Monday, June 25, 2012

That's Why I Scanned Those Plans

When I scanned all those SP engineering drawings a few weeks ago, I did all that work in hopes others would discover interesting facts or tidbits about the locations, or would share stories about the locations.

It must have worked; read the Dome of Foam's E. O. Gibson story of the Great Almaden right-of-way sale as immortalized in this drawing of the SP's abandoned right of way.

Thanks, E.O., for turning a relatively plain map into a nailbiter of a story - I won't be able to pass that neighborhood without remembering your great-uncle!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Model Railroad Sudoku

As I've mentioned before, I love model railroading as a hobby because there's so many different types of projects I can do.  If I'm feeling detail-oriented, I can tune the mechanism of a balky locomotive.  If I'm feeling creative, I can cover myself in plaster.  If I'm feeling analytic, I can play Sudoku.


Well, practically Sudoku.

One of the many questions I'd love to know about the real life San Jose-Los Gatos branch was how those trains operated.  What was a typical day for a brakeman? Was the work switching the canneries and packing plant a hard and undesirable job?   Were the same people on the job for months, or was the work being done by whatever inexperienced employees were handy?

Information like this is sometimes available in time books, the notebooks that railroaders kept to record their hours and wages.  These usually had significant detail on the jobs being done.  For example, in this time book for a fireman working out of Portland in 1939, you can see how Mr. Hendershott did most of his time in yard switching wherever he could get work - Portland, Albany, or Corvallis - with occasional higher-paying road trips on long distance trains.  He also spent significant amounts of time away from Portland getting hours. With some non-trivial analysis, it's possible to extract other details out of the books.

I've never found one of these books for my area and my era.  Chuck Catania, though, found one from 1949 that he thought was from San Jose.  Here are the images of the pages from that book.  Unlike the Portland book, there's not much here - a date, a three digit number, a couple letters, something that might be a time, something that might be a locomotive number, and a name.  These aren't the standard columns, so it's hard to tell what was being recorded.

Luckily, some careful research and inference can help.  Chuck had originally noticed that the phone number for the owner, Mr. Gray, was for a San Jose phone exchange - Axminster 6-5114.  A quick web search shows that the AX6 exchange was used by San Jose, while AX0-5 would have been for Santa Clara.  That's a potential match.  The crew call number on the first page has a CYpress exchange, also an old phone number, so Chuck's assumption that this is a San Jose book is seeming more realistic.  A quick dash to's city directories shows that a John A. Gray lived in Cupertino in 1949, and he was a yardman for the Southern Pacific.

Ah, a yardman - now the book is making more sense.  He wouldn't have been on long distance trains, so he wouldn't have needed all the various entries in the pre-printed book, explaining why he made up his own unmarked columns.

Next step: the second-to-last column might be locomotive numbers, times, or something else.  Times won't work; there's a couple where the last two digits are greater than 60.  Some of the numbers look like locomotive numbers (including some diesels and some steam), but the 19xx number doesn't match a known locomotive, and it seems odd that he used the same locomotive so frequently.

More importantly, the owner of the book summed that entire column on a few pages, wrote "total" on the bottom line, and put a dollar sign before one of the totals. Those numbers must represent the pay for each day, with Mr. Gray making $175.39 in the first half of September 1949, and $287.08 in the second half. Because yardmen were paid for 8 hours of work, the pay was mostly constant: either $12.26, $12.72, $13.57, $18.55, or $19.50. Those amounts might seem odd unless you look at the back page where Mr. Gray noted potential pay per month: "30 days at Foreman: $407.10, Helper: 381.60, Herder: 367.80". The day rates have the same ratio: yardman helper gets 3% more than a herder, and 6% less than a foreman. The higher rates match the time that "Gray" was listed in the right hand column, suggesting it's listing the foreman for the job. The $18.55 and $19.50 rates were with overtime, with the highest rates again in the cases where Gray was foreman.

Let's turn to that second column again. Each is a number and a pair of letters: "706 BRd". The letters are either "BRd", "PA", "CP", or "NS". Some thought and searching turns up possibilities: they're the names of either yards or yard assignment positions. "CP" is obviously College Park, the older San Jose yard, and the location for all the extra freight jobs that Mr. Gray held. "NS" probably is Newhall St. and refers to the Newhall Yard next to the Santa Clara station. Newhall Yard was the newer yard on the main line, and handled through freights, I suspect, because of its location. For "BRd" and "PA", I'd originally guessed "Palo Alto (California St)" and either "Butler Road" (in South San Francisco), "Berryessa Road" (for the east side of San Jose) or "Redwood Junction" (after one entry that looked like "BRJ"). A better guess would be "Brokaw Road" for the north end of Newhall St, which counted as a separate job into the 1970's, and "Park Ave" for the crews servicing the Cahill St. passenger station.

Decoding the numbers required shoving all those entries into a spreadsheet for better analysis. Sorting by the unknown number showed that the number always matched the letter code - 700-709 for "BR", 720-739 for "CP", 740-759 for "NS", and 760-763 for "PA". One guess is these are job numbers; most of the time, entries for the same job number also have the same third column, suggesting it's a start time. Job 704 was a Brokaw Road job starting at 7:59 am, 711 was a College Park job that started at 3:59 pm (because it was the second job of the day at least once.) The 760's make sense for Park Ave. because they were numbered consecutively job 764, the depot herder. (Herder jobs were yardmen on foot throwing switches, and paid less than jobs on the locomotive.)

All the high-pay days match the days where Mr. Gray worked two shifts in the same day, suggesting the extra pay for the second job was because of overtime.

So what did I learn from all of this?

  • I'll bet most of those "X Eng" jobs were cases where Mr. Gray worked extra freights switching in the San Jose area. Considering the sheer number (about a third of the jobs he did), I'd guess these were all the local freight jobs, suggesting that some of those runs might have been switching the Los Gatos branch. It would be interesting to learn whether in the 1930's which jobs were handled by yard crews, and which had to be handled by crews on extra freights. The locations of the extra freights suggests that the local switching jobs were handled out of College Park rather than Newhall Yard.
  • Gray might have been a junior crew member because he was switching jobs all over the place, but he had enough experience to be foreman in around 30 of the jobs, often on extras.
  • Gray was also working awfully frantically, with few if any days off between September and December 5. Once winter hit, he wasn't working again til March 1950, and only got two weeks of work done before the log book ends. I wonder - did he give up on the railroad, or just get a new log book? The long run without breaks, and the occasional double shifts, make railroading sound like an awfully hard career.
  • Now that I know about the different jobs, I know more about railroading in San Jose. Various friends have mentioned former yard crews in San Jose; now, if I ever talk to any, I'll know to ask which jobs they worked, where they started their days, and which jobs would have served the canneries and packing houses of San Jose.
My big questions:
  • What's the difference between Newhall St and Brokaw Road jobs - north and south ends of the yard, or was there a real difference in the work?
  • Who handled switching the various industries - would the yard crews do such work, or only the extra trains?
  • Which jobs were the desirable ones? Mr. Gray didn't get many chances to work the depot; were these considered easier work?
  • Which jobs were morning, and which were evening? I can infer this partially from the days when Mr. Gray had two jobs, but don't fully know how often yard jobs ran overnight.
And that's why I don't need to buy Sudoku books.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Operating at Techachapi

I've mentioned in the past an unnatural interest in timetable and train order operation, the operating rules that railroads formerly used to keep trains apart. Timetable and train order (TT&TO) operation uses a combination of pre-printed timetables and telegraphed orders describing the pecking order of the different trains to let crews out in the field, far away from any way of communicating with a dispatcher, decide whether or not they're allowed to move or should stay in their nice, safe siding.

My layout is a bit too small for realistic TT&TO operations, but I've been able to experience it when dispatching on Jim Providenza's Santa Cruz Northern. But most model railroads are too small and fast-moving to really experience TT&TO. There's really only two choices if you want to try TT&TO: build a time machine, go back in time to the 1940's, and get a job on a railroad, or go to San Diego and operate on the La Mesa Model Railroad Club's layout at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum during one of their operating weekends. I'd had a brief chance to serve as a train order operator at La Mesa last year, but was still eager to get the full experience.

Last weekend, I went whole-hog. Thanks to an invite from the folks at the La Mesa club, I got a chance to do one of their all-weekend intense operating sessions, running trains from 8am to 8pm on both Saturday and Sunday, and got a sense of both the stress and boredom that was so representative of the real railroads.

La Mesa has its TT&TO sessions about once every three months, and each session is a continuation of the last session. This session ran from 8 pm on December 3, 1952 to December 4, 1952; the train orders from the previous day were still at each operator's desk and the trains were positioned exactly where they were before, ready for us to pick up wherever things left off three months back.

Even though I've seen the layout as a tourist, the layout's mind-blowing as an operator. If you walk around it as a tourist, you see a medium sized museum with a large display, mostly focused on the passing sidings at Caliente and tracks spiraling up the side of the mountain. But when you start operating there, you find it's much, much larger - a hundred and twenty foot long yard at Bakersfield, similar trackage in a hidden aisle representing the double-track in the valley between Bakersfield and Bena, and another long stretch before you enter the public museum spaces near Caliente.

Climbing up out of Caliente, you climb and criss-cross the hills as the trains get over your head, then find yourself eventually on their upper mezzanine floor where you have another long stretch before you reach the famous Tehachapi Loop scene. Another long stretch, and you finally hit the upper Mojave yard, another seventy feet long with huge staging yards just past there. Your train climbs a good fifteen feet between Bakersfield and Mojave, and those trains are huge in model railroad terms - forty and fifty car trains are normal, and a couple hundred car trains - fifty feet long! - went down the hill during the operating session.

And that's just the main line. The staging yards beyond Bakersfield fill some of the areas under the layout. Extra little yards - the passenger tracks here, or yard for the modern equipment used during museum hours - get hidden under various parts of the scenery. Often times, reaching some of these hidden yards or the secret car repair facility required crawling under the layout; so did getting to the yardmaster and train order operator's location in Bakersfield yard, and a good yard crew at Bakerfield had at least one crew member agile enough to duck back and forth under the layout. It's probably no coincidence that the layout was formed by a group of La Mesa teenagers who at the dawn of the club probably loved diving under benchwork, and the club is still remarkably tolerant of young members compared to other model railroad groups.

Friday Night

Tom and I both flew in on Friday as one part of the out-of-town contingent participating in the operating session, and after a tour of the layout, we got to help out with preparing the different script-like paperwork needed for the operating session - lists of trains scheduled, switching work expected in the yard, and expected arrival order - then spent a bit of time proving we could navigate around the backstage areas to leave all the paperwork at yardmaster, staging yard, and operator locations. We stayed late being good citizens, made it back to the hotel around 11 or 12, and collapsed ASAP in true railroader fashion.


The alarm rang way too early around 6:30. With a fine breakfast at the New Orleans-themed restaurant at the 1960's era motel, we made it to the museum in time for our 8:00 a.m. call. My first assignment: the Woodford train order office I'd worked last year. The club members already had last session's trains pulled out of staging and located on the layout; with a quick look over the past train record and train orders, I put on the operator's headset, and waited for the firehose of trains to be pointed at me as the clock started.

It's worth mentioning that La Mesa uses regular clocks for the sessions, though sometimes 12 hours off of the real time. Our session on Saturday started at 8:00 pm on December 3, 1952, and ended that evening at 8:00 am, December 4. Sunday's schedule picked up at 8:00 am December 4, 1952, and ran through that day of 1952. Evenings were dominated by the overnight passenger trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with occasional through freights.

As the train order operator at La Mesa, my job wasn't that hard:

  • First, watch for trains coming uphill or downhill. The train order operator needs to stop trains that deserve additional instructions, so to check for additional orders, warn the dispatcher with the words "Woodford heading west (or east)". The dispatcher could check his train sheets to figure out what train that was, think about whether he had more train orders for that train, and tell you whether he had any additional train orders to give that train.
  • Second, set the train order signal at the station to indicate whether the train needed to stop. The La Mesa gang knows a lot about prototype operation, and one of the operators hinted that I was setting the train order signal to green too fast. "Don't change it till the engineer could see the flag; if he didn't see the flag move, the Southern Pacific rules said he had to stop just in case you'd forgotten to reset the flag after the last train."
  • Third, clear the signal after the train received any orders, mark the time the train passed, and warn the dispatcher about the train going past. The dispatcher was always hungry for train position information, so it was acceptable to interrupt almost any conversation on the telephone to tell the dispatcher about the passing train.
  • Finally, write up the orders themselves. The dispatcher would tell me how many copies were needed, so I'd pull out the pad of train order forms, add an appropriate number of carbon papers between the layouts, and start transcribing the train orders:


DFM, Chief Dispatcher

That's the life of a train order operator - watch trains pass, transcribe the orders, listen on the telephone to hear orders going to other stations and build up a mental model of what trains were passing, check out the scenery, organize the desk - hey, here's the train sheet from last year, and there's my name and the shift I handled!

Train order operator at Woodford had its quiet moments, but the real railroads did too, and there were enough terrifying moments as I tried to write down the train orders exactly to keep me entertained and out of trouble. I also could check out the various photos and maps showing the scenery they're planning on building at Woodford. I also got to hear and read the different orders to the trains, and get a sense for the legalistic language used for train orders.

After the six hour shift at Woodford, I got relieved, and got a chance to work as crew on the Hill Crew taking trains from Bakersfield to Mojave. I was feeling a little nervous at my first serious chance at running under train orders, but also a bit cocky because I thought I understood train orders. When they were short crews and sent me out without a mentor on my first trip, I thought: "No problem, I can do this."

It's crazy in Bakersfield yard, with six or seven crew running about, switching cars and preparing trains. I finally get the train order operator's attention around 4:45am, and he hands me a stack of train orders. Let's look at my orders:


KERN JCT. Station, DECEMBER 4, 1952

To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802 displaying GREEN flags

I have 2 orders for your train as follows: Order No. 9 No. 10

Train order No. 9

To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802



Train Order No. 10

To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802



My timetable shows that SP train 55, a passenger train, is supposed to roll into Bena (at the bottom of the mountain, and the start of double-track all the way to Bakersfield) at 5:06, and is supposed to arrive at Bakersfield at 5:15am. If I can get out of town quickly, I'll be on double track and I can make it past the passenger train. After a bit of work getting the engines set up, I see the engine ATSF 225 at the head of the train rolling into the yard; whew - that means one train I need to watch for is out of the way. I thread my way onto the mainline, pop through the backdrop at the end of Bakersfield yard, and end up in a dark aisle holding the track leading towards the Tehachapi mountains.

I roll through Magunden, Edison, and Sandcut at moderate speed, switching between watching the front of my train and signals, and watching the end to make sure the helper locomotive is doing ok. After two hundred feet of track and a good ten minutes of running, I find myself at the end of the double track at Bena. There's a train register book there, but my official timetable says that's only for trains that started or ended between here and Bakersfield. There was something else I was going to check in Bena… and I look over and find the last passenger train lost its last two cars on the track at Edison on the other side of the aisle. I ought to just ignore it - in real life, that's ten miles back - but I instead walk back to Bakersfield yard and warn the previous crew they lost part of their train.

Back in Bena: check the timetable, no trains should be coming at me. I'd already checked my train orders and marked the ones that didn't matter any more. I can't think of any other reason to delay, so I throw the switch to get out onto the mainline and start heading up into the mountains. I get a scenic view of the wider canyon at Ilmon and narrow canyon further up. The signals are all green, so I know there's no opposing trains. I roll into Caliente, pull up to the train order station, and greet the operator.

And around the corner comes Steve, who'd trained me on the Woodford train operator position last time. "Robert, by what authority did you travel from Bena to Caliente?"

Oh, wow, I'm getting a rule book check - I'd heard they quiz new operators to make sure they're prepared for operations. "I'm running on the schedule of train 802; the previous two sections have already left according to the train register in Bakersfield. I have train orders saying I can run from Bakersfield to Mojave. All my train orders are fulfilled because the opposing trains have all been dealt with. There are no other conflicting trains on the schedule; I checked at Bena when I left double track." I'm feeling confident and safe. I'm waiting for a softball "what attributes are necessary to call something a train?"


"Let me see those orders… So have you seen Extra 170 West yet?"

Um… oh, right, I'd thought in Bakersfield I was going to have to wait in Bena for that train… and forgot to double-check my orders in Bena. That train wasn't expecting me to be this far along, and if I'd been unlucky, I could have had a cornfield meet with it any place between Caliente and Bena. If this had been a real railroad, I would have been looking for a new career at that point; because it's a model, I instead got good-natured but stern reminders from several club members about the importance of checking train orders and only moving when safe.

And down the hill came Extra 170, and to add insult to injury, we're both too long for the siding at Caliente, both with fifty cars. Luckily, I can break off my helper and fill the second siding at Caliente, but that delays both of us and compounds my embarrassment. It delays things more when Extra 170 remembers to ask whether there's any sections following me, and he learns there's a fourth section that, after a perusal of his train orders, is having to wait for him at Bena too. The dispatcher holds me for a bit longer to let me stew in my ignorance, and finally tells the train order operator to let me get out of there and stop blocking up his railroad. I double check my paperwork, check the timetable again, decide that this time I must be safe, and start heading up hill.

And it's a beautiful run, watching this huge train climb up through the many curves and over my head. I worry that the helper engine might push the rest of the train off the track, but it all behaves as it snakes around the hills, and as I steal quick glances at the hills and beautiful scenery. Green signals all the way through the public areas of the layout, then spiral up to the mezzanine and into Woodford where I get another order:

Train Order No. 14

To Conductor and Engineer THIRD 802



DFM, Chief Dispatcher

That's a meet at the next siding uphill; I roll up to the Tehachapi Loop where my train loops over itself, pull into the siding, and accidentally run a bit too far and can't stop till I've blocked the main. I back up, out of danger, and eventually ATSF 140 rolls downhill so its engineer will get to see the mountain scenery.

And finally, after about an hour and a half of running the third section of train 802, I pull into Mojave yard with a much better appreciation for the caution required when operating under train orders and timetable operation.

A slight wreck in the canyon below Caliente delayed trains for the rest of the session and triggered a flurry of activity as wreck trains were brought in from both ends of the railroad, but it delayed ops until we broke for pizza at 8pm. We again helped out with setup for the next day, headed back to the hotel, and collapsed again around midnight.


Alarm goes off at 6:30 am; waking up this early is getting old. Another quick breakfast under mardi gras beads, and we're back at the museum at 8:00 am. I'm again train order operator, this time at Mojave yard, the upper end of the layout. Handling train orders at one of the terminal stations (where trains start and end) has a bit more work; there's more train orders needed to start trains on their journey, and sometimes I'm making several copies of an order to give to "All Westward Trains" for the rest of the day. There's lots of listening on the telephone, lots of writing, and a bit of cleanup of the desk (again with all the train orders from the last several sessions present.) It's also a bit less lonely with a yardmaster and train crews usually in the neighborhood for conversations and status checks.

I also get some time to read a real railroad rulebook, Josserand's "Rights of Trains", that carefully describes every rule in the railroad rule book, and explains all the edge cases and subtleties of the rule. Josserand was a Western Pacific railroad dispatcher; my dad met him during a stint working in Sacramento, and still remembers the dispatcher's office in the Sacramento depot with over-stressed, over-caffeinated, and over-nicotined dispatchers controlling trains between Oakland and Salt Lake. Josserand also had words for dispatchers and train order operators:

Train dispatchers should not engage in conversation while on duty, except on matters pertaining to their duty… Train dispatchers should not read a newspaper or magazine while on duty…. It is hazardous for train order operators to do clerical work not connected with train order or message work on the same desk with train orders."

Yup, the last one's definitely true; forgetting to deliver a train order because it's hidden under debris on the desk is a sure way to cause a collision. Josserand also teaches me that if I don't have enough copies of an order, I can write up new copies as long as I contact the dispatcher and confirm through repeating that my copy matches the original he has in his book. Fun for me, though an interruption for the dispatcher trying to figure out how he'll survive the next rush of trains.

And I made two big mistakes at Mojave, but both were survivable - I forgot to give an "all westbound trains" order to one train (and heard over the radio as the mistake was noticed in Caliente when he almost didn't stop for the opposing train), and requested a "clearance" (permission to proceed) for a train that wasn't yet out of staging, reserving the first half of the railroad for the twenty minutes till he got into Mojave.

After six hours on Mojave, and I'm getting compliments on my operator work; I'll thank Dear Wife and her stories of air traffic control and the importance of precise language phrased in the same way each time.

With my successes at Mojave, I switch to spend the second half of the day down as the Kern Junction train order operator, giving train orders to all the train crews coming out of Bakersfield. Where Mojave and Woodford were quiet and mellow, Bakersfield is just chaos - seven crew working the yard, engine depot, and bringing trains out of staging. The yardmaster stands in the middle of it barking orders, demanding information about incoming trains, and trying to herd his set of switching crew cats. There's shouting across the room to figure out what to do next. The orders are getting bigger because the uphill trains all have helper locomotives and extra stops to make, and I'm encountering cases where I'll need to "copy many" orders to prepare for all four sections of a train heading uphill. I'm also having to handle the chaos left over from the last operator - where are the train orders to be handed out, what trains need to be prepared to go?

Without the dramatic scenery, Bakersfield might not have been as photogenic, but the frantic work and huge trains being assembled in front of me pointed out the scale I was working at. When a set of helper engines, coupled together, rolled downhill and through Bakersfield, I realized that the three cab-forwards and two 2-10-2 locomotives together were longer than most trains on my model railroad. Woah.

We bailed at 7:30, just before closing; we both were catching the last flights of the night out of San Diego, and weren't eager to miss those flights. With the last trains still rolling, we snuck out to our car (parked very conveniently next to the museum at 0-dark-thirty that morning), headed back to the airport, and headed back towards modern life.

And I'm a bit afraid to go back in the garage and look at my model railroad for fear I won't know how to run trains on anything that tiny.

[The La Mesa Model Railroad Club has operating sessions about every three months. Details on the sessions are available at Ops on Tehachapi, along with the rule book, timetable, and rule book test. Photos are all mine, take with too little care with a cameraphone; apologies for the blurry photos.]

Monday, June 4, 2012

Movie Night V: Trains in the Canyon

Following last year's exciting Vasona Branch time-lapse video, here's another video... and this time at regular speed!

After last month's tree-making, the hills between Alma and Wrights look much more realistic. This video shows off two trains in the scene as well as the Wrights trestle and station scene, Alma station and siding, and a bit at the end of the Wrights General Store, summit tunnel, and fruit packing shed. Apologies for the shaky video; camera phones aren't great for steady video.


The soundtrack is Paul Whiteman and his orchestra playing "California Here I Come". Folks who've operated on the Vasona Branch know I have 1920's era pre-show music playing in the background. Some of the music is vintage (copied off one of the sites providing out-of-copyright 78's, though the Library of Congress also has a copy online), while other music on the playlist just sounds old, but might be played by a bunch of college kids from San Luis Obispo.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Historical Research in this Modern Age (or Scanning By The Dozen)

As I've been researching the San Jose - Los Gatos branch over the last few years, there's two key facts I've learned: there's a lot of great research material out on the Internet, and I'm much more likely to do research when I can do it sitting at home at midnight than when I have to go into a special library instead.

That doesn't mean I don't like libraries; I really love special collections. I had a great time last week, for example, spending a couple hours in the San Jose State special collections library looking at the John C. Gordon Photographic Collection originals, and found a few new photos of the U.S. Products cannery and a beautiful panorama of Del Monte's plant #3 in 1935, taken from the same vantage point as that only photo of the Abinante and Nola / J.S. Roberts / Higgins-Hyde Packing Company packing shed I'd found last year.

But those trips are rare; this was the first time I'd made it into the Special Collections library, and I'd only had the afternoon free because of some family business that required a day off from work. I've visited the same library's California Room and viewed their original Sanborn map books a few times, but it's still a rarity. I had a great afternoon at the California State Railroad Museum's library in Sacramento last year, but I don't know when I'll next be able to visit and look at their collection of valuation maps and Southern Pacific plans.

Instead, I do a ton of Google searches, poke through the photo collections for the different libraries that have put their images online, and read through the different books I've gotten over the years to do most of my research. Google's News Archive scans of old newspapers has been a particular favorite of mine (as has the California Digital Newspaper Collection. I also read through the different blogs and websites other railfans have posted, and reference or simply crib photos from other sites that are particularly interesting or highlight the stories I'm trying to tell. I also have a list of fruit-related businesses in San Jose in a Google Doc, and when I've got a few moments, I'll do a Google search on one and see what new links turn up. Google Docs - online spreadsheets and word processing documents - are a neat way to share railroad research with others, by the way.

So it's time to repay the favor and help share some documents so others can do these sorts of searches.

I saw an Ebay auction last week for Southern Pacific civil engineering drawings - plans of proposed sidings, track plans for small areas, plans for pipeline reroutings by third parties, etc. All the drawings were from the 1940's, and some were of San Jose, and I was hoping that some of the drawings might be for the Los Gatos branch. I suspected they all might be interesting for my Bay Area history bug, so I put in a bid, won, and on Friday had a pile of seventy-year-old vellum drawings in my eager hands.

But what to do with them? I could have just looked over them, shared the San Jose bits, and hid the rest off in a closet. But a friend, John Plocher, had just taken a box of Southern Pacific Bay Area slides he'd bought at an estate sale, scanned them all, and posted them all on Flickr for others to examine and enjoy. They're nice photos, except that every time the photographer had a great shot of a cannery lined up, a train came along and blocked the shot. Awfully bad luck, that photographer.

I followed John's example, and with about six hours of scanning and six hours of post-processing, all the drawings were online. Check the full set of images on Flickr, or look at the index of images and places.

I've got a lot of reasons for posting these on-line: keep the original drawings safe but accessible, return the favor for others who've published historic photos on-line, and curiosity about whether I could upload them all easily. However, my strongest reason for uploading all these was so that I could see what other people learned from these drawings. Check them out, and add comments on Flickr about the interesting details you see!

Some of the interesting details I've found already include:

Details on scanning: Luckily, all the drawings fit on my ten-year-old Epson flatbed scanner. At 300 DPI, it took a minute or two per scan, and the work was pretty mechanical; the worst part was trying to do other work while being interrupted every couple minutes to put on the next scan. Next time, I hire a local kid to help.

For each scan, I also renamed the file to match the engineering drawing number, and typed up an index listing the number of the drawing, the railroad station related to the drawing, the title of the drawing, date, and a set of keywords for related streets or interesting details. Flickr also allows longer descriptions, but I didn't realize that at the time. The index file was just a single word processing document set up for easy parsing by a computer program; just making a single file relating the filename, title, and keywords makes it easy for a computer program to manipulate the list or generate a web page straight from the index. The keywords and good descriptions are absolutely essential; there's a ton of great content out there on the web, but if there aren't good references to what's in the picture, no one will ever find it.

There's automatic ways to post photos up to Flickr; I've used iPhoto's export feature to send collections of photos up, but I've found setting keywords and descriptions can be time consuming and hard to mass-edit. I also wanted to be able to put up the scans now, but mprove keywords or add map locations later, so I wanted a way I could redo things later without re-exporting all the photos. Flickr, like a lot of web sites, document how you can modify your collections on the web site: write programs to automatically do uploads, or change details on the photo. I used a separate Python Flickr library to actually do the work, and wrote a little Python program to take all the scans and index material, and create or update the Flickr photo collection.

If you're interested in sharing your own collection of photos or drawings on Flickr, let me know and I can share the scripts I wrote with you.

Once again, I scanned these drawings because I'm curious what historic facts others will find, and so others can share details about the places they model. If you find the drawings interesting, send me a note, or, better yet, use the drawings in a blog post about your favorite Bay Area railfan spot and send me a link!

[Image of San Jose:Proposed Track to Serve Floor Service Co. from my collection, viewable on Flickr.]