (assembling the sides) dragging out over a week.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Take a Setting Card"

Every now and then when talking with a new acquaintance, I'll mention my model railroad hobby. If they don't immediately give me the "you play with trains?" look, I'll also mention model railroad operation, and describe it as "kind of like Dungeons and Dragons, except where you're trying to role-play life as a railroad employee rather than a freelance destroyer of monstruous pests in the local ruins."
And, to be honest, that's what operations feels like to me: can I do the switching jobs in the same way a real crew would, and get an idea for what life on the railroad was like? That's great for the work tasks, but there's not a lot of ways to appreciate the setting when model railroading. We focus on the track and trains because... well, that's our job. We've got nice scenery to explain where we are in the world and hint at the setting, but what's it really like to be riding in the caboose up Los Gatos Canyon, or what subtleties of the town are we not getting from the scenery?

I'd thought a couple years ago about having a bunch of "location setting" cards at each town to add some color. As you passed through each town, you could pull out one card and it would give you some color to whatever role you were playing. For example:


Climbing up Los Gatos Canyon feels like a different world. The canyon walls close in, the towns disappear, and the closest sign of civilization are the orchards and farmhouses further up the ridge. At times, the tracks are carved into the cliff, and you can look down out of a window and see the creek below.
You can smell the sage, and the bay laurel trees, and the dust getting kicked up from the train.
The brakeman shot a rabbit during a station stop at Alma, and the smell from the caboose makes it seem like they’re working on lunch.



As your train pulls past the empty station at Wrights, you almost feel like the town’s fading away before your eyes. Sure, the general store’s still open on the other side of the tracks, but the Water Company’s trying hard to buy that bit of land and chase out the few families in the area. Alice Mattey, the operator, waves from the station, but there’s no one else on the platform. A couple wagonloads of apricots sit on the opposite side of the river waiting for a refrigerator car to be spotted.
The forest is slowly overwhelming the town. The trees droop and shade the track, and you occasionally see deer running through the brush.

Similar cards for Campbell or San Jose could give details about life in the canneries - reminders of what season it is, reminders of how the traffic compares to last year, which plants cut production completely because of the depression, or how the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) strike affected the train crews.

So, what's your opinion - too geeky, or a nice way to help set a mood for operations?

It's on the Internet, so it's got to be correct!

We all hopefully know that not everything is true on the Internet. For the Vasona Branch, I've always been a little suspicious of the guess on one of the SP railfan websites that a board and batten building on Railway Ave. in Campbell was actually an old freight house for the South Pacific Coast. I didn't bother actively debunking the details til I saw folks mentioning the building on the Espee mailing list.

Here's a photo, if you're interested, or all the photos of railroad details along the Vasona Branch.

So what's got me debunking this building as ex-SPC?

  • It doesn't look very SPC or like a freight depot - no siding repairs to mark the position of freight doors, lots of windows, doors at inappropriate places, no SPC style roof supports or overhangs, etc.
  • The 1928 Campbell Sanborn map shows no such building south of the later (now gone) Southern Pacific depot.
  • I can't find any historic photos showing that building around. I've seen photos of the original (tiny) SPC depot in South Pacific Coast: A Centennial (p. 143), and that building is (1) much tinier, and (2) had horizontal siding, not the board and batten of the suspect building.
  • I've seen photos of the later depot, and it's not the same building.
  • The suspect building doesn't match the Los Gatos (SPC?) freight depot, a much larger building that I assume was SPC built - see the roof supports in this picture.
  • I saw an article in the local paper describing that building as a former cannery cafeteria, (objection: hearsay!) and the Hyde cannery cafeteria in the foreground of this photo would be the right shape. The Sanborn maps also show the cafeteria building was vacant by 1928; any chance the old cafeteria building was just moved across the tracks when the bypass roads around downtown were built?

I don't know if I'm right, but I'm looking forward to hearing if anyone on the mailing list has got a strong idea that this really was an SPC building.

Making Mountains

Deep breath. How bad could it be to put scenery over the staging tracks?

Ok, it's done. I finally started building the scenery along the Alma siding, turning the corner curve at Alma from a place to see benchwork and the back wall into the beginnings of a hillside. In the process, I started covering up the hidden tracks below; they haven't been very accessible with the benchwork in place, but the scenery really cuts access further. Still, it's a necessary step. I've got hidden trackage, and that means it's got to be hidden at some point. The track below sometimes needs cleaning (and I think I've got enough access), but it's been running reasonably well so I don't think I'll need to do trackwork there any time soon. And even if I did, at worst I'll have to tear up some scenery to get some space to work, and that's not so bad, right?

On the other hand, I still remember that really cool cliff face I had on my teenage model railroad that came out so beautifully... but the 50' and longer cars I was trying to run kept bumping into the cliff face because of insufficient clearance. I rebuilt that cliff face, but it never looked as good as the first one...

For the Alma hillside, I used the same techniques as before. My backdrop is 1/16" styrene sheet, bought at the local plastic supply store (Tap Plastics) for less than $2/square foot. It cuts easily, bends nice, and takes paint fine. The scenery is white beadboard foam, cut with a hot wire tool and various knives, and glued in place (carefully and quickly!) with hot glue. The actual scenery surface is Sculptamold, a plaster/paper mache mix.

The space underneath is cramped; here's a picture directly below that scenery showing the Alma tracks, then the Vasona Junction wye, (in the shadows) the tracks heading towards the San Jose staging, and finally in the foreground the exposed San Jose staging tracks. Getting the backdrop in place behind Vasona Junction will be a bit of a challenge; it'll be attached with Velcro so I can still get to the tracks behind if necessary. The lower backdrop will lead under the Alma deck ; there's probably only a 5" wide area underneath the other level, but I think I can model Winchester Road and orchards as both arms of the wye dive through the backdrop.

I had two hitches with this project. First, my can of blue sky paint was old, and while it looked good in the can, it didn't have enough acrylic binder to stay on the backdrop. Instead, it just dripped big blue drops on all the scenery. Mixing the bad paint in with the white base fixed the problem before everything dried. Also, as I finished putting in foam scenery downhill and to the left of the new hill, I realized I still had a C clamp holding the Alma shelf to a support. My cordless drill and some contortions got that permanently attached, and now I've got another C clamp available for projects. Glad I saw that while I still had space for the drill!

Next steps: Start putting in ground at the Alma hill, then start building the scenery downhill from this scene to the far end of the Alma siding. It'll be fun to see what happens with that scenery. There's going to be a crossing of Los Gatos Creek, and there's also a (currently unused) switch for a long spur/branch that could lead to a space above the helix about six feet away. I've occasionally thought of industries there - perhaps a mine site and small town modeled after the mercury mines one ridge over at New Almaden, or (more prototypically) some minor oil drilling sites. Oil's actually been found in Los Gatos Canyon, and there was a spur at Alma in the SPC days to serve the production from Moody Gulch. Check out the USGS report for more details about the oil well in Los Gatos and the potential for measurable oil underneath Cupertino and Saratoga. Make sure you get mineral rights when you buy land in those towns!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Interesting finds in the newspaper

I spent the weekend on machining projects instead of on the railroad or (more importantly) yardwork, so there's nothing new to report. I did see a couple interesting articles in the paper, though.

First, the local weekly paper, the Willow Glen Resident, had this photo in their "Looking Back" feature. If I needed some ideas for my abandoned farm near Alma, this ought to give me some ideas. Looks like the owners brought out all their livestock to show how well they were doing.

Second, the Mercury News has a nice article on the city
buying up land for the proposed A's ballpark next to Diridon Station. Usually, I've got to go poring through old archives to find histories of old industrial buildings, but here they put a nice map on the front page. I'm glad I actually looked at the physical paper this morning.

The map's interesting because the area south of Diridon station holds areas I model. The "PG&E substation" used to be a PG&E generating plant. I've got a model of that plant as a building just south of the Plant 51 area; I modeled the building off a photo just after Diridon station was built. HP Pavilion was the site of a coal gas plant (I think) and had a gas holder for many years; I've got that too.

The extension of Autumn Street just south of the old main line (cutting across the top of the map) plows right over the former site of the Greco Canning Company, next to the Guadalupe River. History San Jose has a nice picture of that plant; it's where the large parking lot now sits at "B" on the map. There's also this history of Anthony Greco; I don't know if it's the same Greco's, but it gives some color for the history of the local canning business. [Oops, it's not the same. Anthony Greco formed a Greco Canning in 1909 which lasted four years until reorganization, then started Alba Canning, selling out in 1920 to buy land in the hills. The Greco Canning on Autumn St. was founded by Victor Greco in 1915. (Wonder if it was the remainder of what got reorganized?) The canning business is starting to sound a lot like high-tech...]

I also love the Greco Canning building because it looks like so many of the Campbell model buildings from my teenage years. They always looked odd to my eye, but now I know they were prototypical!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Truth about Dairies

One of the fun parts of this hobby is learning all sorts of trivial details about California history, industries, and agriculture. Take, for example, dairies. A friend gave a talk on the milk trains and dairy industries along the New York Central railroad in the Northeast, and about the creameries that processed the milk. Kind of interesting (even if his stories only reminded me of snow and New Yorkers)... Ever since then, the other local modelers keep asking me, "so, do you have milk trains on the Vasona Branch, just like Ed talked about on the NYC?"

I didn't know. I don't know how the California dairy industry worked, except that there used to be dairies on the San Francisco Peninsula back in the days before suburbia. The cows handled the fog and wind better than the teenagers in Colma: The Musical.

Or at least, I didn't know until recently. My mom lent me a copy of A Barrelful of Memories: Stories of my Azorean Family by Pauline Correia Stonehill, a few weeks ago. The author talks about growing up on a dairy outside Los Banos run by her parents, first generation Portuguese immigrants. It's a great book, and not just because it hints at my grandmother's life on her parents' fruit ranch up above Hayward at the same time. The stories about the dairies talk about buying a herd of cattle from another immigrant, renting a farm, and then putting in the hard work needed for a dairy - twice daily milking, growing and harvesting hay, dealing with the hired help, and fighting against all the obstacles that that the world threw at them.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the Los Banos area had tons of dairies run by Portuguese and Italian immigrants. The descendents still run dairies around there; when I drove Highway 59 between Los Banos and Merced a couple weeks ago, the farms had the same family names: "Silva Dairy", "Brazil Ranch".

In the stories, Stonehill remembers her father taking the wagon or truck to the creamery into town with the day's milk - no milk trains for them or anyone, even though they were next to the train tracks, three miles out of town. There were so many dairies in the area around Los Banos to give the processing plant plenty of raw material to work with, and the wagons probably were the easiest way to get the milk into town. It also meant that Pauline got to do all the same high school activities as the city kids because her father could give her a ride home on his way back from the creamery.

The same was probably true in San Jose; the stories about the dairies on Dairy Hill south of town and the American Dairy Company (Borden) creamery near 17th and Santa Clara St. match those of Los Banos. (Borden took over the Sneath Dairies, too. I didn't know that either.)

And if those stories weren't enough, the lack of any milk trains on the Southern Pacific timetable definitely say that milk wasn't shipped around by train. There's no trains marked as stopping at all locations as the traditional milk train did, and the stories of the dairies talk about the need for morning and night milking putting out milk each night for the early morning train seems awfully inefficient for what should be a five mile drive into town. Milk trains might be a bit romantic, but it sounds like they were east coast-specific (or perhaps from an earlier era). Maybe they made sense in the narrow valleys of the northeast where the dairies couldn't be clustered together, but when you had a twenty mile (or hundred mile wide) valley, you could put an awful lot of dairies close together and right next to the creameries.

And one last bit of trivia that I also learned in this particular thread: did you know that most barns in Los Banos face west or northwest? I didn't before, but now I do. Bet that barns in San Jose faced the same direction.

Not that any of those trivial details make much difference in my life, but fun in the same way that puzzles or collecting might be: learning a few related facts to build a bigger idea, visiting out-of-the-way museums (like Los Banos's) to collect other little tidbits, and making connections from books I once read
. And best of all, unlike collecting physical things, I don't have a boxful of thoughts filling up the closet.

[Picture shamelessly cribbed from]

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Next Project

I've actually got two projects to do next (besides fix the signals):

* As I mentioned in the last blog entry, I'm thinking of placing an abandoned farm between Alma and Wrights. Good for the period, but it'll get rid of the last bit of empty, unoccupied space... and I might want to remind viewers they're looking at a desolate canyon.

* All the nice photos face uphill towards Wrights because the sky disappears in the other direction. (That's really a shame, as I really like this photo of the station and the hillside.) I've got backdrop material to finish the backdrop here, and then I need to start putting scenery on the bare styrafoam at the other end of the Alma siding.

That second idea will need me to make some uncomfortable choices. The tracks curve onto a shelf built behind Los Gatos and over the staging tracks; I've been hesitant to put in scenery here, partially because I wasn't sure what to do, and partially because I'm going to find it really hard to maintain the tracks underneath once the scenery goes in. So if this really is a five-year or ten-year layout, what are the odds I'll need easy access to those tracks, or can I be enough of a contortionist to twist under the benchworks to clean the tracks?

It's also exciting for me at the same time; Alma's been a very unloved point on the railroad, but this month's scenery has been coming out wonderfully and makes the spot eye-catching. Before the scenery, it was just a siding on a shelf. Once the scenery went in, it became very easy to imagine what's really happening--a train pulling aside on train orders, a fast passenger blowing through town without stopping. Just running trains through here for the photos has been great fun. It'll be interesting to see how the other half of the siding turns out when scenery goes in.

More Photos of Alma

This weekend's big project was getting the signals running in Alma; by the end of the weekend, the semaphores are moving, but I'm still having problems getting yellow indications to show. Although I blogged about my last problems with the signals last time, I didn't write down enough to help me track down what's going on here. No matter - I've got the signal board nested underneath the upper deck, and they're moving, and that's success enough today.

The Alma scene's looking great to my eye. I love the tall grass, and the cut into the hillside, and the Station. Compared with my original plan a month ago, I'm doing pretty good. I still need to finish detailing the station, and add the MOW boxcar I saw in one old photo. I've also got an idea for the next stretch of scenery between here and Wrights: an abandoned farm, with an orchard disappearing into the weeds and an abandoned building. The early 30's were a hard time for farmers in the Santa Clara Valley, with fruit prices dropping. Modeling some of that fallout might be good.

Here's a couple pictures of the actual Alma station, the first from the Preston Sawyer collection at UCSC (and published in the original South Pacific Coast book) dating from 1950, just before the valley was flooded for Lexington Reservoir. The second was taken by Norman Holmes around 1944, and is from Prune County Railroading. Comparing the real photos to the photos of my model, I still need to add some gingerbread trim at the roof peak, add drainpipes, and that very obvious hose bib centered on the end wall. I also still need to add fascia boards along the edge of the roof and smokejacks. I still have a few nice evening projects before I'll be finished.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Being able to dive into small projects.

Yesterday's entry mentioned that I still needed to install the semaphore signals at the far end of the Alma siding. The existing signals are LEDs covered with hot glue - not the most prototypical, but cheap and easy to build. My only problem was that there wasn't really room for both semaphores; although I'd cut a notch into the hill for the downhill signal, there really wasn't enough space for the signal and assorted signal machinery details. That spot also happened to be right under one of the joists, and didn't have room for the real machinery under the layout to move the semaphore.

So instead, I took a utility knife to that nice hillside I made last weekend, and cut out addtional space. Here's the photo of the area right after I finished. I'll admit I worried this was going to be one of those model projects that took a reasonable accomplishment and messed it up. But I wanted those signals, and I wanted the signals in each direction to be across the tracks from each other as they were on the prototype.

Here's the after shot. Now, the key detail is that this photo was taken about 6 hours after the previous one; in fact, the little mound of ballast for the signal didn't really bond this time, so I dripped more matte medium on it right after I took the photo.

Rebuilding the scene went quickly because I had all the supplies still out - the sifted dirt for the base layer, the pinkish sand for the gritty sides of the cut, the box full of oak-like trees I made last winter. More importantly, I've been keeping a jar full of diluted matte medium around with an eyedropper always included, so it was really easy for me to take the rough Sculptamold scenery, cover it with brown paint, then sift on the various dirts and install the trees. The matte medium was particularly handy because I saw later in the afternoon that some of the track wasn't fully buried in the ballast or dirt, and so could quickly dump a bit of dirt on the tracks, spray it with the water sprayer, then soak it with matte medium for bonding. That's half the work of getting scenes built - having some of the supplies on-hand so that making little bits of touch-up like this can be done in ten minute in between other jobs (or in between household chores) rather than requiring an afternoon to get all the tools out.

The other cool project for the scene were the telephone poles. These are the Rix telegraph pole kits; I pulled out the kit package last night, glued on the crossarms, then sprayed them with dullcoat and gray paint this morning. The metal arm supports got a touch of color with a Floquil rust paint marker I've been using for the tracks, and the insulators got whichever color of green was handy in the paint box. I cut down a few of the poles for that short-pole look often seen in period photos.

Anyway, hopefully I can get to the signals in the next week or two; I'll need to install the servos for controlling the semaphore arms and set up the electronics for controlling them; the only hard part is where to stash the electronics so the wire runs aren't too long. The servos are temperamental, and long wires can cause them to not work at all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

More Alma Progress

The Google Earth backdrop got reprinted in yellower colors (to be a bit closer match to the existing backdrop further on), so I glued that on with some Spray-mount (well, Super 77 contact cement). Once the backdrop was in, I added some backdrop oak trees I'd made last year from Supertrees. The scene's looking pretty great to my eye. The yellow static flock and Silflor grass tufts really make the scene look like a typical summer in California. The tufts are lots of fun; although they're pricey (around $25 for about 12" square) they're actually cheap fun because they're easy to add to a scene, suck up a lot of time as you figure where taller grass can appear, and do a great job of carrying grass out to the edge of the benchwork. I've found the tufts to be much more useful than the Silflor grass sheets.

This shot shows off the sandy banks well. I worried they wouldn't look right with the darker soil I use, but the different texture (and darker color bleeding through) makes it work. It's too bad I didn't have room for explicit drainage ditches on the far side of the tracks. I used some of the Silflor bunch grass along the edge of the cut to make the grass look thinner. Next step: replace the hot glue signals with some moving semaphores.

For the time I model, Alma was at best a flag stop; it had lost its agent years before, and one of the history articles I read said that the station became the area's community center by 1940. Trains weren't stopping in Alma. The crossing under the photographer's feet would be the original (1915?) Santa Cruz Highway; by 1932, the state had built a new highway up the center of the valley, off to our right across the creek about a half mile away. The local water district was furious because they'd been planning on building what would become Lexington Reservoir, but the state wasn't willing to move the highway. When the dam and lake were finally approved in the late 1940's, the courts heard about Caltrans's intransigence, and forced them to pay for a good portion of moving their "new" highway out of the way of the dam.