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?


  1. Hi Robert, It's awesome how we both live in “parallel universe”! I’ve the same idea for my layout, just with a slight difference: tell the story of some industries. In fact the idea originated from instruction books of some laser kit buildings I’ve ( BTS comes me in mind ) where I read the “fantasy” romantic story of a Watt Morelad Wax producers, Elliot & Sons family wholesalers, the Donovan Transfer Co. owned by a retired ship captain and on Republic web site the story of Mr. Robert Hyde, owner of Hyde Pulp Mill …”With the success of the Sawmill, came the realization that not every tree in the forest is good for cutting into boards. Some are just too small. And not every branch of those trees worthy of meeting the sawyer would be large enough for the same fate. So he saw the potential for creating another source of revenue, the pulp mill…..” Well, just fantasy as I’ve said! But this trigger my idea to write a short history of the industries and stations I will model and position it on the fascia (near the CC pocket) with one or two pictures of the real site at the time for crews pleasure.
    I’m thinking also to play some 50’s radio (news and music) recording with low volume…..
    So, my answer is definitely: Yes! Keep the good work! I appreciate a lot! Cheers
    Enzo Fortuna (modeling SP in Italy)

  2. Hi, Enzo,

    I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking of the idea!

    There's probably many entertaining stories about San Francisco that are true. If you can name an industry or location, I can search around for some actual stories from the 1950's that would match your setting.


  3. Hi Robert,
    I love the idea of setting the mood with setting cards. Since I'm freelancing I had a similar idea as Enzo to make up the background story for my layout, based on the history of similar lines in the vicinity of the Black Forest. How the line came into being, who was the driving force behind establishing it. In the ideal case include some history of places, again based on actual history of actual, but similar, places.


  4. I really like the idea as well, I had the idea to write short cards about each of my locomotives with history and running characteristics written out as if the Engineer or Fireman was talking to you. e.g. "She's a mighty fine puller up Cuesta Grade, but she can't make it onto the turntable at SLO, so we have to turn her on the Wye." That sort of thing. It may provide a nice introduction to the operations session.

    The Place cards are also an incredibly good idea, I think I'll experiment with them on my layout and gauge the reaction.