Monday, February 15, 2010

Thinking through some changes: Designing Alma by picking details from photos

It's short, shameful confession time again - I don't really plan ahead very far. Although I planned some of the towns in detail (such as West San Jose and the Del Monte plants), I only sketched out the rough idea of other towns. I would name what real place I was modeling and maybe hint at ideas for a couple buildings, but otherwise delayed deciding what the scene would look like until after I started building. Wrights evolved; I knew I wanted the creek scene, the station, and the general store, but the rest of the details - the road going under the trestle, and the abandoned packing house - got added only after I had rough scenery in place and could think about what might fit.

The latest example of a town designed after I start building is Alma, the next town downhill from the Wrights scene I've already finished. I roughed in scenery right after I built the shelf for Alma so trains would not fall to the floor, but never quite figured out scenery and structures for the area. This weekend, I finally took another look at the location and decided to plan Alma out once and for all. This little episode gives a nice example of how I model prototype locations.

Alma was a railroad siding up at a wide spot in Los Gatos Canyon, three or four miles up the canyon from Los Gatos. Alma started out as a railhead when the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge line was building up this canyon; the passengers would get off the trains and board stagecoaches for the remainder of the trip over the mountains. When the line was completed, Alma was operationally was important for the narrow gauge as the only decent passing siding between here and Glenwood on the Santa Cruz size of the mountains. Trains would wait here til opposing trains could make it through the narrow canyon and tunnels. Photos from the 1880's show three tracks here, with the Alma Hotel, farms, and orchards all in the area. But by the time I'm modeling, Alma was just a place people went through. There was a general store for the locals and the folks driving through on the new state highway, there were some ranches, and in the middle of this, the Santa Cruz branch tracks ran through the middle and passed a closed station that occasionally served as a flag stop for the passenger trains.

My model version of Alma is an awkward place. It's located on the narrow shelf where the second level of the layout starts. There are no industries, just a single passing siding on an eight inch wide shelf, half-hidden behind the Los Gatos scene. It's also flipped from the actual location - if we were looking uphill at the real Alma and past the station, looking to the left should be towards Santa Cruz, but the arrangement of the track and shelf means that Santa Cruz is right.

To be fair, Alma was also a town without a strong purpose. I had intended Alma to be a handy place for trains to meet when going between the upper and lower levels. I assumed I would enough trains to require the extra passing siding to avoid congestion downhill at Los Gatos or uphill at Glenwood. When I started operating the layout, I found we did not run many trains on the upper level, so the passing siding has turned out to be deserted most of the time.

But the tracks are already there, and even if Alma's not that important operationally, it's an interesting place to model.

When I try modeling a scene like Alma, I tend to search books and the Internet for photos of the location, then try to figure out the three or four details which set the scene. I found two photos of Alma from the 1940's, one looking uphill towards Wrights and eventually Santa Cruz, and the other looking west and downhill. (The first is in "South Pacific Coast: a Narrow Gauge Portrait", and the second in "Prune County Railroading".)

Both photos center on the station at Alma. So what are the details that immediately catch my eye? Alma's station is interesting because it's so small - maybe twelve feet wide and high (from counting clapboards and looking at the height of the door), and 48 feet long (assuming 8 feet between each of the roof supports.) It's also got the neat crossed roof brackets seen on all the former South Pacific Coast depots. Railroad tie retaining walls support the wall, implying there's a slight slope to the ground away from the station, and there's an older car at the bottom of the hill. In the background, there's a crossbuck for a road crossing the tracks, and it looks like there's an old boxcar with peeling paint, just behind the tracks. Maybe it's a maintenance-of-way shed? There's a line of flatcars with telephone poles on the far track. The tracks disappear into the trees - probably oaks and bay laurels. The grass around the station is short, and the station platform is dirt.

A few of those details end up being the core for the layout: the station, the retaining wall, the gentle slope, the road crossing, and the maintenance-of-way boxcar. I'd obviously need the station and the small retaining walls because they are present in all the photos, and those details are the ones that folks who've seen the photos would identify. The photos also remind me that I'd need the ground to slope gradually so the retaining walls are only a few feet high, instead of the 20 foot slope that the existing scenery has. The crossing is an interesting detail that will both join the space in front of and behind the tracks, and remind viewers that there is something on the other side of the tracks. The old boxcar's a great detail, but it won't really fit in the scene in the place where it would have been in real life; maybe I can put it on the other side of the crossing, or place it elsewhere in the scene.

All that gives me a to-do list for the next week or two:

  • Redo the scenery to get the gentle slope of the hillside up to the tracks.
  • Add the retaining walls, and fill in the station embankment.
  • Build a model of the station.
  • Extend the scene and add the road crossing.
  • Add dirt and ground cover to the scene.
  • Add lots of dry grass, and some oaks in the distance.
  • Perhaps add a flat representation of the old Alma hotel in the distance.
  • Paint or print out pictures of dry hills in the background.
  • Figure out a place for the MOW boxcar.

I've already re-done the scenery, the retaining walls, and the crossing over the last couple days. I've also started building the Alma station from styrene - small, square buildings like this are remarkably easy to build if I've already got the needed plastic sheet and window castings on hand.

More details as the scene progresses...

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