Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tolerance for Error

It's pretty clear if you skim my past articles that I'm interested in the historical aspects of model railroading. I've searched high and wide for photos and maps of the old town site at Alma. I've carefully searched old city directories to learn which fruit packer was in which building near the old Market Street station. I've also built detailed models of specific buildings I've constructed. With all that effort, I must have done enough research to know I'm making the correct choices, right?


Now, that's part of the fun of model railroading. The research is fun, but I'm using the history and facts I learn to help me figure out the projects to build and try to capture some bit of realism on the model railroad. I don't need things perfect; if I construct a building slightly wrong, or use a business name that was actually a block over, I probably still am building scenes that are more evocative of San Jose than if I didn't do the research at all.

The only problem is that sometimes I find those little facts which convince me I got things a bit wrong.

While I was up at the National Model Railroad Association's convention in Sacramento last month, I attended a talk by the librarian at the California State Railroad Museum about using their library, and then got a chance to see the library and search their card catalog. CSRM has a huge collection of rare documents - old photos, books, freight car plans, maps, and blueprints. For Southern Pacific modelers, the collection of blueprints and valuation maps are particularly fascinating. The valuation maps show the railroad's right-of-way and how they'd gotten legal title for stretches of land and permission to build across roads. After the talk, we got a chance to go into the library. I poked through the card catalog, found a couple interesting maps, and requested them, thinking they were probably in storage elsewhere and it would take days to retrieve them.

The librarian came back with several rolled up maps, placed them on the table, and said, "here you go."

Oh, my - lots of history, names of companies I hadn't heard of, and buildings that weren't on Sanborn maps. Better yet, they had blueprints and drawings of the different stations, usually as precursors for adding toilets or electric lights.

Those plans highlighted that my station models weren't quite correct. I'd assumed that the track side of the Market Street station (never captured in photographs because it was under the train shed) was identical to the street side. It wasn't; there were doors to a small post office storage area, and there were no windows on the track side of the baggage room. Although the Sanborn maps had been pretty accurate about the rough shape of the building and noted the two separate bays sticking out on the track side, I didn't realize one was the telegraph office, and the other was the ticket office. I also didn't know that some of the most visible windows on the street side of the building were actually to the ladies' rest room. Time to put frosted glass in those windows.

Similarly, drawings of the Campbell station similarly show a few mistakes (and some very odd plumbing as they retrofitted indoor plumbing into an 1877-era building.) The drawings also show the purpose of several doors I never quite understood, with a pair of doors leading to a hallway between the baggage area and office area. Again, the Sanborn maps and photos got me a long way, but there's a number of little details I got wrong.

And of course, the maps showed other details I got wrong. The valuation map for Campbell shows that the box factory spur I've got may not have existed at my time, but that a team track just south of the station (which I don't model) certainly did exist. The valuation maps also show that Campbell's station wasn't surrounded by dusty lots, but had a very nice hedge separating it from Campbell Ave. I'm not sure of the exact year of the map (probably after 1929), but it shows signals at the north end of Campbell, and highlights that I ought to be putting battery boxes in the middle of signaling blocks, not at the ends. I also notice that the Sanborn maps got the track arrangements reasonably correct, and I'm starting to realize the track arrangements I set up seven years ago really aren't as prototypical as I hoped.

The Market Street valuation maps show tons of details - air lines for pumping up brake lines, a couple new packing houses I didn't know about, new names ("Tersini Brothers" in the Rosenberg Brothers building - I haven't seen them listed elsewhere), and some extra detail on side streets. Here, the Sanborn maps deliberately get blurry, but the SP maps show every spur, and show that the packing shed I just finished should be served from a spur facing the other way.

So, yeah, that was a great afternoon in CSRM's library. If you're an SP modeler and you haven't been, go this weekend.

But even with the few mistakes, the models I've built are certainly good enough for now. I may want to rebuild them another time, or I may decide to add that team track, but I don't have to; my model railroad is probably just as fun for the operators with the flaws as without. Some of these details might really annoy me, but luckily the layout is a work-in-progress, and I'll fix those prototypical mistakes another day.

But the team track in Campbell gets added first. Leaving cars out on the passing siding just makes operating sessions annoying.

Next time, I'll talk about the other mistake I recently found: which fruit packer was in that building across the tracks from the Del Monte cannery? Place your bets on who occupied the building in 1935!

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