Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Edith Daley visits Herbert Packing

Edith Daley was only a San Jose Evening News writer through about 1922. After that, she becomes the long-serving librarian for San Jose. Luckily, her few years on the paper left some gems, including her visit to the George Herbert Packing Co. at 3rd and Keyes south of downtown. George Herbert had been a dried fruit packer with a large, barn-like structure (pretty much the uniform for dried fruit packers) on Lincoln Ave. He sold out to Sunsweet in 1918, but must have wanted to stay in the fruit business, so he bought the Frank-Smith cannery at 3rd and Keyes and started canning.

Edith went to visit in July 1919, and her article in the July 19 Evening News certainly shows her excitement:

Mr. Barthold, the superintendent, grows enthusiastic over the big boilers and the 300 feet of spur track, the 40,000 square feet of warehouse space, the surrounding blocks of property owned by the company, and the fact that his is a "six line plant." The outside property means that the cannery will never be crowded and that all further improvements contemplated can be rapidly brought to completion. You learn how the syrup is made down stairs and then pumped upstairs in order to come down again and be "dished up" into the cans by that rotating "syrup-eating" machine so nearly human it is uncanny! (If anything can be uncanny in a canning factory!) There is a big comfortable free bus that makes the trips to East San Jose every day for the benefit of 35 of the employes. There is a cafeteria and a kindergarten! At the cafeteria everything is served from breakfast to dinner - a substantial hot dinner at night. There's everything from a sandwich to a home-made pie a la mode---and at moderate cost. There are dignified tables; but the long white counter is so attractive to the women workers that a sign has been found necessary. It reads: "as far as possible we want the counter for the men." Sitting at a counter to eat is simply one of man's inborn rights and no amount of suffrage can change it!"
I didn't know that thing about inborn rights and sitting at the counter. Time to claim my birthright at Denny's.
Then the superintendent proved that he is not only a packer but a poet! We went upstairs to visit the sunny offices and he called my attention to the "view". It was an attractive picture to look down over the immense fruit room with its rows and rows of cutting and canning tables splashed with bits of silver from the cans and the pans where the women in their blue aprons and white caps worked interestedly and happily. The blue and white and silver gleams of that picture with the contrasting soft colors of the apricots would make a poet of any superintendent with wide-awake eyes!"
And that's the greatest part of Edith's writing - where a few Sanborn maps might hint at a building, or photos might hint at the contents, articles like these highlight what the canneries were like when you were inside them: full of color, full of noise, full of smells, and chock-full of some awfully interesting people. If I was modeling the area around Third and Keyes, I'd be painting some figurines blue and white to represent those workers taking a quick smoke break outside and contemplating their pie-a-la-mode at dinner.

I'll let you read the rest of the article - last year's production, the cannery's friendliness to visitors, and the drying plant on Monterey Road - but I'll end with Edith's final words:

"Labor has presented not problem at the Herbert Packing Company. Things are well handled in this regard, but when the peaches begin to roll caneryward in carload lots there will be more women workers needed. There is work to do---work for everyone. Labor isn't any fly in the fruit. The real "terrors" in the cannery are prices of sugar and "shook!" Both necessary---and both going steadily up hand-in-hand. Where sugar used to be $4.00 a bag it is now $9.00! "Nevertheless" said Mr Barthold, "there's lots of sugar and there's plent of cans and there's always help enough and there's money in the world---we are going to have a big year!"

The George Herbert cannery still exists on the southeast corner of Third and Keyes in San Jose. Although the current occupants probably don't spell WELCOME with capital letters, you're certainly welcome to drive by and stare out the window or view the building on Google Street View.

In addition to serving as San Jose's library for a good twenty years, Edith Daley also published the War History of Santa Clara County about World War I as well as M"The Angel in the Sun", a book of poetry with no cannery content whatsoever.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Places I Won't Model IV: The Winchester House

One of the problems of being into model railroading as an outlet for a frustrated architect or architectural historian is that there's plenty of buildings that would be fun to treat as models, but won't fit on my model railroad.

I mean, if I'm modeling the Santa Clara Valley, how can I not want to build a model of the Winchester Mystery House?

I thought about this as I took on my self-appointed position as Edith Daley Fan Club president, for Edith published a two-part story on Sarah Winchester's house just after Sarah's death.

"That combination of sensations marked my first close-up impression of the Winchester place, or all [of the] Winchester place that could be seen by standing on the narrow cement sidewalk outside the grounds, with an inquisitive and unapologetic nose almost giving an Eskimo salutation to the cold iron of the elaborately grilled iron gate which was securely barred. Entrance gate, through which no one, unless 'on business', might enter.
Listening to the sounds of carpentry, sniffing at the odor of paint, one remembered a thing of common report: that the rich Mrs. Winchester who lives in this mysterious house with locked gates, is said to believe that when she stops building… she will die!"

Looks like those myths about Sarah's reasons for building aren't just a modern myth.

Edith's stories ran in the September 18 and September 19, 1922 San Jose Evening News, for those of you relentlessly consuming all of Edith's works.

Edith was a big deal for the Evening News. She also had her fiction published in the newspaper, but her adjective-laden reporting was probably what kept the paychecks coming. For example, consider Edith's reporting on William Hightower's murder trial for killing Rev. Father Patrick Heslin from Colma in the October 14, 1921 Evening News:

And "District Attorney Swart had a lot to say about that machine and the fact that Hightower confesses to having experimented with this rotary machine gun and poison gas. 'No good citizen', said Swart, 'will be experimenting with such things." ... The defense attorney explained "that the Chinaman who invented gunpowder was probably an inoffensive tea-drinking Oriental pursuing his experiments on the banks of a Chinese river --- without a thought of blowing up his countrymen!"
Hightower got life, BTW. His "dream girl", Peggy Curtis True, attempted to reach him when the verdict was read, but the guards held her back. Stories like this convince me we need to return to those happier and simpler days of traditional values when men experimented with machine guns and poison gas.

[Edith Daley hasn't written anything on the Southern Pacific that I've found, but I'll forgive her for that. The Winchester Mystery House still exists and is open for tours, but never had rail service and won't ever appear on my model railroad. Picture cribbed from the Wikipedia article on the Winchester Mystery House.]

Hyde Cannery Takes A Bow

My favorite people in the world are the journalists who write puff pieces about businesses.

No, really. Some of the greatest source of facts about particular businesses comes from such "interview local captain of industry" articles. Each of these articles throws in some facts and detailed description of the business and also adds some personal color about the business. We saw it with the matter-of-fact Sewall Brown apricot pit plant article in the San Jose News. We got to imagine Henry Hiller and his partner laughing about their pile of prune pits in Edith Daley's columns on Pacific By-Products in the July 19 and 20, 1921 issues of the San Jose Evening News. We learned about the Horatio Alger story of Larson Ladder, as described under an anonymous by-line in the August 6, 1928 San Jose News.

Finding them, however, is another thing. The newspapers on Google's News Archive are easy to search and browse; the newspapers available through newspaperarchive.com (and also available through ancestry.com) aren't as easy to browse and require subscribing for access, but give access to another large set of local papers that can turn up the key tidbits.

Being persistent also helps, and doing additional searches sometimes turns up new material that's just appeared on line. A recent, repeated search for the Hyde Cannery turned up this multi-page article in Canning Age's August 1921 issue. It takes a certain bit of perseverance to make it through the article and their almost unnatural fixation on gravity conveyors (as well as their constant theme of how "modern" the cannery is), but it's still worth a read. The photos from the article might look familiar if you've been studying the history of the Santa Clara Valley; some of the photos are part of a collection in the Bancroft Library and available online. I'd always wondered about the origin of those photos; now I suspect they were photographed and then saved because of the magazine article.

The article highlights that peaches were the key fruit packed by Hyde. Fruit was received both locally by truck and by railroad car, and outgoing product was shipped by train. Box shook arrived by train, and went directly to the second floor of the warehouse where the box making machinery was located. Hyde primarily used Berger and Carter products canning and processing equipment on the canning line, American Can Company machines for the canning, and Anderson Barngrover equipment on the dried fruit line. (So much for supporting the home-town favorite; Anderson Barngrover might have been closer with the head office in San Jose, but George Hyde still insisted on going all the way to San Francisco for the other equipment. I suspect it was the fault of those consultants/sales engineers at Mailler Searles in San Francisco who sandbagged the local guys.)

The article also focused on the syrup room as a key part of the cannery, located directly over the syrup machines. They detail the blending of the sugar and the sanitary nature of the room; other articles in Canning Age highlight how the syrup room is also important as a cost center. Sugar must have been costly, as a later column highlighted how easy it was to use too concentrated a syrup in the second-rate fruit, chasing profits away.

The article also mentioned how culled fruit (inappropriate for the regular canning line) went to the "pie foundry". Every time I read "pie foundry", I expect some strange steel mill-style cauldron of fire stamping out fruit cocktail. I can't tell if "pie foundry" was a reference to a different production line in the cannery, or if it's a reference to shipping the fruit out to a commercial pie-making bakery. There's at least one turn of the century article that uses the metaphor to describe one of Chicago's big pie factories, as well as a 1903-era "Autobiography of a Shopgirl" where the term seems to refer to an inexpensive diner. Later comments highlight that Hyde also did can cut fruit for pie filling, using a different line but the same canning and syruping machines. As the cans came out of the cookers, workers would have to sort the cans based on markings on the sides of the cans.

Also in the November issue of Canning Age: how to deal with itinerant cannery workers, which provides additional hints for detailing your scene. Because the canneries were never quite sure when they'd start running, workers would often start arriving in the area a week before canning actually started. Canneries needed to make sure that housing and food was available to keep the workers on-hand until the cannery opened. Some canneries gave out free food; in other cases, little tent cities would open up with multiple food sellers providing food for the waiting workers. The article highlights the importance of keeping the workers happy, both for the labor and to avoid antagonizing the neighbors. The "bread, coffee, and mulligan" line shows that the Grapes of Wrath wasn't just a 1930's phenomena.

And if that isn't enough details from the trade press, check out the articles on keeping workers safe, the popularity of American fruit in Scandinavia, and "when a buyer misrepresents himself". That last article might be useful if I need to detail my my figure of the Higgins-Hyde fruit buyer who thought he could buy ahead of the prune pool.

[Photo: Hyde Cannery syrup line. From Bancroft Library collection Geo. E. Hyde & Co, Canning Operations, 1915-1921.]

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Richmond Chase Spoils Their Workers

Those Silicon Valley commute buses aren't such a new thing. The September 1921 Canning Age magazine highlights how progressive employers like San Jose's Richmond Chase Cannery provide bus service from home to cannery.
"The women expected the truck and trailer at a certain time and had only to step out of the home and climb aboard. After the day's work was done they were driven back to their door. Free transportation and a saving of their time made it possible for the cannery to get enough women to do the work, and a class of women who accomplished more and better work was obtained." "During the rush season the two cars were filled to overflowing, three trips per day being necessary to handle the 250 persons who rode to work via this motor train..."
No comment about whether the women were allowed to bring their dogs to work, though.

[Photo from Canning Age magazine, available on Google Book Search.]

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Virden Packing and Dreams of Great Business

I'm still thinking about whether to place the Virden Packing cannery on the layout. I did mock-up a paper model based on guessed measurements from the SP track drawings and Google StreetView photos, but it's looking awfully large and out of scale next to the gas station that I'd really prefer not to remove. Time for some more thought.

While we're thinking about whether to add the building, it's worth thiking about what makes the odd Virden Packing building special, and whether it helps with the story about what San Jose was like in the 1930's. Let's do a bit of historic research on that building, shall we?

The fact that 460 Lincoln Ave has survived is a pretty big accomplishment on its own. Before 1918, the building was just another lot on the western edge of San Jose. A 1915 Sanborn map shows it as additional storage for Santa Clara Valley Mill and Lumber's San Salvador Street yard, covered with twenty-foot-high piles of lumber. The odd-shaped lot was tiny compared with the main yard and mill further up along the track between Auzerais and San Carlos, but they must have needed the space.

Salsina Packing and Canning

Come 1918, things were changing in the valley. Straight from Western Canner and Packer:

Reviewing the canning industry of San Jose, the San Jose Mercury-Herald says six new canneries, representing an investment of $590,000, were constructed and put into operation in San Jose during the past year, making a total of 31 canneries now handling products of this county. This is in addition to the 30 packing houses. These six new canneries have outlined improvements which they expect to make immediately at the cost of $330,000.


The Salsina Canning Company, situated at the corner of Lincoln and San Salvador Streets, has an investment of about $200,000 at that site. The plant was installed during the past year and handled tomatoes and salsina exclusively. The company is now considering the advisability of constructing a new unit at a cost of $45,000 in time to handle fruits as well as tomatoes next year.

(The full article's worth reading, if only for the comments about the other canneries, the Santa Clara Valley orange business, and how all the canneries will operate cafeterias "with hot, nourishing food will be served to the workers in an attractive manner at cost." Sounds like Facebook or Google.)

Salsina Canning (misspelled as Salsini in a few places) was set up by "Italian interests in the Santa Clara Valley" according to California Fruit News. The name is telling; 'salsina' is the italian work for sauce (and perhaps implies tomato paste), highlighting that their market was the new immigrants and perhaps folks in the old country.

The original building wasn't enough; Salsina extended it in 1919 with a 60x600 warehouse according to a reference in American Architect and Architecture. Electrical World highlights how they're using fine electrical equipment for the new production line.

But what about those suspicious-sounding "italian interests" backing Salsina? They sound more upstanding when we look at old city directories, for it turns out the cannery is run by Gus (Gustave) F. Lion, son of German immigrants who arrived in San Jose in 1855. Gus was a serious mover-and-shaker: A Santa Clara University graduate, owner of one of San Jose's fine furniture stores, owner of the 5500 acre San Martin ranch out by Gilroy, banker, and even member of the Elks. A county history brags that he was involved both with the Republican and Democratic parties, back in the day when you could could straddle that fence. According to a 1919 San Jose City Directory, Gus was the president of Salsina, Alphonso Lambrosa was vice-president, and W. J. Leet was the treasurer.

Salsina didn't last long. By 1921, Lion was subdividing the San Martin ranch, and the same year sold Salsina to the Virden Packing Corporation.

Virden Packing

Virden's an interesting company. Charles Virden, the owner, had been active in the fruit business in Sacramento, and had worked for some of the large fruit distributors. He was also active in the Chamber of Commerce; internet research shows he broke the ground on a new country club east of Sacramento around 1920. Most importantly, he was a big booster for the Central Valley. He also spoke publicly about his frustrations with the availability of freight cars, and made some handy suggestions to the railroad about how to make sure businesses like his could ship their products. It's easy to find several speeches like this from Virden, and it's easy to tell his opinions.

But it sounds like Virden had more ambition, and decided it was time for him to take his personal Virden Packing business to the next level. He moved to San Francisco, and ambitiously snapped up several large canneries: Western Canning's plant in Emeryville (formerly Chinese owned and run), other plants in Sacramento, Marysville, Elmhurst (85th Street in Oakland), Fruitvale (29th Street, Oakland), Lindsay, and Oroville. (One contemporary report for the purchase said that someone wrote "Goodbye" in Chinese and English on the wall in the Western Canning plant.) On top of that, Virden also ran meat packing companies in Sacramento and in South San Francisco, and owned the Pioneer Fruit Company (according to a lawsuit from Zellerbach Paper). Virden's officers for the company include two early employees who had been part of the Sunlit Fruit Company that was swallowed up by the California Packing Corporation (Del Monte), so perhaps this was their challenge to CalPak, and their hopes of building a similarly huge organization.

Virden bought Salsina both for the existing business as well as a chance to do meat packing at the same location; Western Canner and Packer states that the "plant will be used for the packing of all the company's meats drawn from the field south of San Jose."

Lots of dreams and plans, lots of ambition. Very little news, though, between 1921 and 1926 apart from the daily stock ticker declaring the value of the Virden Packing shares.

By the mid-1920's, though, Virden's shrinking. The falling prices which hit other canners and dried fruit packers is one potential cause. Rumors of company meetings and potential sales appear in 1926. The March 13, 1927 Oakland Tribune notes that the company is abandoning the fruit business and is in the process of selling the canneries, "three in Oakland, one in San Jose, and a fifth in Marysville". Charles Virden claims that the company will be focusing on the meat business from now on. Balfour Guthrie, a British importer and owner of farmland in California, takes an option on buying the largest plants at Maryville, San Jose, Elmhurst, Fruitvale, and Emeryville. (The Lodi Sentinel said on May 6, 1926 that Balfour-Guthrie was already operating the canneries.) The Gridley Herald explains this only as a financing move, and the canneries will be managed by Francis E. Laney, head of the Sutter County growers co-operative.

But it doesn't look like the canneries go to Balfour; the former Western Canning in Emeryville is sold to CalPak, and becomes Del Monte Plant #35, a huge cannery that eventually disappears in 1989 and becomes the current site of Pixar. The Fruitvale plant also goes to Del Monte. The San Jose site keeps its name - there's nothing in the record to decide whether Virden did or did not sell out.

Virden died in January, 1932, leaving a million-dollar insurance policy to keep the company going. By 1935, it's all over for the meat business too as the remaining business, including the meat packing plant in South San Francisco, is sold to Armour, the monopolist in the meat packing industry. A 1936 lawsuit charges that Virden Packing overpromised the extent of the meat business in Sacramento when it first issued stock.

Virden's cannery in San Jose must have kept going, either under the old or a new management. It appears in the 1928 and 1929 San Jose city directories at the same location on Lincoln, and also appears on a 1930-ish Sanborn map, but it disappears from the city directories in 1930. It (tellingly) doesn't appear on that 1931 Southern Pacific track directory that I was given a couple years back.

San Martin Vineyards

I can't find any mention of the building through the Great Depression; it must have sat empty, just like the Hunts cannery in Los Gatos did. (Correction: the Fall 2023 "SP Trainline" article on the San Jose route change includes a switching map from 1932. The ex-Salsina spur is labeled "Calif Packing Corp.", suggesting that Del Monte was using the warehouse - not surprising considering it was a block away from the main Del Monte cannery. More recent research noted that the St. Claire Brewery used the space around 1935.) However, by 1949, the building is in use again, this time as a warehouse for the San Martin Winery. The existing building has a cask mounted on the wall as a reminder of the winery's days in the building. The 1950 Sanborn map shows the accessory buildings behind including the boiler and cooling tower (for former refrigeration?) SP engineering drawings from 1949 show a platform being added to the Lincoln Ave front, as well as work on the team tracks branching off behind the building. Interestingly, the SP SPINS booklet from 1970 shows neither of the spurs that were visible on the engineering drawing. By 1970, San Martin is out, and Hank and Frank Drayage is in the building; their sign remained on the building until recently.


And today, you can go wandering over to Lincoln Avenue, pass the new luxury apartment buildings going up on the former sites of the U.S. Products and Contadina canneries, cross the railroad tracks, and see the slightly orphaned and slightly worn concrete building on the right side. The cannery had a short life - maybe 1918 to 1930 as a cannery, then years empty, then downgraded to use as a wine warehouse, then a less prestigious warehouse, and now it's being used as a furniture discount warehouse, probably just as a temporary occupant until it's time for the building to be torn down and replaced by more housing.

You can go in and wander; it's a warren of rooms from warehouse days, with wood trusses overhead, the sawtooth roofline, pierced with banks of double-hung windows, are very visible above the dining room tables and nightstands. You can also see how the building expanded; the street side is definitely a different bit of construction from the east side facing the SP and WP tracks, and you can see the materials change as you cross through from one side to the other. You also can see that the east wall really is corrugated iron, highlighting the different eras of the building. If you noticed the small peaked roof visible from Auzerais St., you'll also learn it's actually a small house that got swallowed up by the building, and now serves as an office, sitting right there in the middle of the largest portion of the warehouse.

Outside, the concrete's looking pitted after a hundred years of hand trucks and rearranged loading doors. Below the loading dock on the Lincoln Ave. side, the rails are still poking up out of the asphalt, with strange rounded balls located where the end of the siding would have been, probably to block the wheels.

Virden Packing obviously didn't survive long - it was a small cannery during the great explosion in canneries in 1918. I suspect its backers weren't thinking big enough, and couldn't compete against the three big canneries surrounding it. Like the Hyde Cannery in Campbell, dropping prices in the late twenties doomed it, and the Depression must have closed it down forever.

That said, it's still got a bit of magic. You'll spot it as an obvious example of rail-served industry as you drive towards downtown San Jose. Some five year old is probably wandering through right now as his parents search for a new kitchen table, and he's looking up at all that trusswork wondering why someone built a building so odd and interesting compared to the boring buildings at the mall...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

San Jose Switching Limits: Confirmed!

It's funny that I'm an SP modeler, considering my father spent fifteen years at the Western Pacific Railroad. His knowledge of the business side of the railroad thanks to his time working on rates and doing sales in Oakland means that I know more about railroad tariffs than most kids.

And every now and then, he finds these tidbits and passes them on to me. Just before he joined the WP in 1952, they'd had a tour for the San Francisco salesmen of the San Jose sales area, and the booklet given to each salesman included this neat little map showing the WP and SP team tracks as well as the switching limits.

What are switching limits and how do they differ from yard limits? Yard limits are operational; they tell train crews which areas they can switch with impunity, and which requires the dispatcher's permission. Switching limits affect the rates charged customers (because moving cars within a terminal area has a different price than hauling it outside that area), and affects crew salary. As Jason Hill explained a while back, trains going outside switching limits generally required road crews and were paid by mileage (with a minimum) while yard crews switching within switching limits would get a daily rate.

At least for 1952, the switching limits for the SP in San Jose went to the north end of College Park yard, out (probably) to the San Jose Brick Co. spur on the Los Gatos branch, and down to the GE plant on the south side of town. This suggests that Campbell and Los Gatos probably got switched by road crews, while all the canneries around Auzerais St. on my layout could have been switched by yard crews.\

Remind me during operating sessions to give fewer cookies to the crews doing the San Jose Cannery job, and more to the crews switching Campbell and Los Gatos, ok? We might as well maintain the pay disparity for realism.

And for you WP fans, how about all those team tracks scattered around town?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Planning Larson Ladder

[Subtitled, "For Goodness Sake, Don't Look At the Map Again!"] There's a couple holes in the layout that need filling; one obvious one is in a gap between the road I'm declaring is Meridian Road and the WP track. In reality, there's a few blocks between these two locations filled with a random mix of light industry, but on the model railroad, I've got maybe 80 scale feet to fill. And, of course, if I want to make the area look like it's the place for business, that means I need to build models of businesses.

None of the industries there look like particularly good fits, so I've already located my model of a Rio Grande gas station right at the tracks. Behind it, I'm not so sure - one potential candidate is the frequently-mentioned Larson Ladder, maker of the three-legged orchard ladders that were common throughout the Santa Clara Valley. One of my neighbors who grew up in San Jose even remembers them, so as a hometown favorite, they've got first dibs on the location.

But what did a ladder company look like? Bill Foley from the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County managed to find a pair of aerial photos of the area, one from 1941, and the other from 1958. Both show that much of the area west of the tracks was still orchards, but the 1941 photo shows Larson Ladder sitting a block west of Meridian Ave on Moorpark - a bit far from the tracks, but let's use it for inspiration. The plant sat on a narrow lot in the middle of orchards. There's at least one long gable-roofed building, and then another, lower building, probably a couple hundred feet long with a sawtooth roof. I normally think of these as brick (which seems inappropriate here), but Packing Houses of Southern California shows a pair of wooden sawtooth packing sheds on SP's Santa Paula branch, one from the McTeague-Kevett packing association, and the other a Sunkist lemon packing house. Either might be a nice inspiration for Larson Ladder.

Er... wait a sec... Larson Ladder would have been several blocks away from where the tracks are. What was in that "light industry" area closer to the tracks in the photo?

Oh, nothing much. Random warehouses, lots of little workshops. Oh, and a sawtoothed building, right at the corner of Lincoln and Auzerais Street with a loading dock facing Lincoln Ave. The building's still there by the way, with the cask mounted on the front of the building from when it was owned by San Martin Vineyards and the Filice family. Before that, it had been Balfour Guthrie, which purchased Virden Packing, a peach canner, in 1926. Big concrete building because of its previous use for meat packing. Back side would have faced the WP tracks.

Interesting. I've got a large, cool, sawtooth building next to the WP tracks and along a roadway, just like I've got on the layout. It's got an interesting loading dock on the front that was an SP spur. Why exactly am I not modeling it?

Er... because I didn't think of it before now.

I may not have room to lay track from my mainline into Virden Packing, but I think that Rio Grande gas station is about to be moved. As I think about that plan, here's some photos of the Virden Packing building that I took even though I didn't think I'd be modeling it. Throw in your comments on whether the cute gas station should be kicked off the layout just to be replaced with an awfully coarse-looking concrete cannery.

[Street level photos: mine. Aerial view: Google.]

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Quick Quiz on California-appropriate Buildings

One of the common themes I've discussed here is the idea that to have a good California-style model railroad, I really need to know what sort of buildings ought to be in a small California town in the 1930's. So far, I'm doing ok at this by looking at old photos of California towns from the 1930's, and extrapolating construction style, sign lettering and the like. I'm still trying to figure out what sort of a building Larson Ladder might have had at its world headquarters on Moorpark Ave.

But practice makes perfect, so let's head over to the website describing the historic structures at Pier 70, San Francisco's shipbuilding center. There are plans to turn part of the site into offices by reusing some of the historic buildings. The catalog of buildings (some from World War II, some from the plant's original occupants of Bethlehem Steel and Union Iron Works) makes for a nice survey of industrial buildings in California over the last century. Click on some of the links for slideshows of the machine shop and piers to get a look at the shipyard when it was working. The machine shop slideshow highlights the great internal detail in building #113 - wooden trusses, huge tools, and a cavernous interior.

And if you're a California modeler, it's also a great source of information for a pop quiz. Look at each building in turn, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this match my expectations of a California building?
  • Do I have similar buildings on my layout?
  • Which manufacturers make kits that would be a starting point for a kit like this?

I'll give you one answer for free: warehouse #6, the place for marshaling the fabricated pieces going into a newly-constructed ship, looks awfully like a 1960's era Suydam corrugated iron building. It's awfully big compared to my layout, but I keep trying to decide whether the Santa Clara Valley Mill and Lumber (Tilden Lumber) yard near Auzerais St. ought to be wood or steel.

Notice anything cool about the Pier 70 buildings that's applicable to a model railroad?

Scenery for Moody Gulch

Work's definitely going in fits and starts here; after a couple months with no work on the layout, my visit to Desert Ops, the Phoenix-area operating weekend, must have inspired me. My challenge: get some scenery in the Moody Gulch scene.

The scenery on the shelf above Los Gatos has always been problematic, and I haven't wanted to rush decisions. There are hidden tracks below (for the lowest reverse loop and staging), so covering the tracks always seemed... risky. When I'd put in the Alma siding, I also added room for a future, at that point undefined, industry, so I was unsure about what scenery would be appropriate. The scenery between Los Gatos and Alma also deserves to be impressive - that stretch of track goes through the narrowest part of Los Gatos Canyon. If I was being fair to the railroad I'm modeling, I'd have track clinging to a sheer cliff face... which wouldn't fit when Los Gatos is only a few inches below the track.

When I last tried building scenery for Alma a couple years ago, I thought a crossing of Los Gatos Creek might be appropriate; I had a bit of styrofoam, so I mocked out half of the scenery, used the tail end of a bag of Sculptamold to make it solid... and stopped as I ran out of material. The scene just didn't work; the creek wouldn't be low enough to be believable as Los Gatos Creek, there was no space to expose the creek bed on the fascia in front of the scene, and the tracks descending on a 2% grade across that bridge just seemed unrealistic. The scene's been sitting there half-done ever since.

Today's adventure was doing that scenery right. I'd learned in the past that if I can completely finish a scene, it's much more likely to turn out well *and* end up being permanent, so luckily I'd stocked up on a couple bags of Sculptamold and a sheet of 2" styrofoam insulation from Home Depot. (My local Home Depot in San Jose even had a sheet of 2" pinkboard, though I was just using beadboard.) I pulled out the hot glue gun and the hot wire knife, looked over a couple of inspirational photos in books, and started building.

The two photos here show the progress tonight. (Sorry for the poor quality and the chair leg in the photo; I should have taken the pictures before cleaning up.) I've had the best luck building scenery with sheet styrofoam. I cut pieces roughly to fit, and glue layers together with a hot glue gun. The hot glue does melt the foam, but at least some of the glue holds the foam together, and I can usually start trimming the layers within minutes of gluing, avoiding the need to wait a day as I used to when using contact cement. I then start trimming the hills with the hot wire cutter to get the rounded look of California hills, correctly angled cuts, and the like. The result are hillsides that look very California-appropriate. As soon as the hot glue is cooled and the styrofoam armature is in place, I use a thin layer of Sculptamold as the final shape of the scenery. Once the Sculptamold dries, the scenery is rigid enough for further layers of spackle or Sculptamold, and is ready for the paint and dirt that will make the hills look like... well, hills.

This scene really draws attention to the branch to Moody Gulch at the expense of the mainline. The Moody Gulch spur looks correctly cut out of the hill with minor filling and depressions along the way. The main line is still looking a bit unrealistic as it drop below the Moody Gulch spur then dives into a tunnel. That tunnel wasn't on the real SP between Los Gatos and Alma, but (1) there was a tunnel in the narrow gauge South Pacific Coast days, and (2) the tunnel is a heck of a lot more realistic than some strange cut might be.

Next steps: get rid of the bare plaster hills. The hillside along here should be a mix of chaparral (typical for the south-facing slope near Moody Gulch) with occasional redwoods in the distance. I'm also starting to think about Moody Gulch structures; I've got ideas about some additional oil well details as well as a small warehouse for supplies for the drillers.