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!