Monday, May 9, 2011

Scenery in Vasona Junction

One of the key aspects of a model railroad is that it shows all the unlovely spaces in the world: warehouse canyons, weed-covered sidings, tracks through barren fields. Railroads might go through occasional photogenic locations, but most of the spots are definitely not on the average tourist's itinerary. Unless they're visiting the Society for Industrial Archaeology conference, of course.

For me as someone who's already confessed to be a model railroader partially as an outlet for the frustrated architect within, the lack of attractive buildings is a bit annoying. If I was trying to build models of attractive 1930's buildings, I'd build a model of downtown San Francisco, or of Sutro Baths, or some Greene and Greene houses in Pasadena.

There's always modeling Fourth Street in San Jose back in the early 1930's when freight trains ran past nice victorian residences, but that's still an outlier.

But that's not where the trains ran, and that's not what the hobby's about. The next area on my layout to be scenicked is one of those unlovely spaces - Vasona Junction, where the Mayfield Cutoff from Palo Alto and Los Altos hit the former South Pacific Coast mainline from San Jose to Los Gatos. Vasona Junction wasn't much in the 1930's, or even the 1950's - a barren, empty place in the middle of prune orchards where two railroad lines came together. Even now, it's not much more than a cluster of tilt-up warehouse buildings next to the 85 freeway. There was so little there, why would I even model it?

Well, there's a bunch of reasons.

  • That's what the Santa Clara Valley was like - a rural area covered with orchards and with occasional roads connecting the various farms. The scene is a nice reminder of what's in between all the other scenes I model.
  • It's a somewhat interesting location operationally with its wye and signals, and a train order book hidden in a shack next to the tracks. The wye is also handy for the model railroad as a place to turn trains that end in Los Gatos.
  • Even with its plain look, there were still interesting details, and there's the challenge of making this wide spot along Winchester Road into a scene worth displaying on the model railroad.
Searching through the old photos at the Los Gatos History Museum and in the Railroads of Los Gatos book, I've got a list of key details for Vasona Junction.
  • First of all, Winchester Road (leading from Santa Clara, past Sarah Winchester's strange Victorian house, and straight to Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos) parallels the track from Campbell to Vasona Junction. At Vasona Junction, the wye crosses Winchester Road twice, pulling the railroad and scenery together.
  • There's also the ubiquitous orchards lining both sides of the road, power poles and railroad signalling poles paralleling the road with weeds and bushes covering the space between the poles.
  • At the actual junction, assorted signals, crossing signals for Winchester Road, and station signs fill the otherwise empty scene.
  • Because Vasona Junction was a real junction, the railroad needed a train register book to help train crews know whether a conflicting train had gone by. The train register booth appears in many photos as the only structure visible in the area.
The first step for building up the scene was putting in the backdrop (again using 1/16" white styrene from Tap Plastics, the local plastics retailer, then roughing in scenery with styrafoam and Sculptamold. I've also cut Winchester Road from plastic sheet. My next step will be to put in some of the terrain - a slight hill between the railroad and road on the Los Gatos side of the junction - then start with dirt and bushes before moving onto all the minor details like the signals, telephone and power pole lines, and assorted railroad details. I've already built the train order booth, so it'll be easy to drop into the scene. One surprise: I shaped my scenery with a little bit of relief - maybe 1/2" depressions - but then looked at the photos and realized the scene was absolutely flat with no details higher than a few inches. I'll need to go through and smooth out the terrain. Pro Tip: Rather than gluing large stretches of plastic sheet with either Testors liquid plastic cement or MEK (methyl ethyl ketone solvent) from the plastic shop, the plastic glue used for electrical conduit and sprinkler pipe is mostly MEK, and works much better for large surfaces! It's also dirt-cheap, and easy to buy on Sunday. The photo shows the scene as it looks today.

The Vasona Junction shot is from the 1950's, and was taken from History Los Gatos's web site.

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