Sunday, January 27, 2013

Open Houses: It's Like Opening Night, Repeated Over and Over

Whew, another Bay Area Layout Design and Operations meet has happened, and once again it's been a great weekend. Great talks, great conversations, and a full set of layout tours and operating sessions. Seth and Chris's description of using RFID tags to automatically make switchlists for trains showed that a long-desired bit of technology is ready for model railroading prime time. Tom Knapp described his latest Nn3 layout based on the Pacific Coast Railway in San Luis Obispo, and his lightweight modules made from 1x1 oak frames and 1" styrafoam definitely started me considering a couple module and shelf layout ideas. I missed some of the later talks as part of helping with layout design consulting, but got to talk with some fun modelers planning some neat shelf layouts and Bay Area prototypes - the advising experience was as much fun for me as I suspect it was for the designers. If you didn't make it this year, make your plans to visit San Francisco next January!

The weekend was also a bit of a whirlwind for me; I had the Vasona Branch layout open on Saturday night, and then hosted an operating session Sunday afternoon, and it was all dizzying, tiring, and fun in so many ways.

Making the layout presentable's always a struggle. There's the prep of clearing out the stuff that normally lives in the garage, the cleaning and cobweb patrol, and the effort of testing the layout to make sure it's running ok... which is a big challenge if it's been months since I last hosted. This year was a little worse than usual; although I'd been doing prep for the last few days, a bunch of gremlins must've crept in during the last few nights. A couple switches started sticking and shorting out the power supply when thrown. Well-behaved cars seemed to be derailing more often. Worst of all, one of the key switches on the layout started tossing cars off last night.

That last story is worth some detail. Normally, I'll test the layout by running a partial operating session on my own and watch for parts of the layout that misbehave. I'd done a bit of that this time, but perhaps not enough. I've also learned that it's hard to be a talkative host and run trains, so I'll usually catch an unsuspecting visitor, give him a throttle, and ask him to switch some industries while I say hello to visitors.

Last night, the poor guest took out one of the cannery jobs, and started pushing and pulling twelve cars over the spur leading to Del Monte Plant #51, the dried fruit plant in West San Jose. It seemed like every car was derailing on that switch, and each time there'd be a spark and the short circuit alarm would beep. He'd re-rail, go to do another switch, and there's be another car on the ground, another spark, and another beep. He later said he still enjoyed the job, but I was embarrassed with how badly the layout was operating - more than a few cars derailing during a session takes away any feeling of actually being a railroader.

I spent a good part of Saturday night and Sunday morning trying to diagnose what was going on. I coupled up all a good twenty cars, and ran them back and forward over that switch over and over, and cars were derailing constantly. Forward, back, derail, curse. Forward, back, derail, curse. I tried adjusting the track, I tried pulling out badly-behaving cars, I tried reasoning with the badly-behaving switch. Nothing.

Helpful hint: if you want to have a large, operating layout, it'll help if you're also willing to stand in a cold garage for hours on a wintry Saturday night running trains back and forth over a single stretch of track. Stock up on the curse words too.

With a couple hours before showtime, I was seriously considering extreme methods: pulling up the switch and replacing it with a length of flex track. I even marked the section to cut and had started curving the replacement track. Luckily, I reconsidered my odds of having a working railroad by 1:30, and decided I wasn't that brave. Instead, I pulled out the several of the worst behaving cars, replaced the trucks on a couple, and did some careful shimming, and got the failure rate down to every few trains or so. Whatever I did must have helped; the switch did decently all afternoon, and what failures it had were no worse than some of the hiccups around the layout. I'm still curious why the trucks were the problem for a couple of the cars; it looks like the springs in a couple trucks weren't keeping the sideframes level. Pitting on other wheels might have let bits of metal that could cause a wheel to climb a rail. For the rest... well, that's a mystery.

That switch (and the scenery around it) are still destined for some Serious Attention, though. I suspect a sharper-than-usual curve and slight downgrade just before the offending curved turnout is part of the problem, so some extra care at keeping vertical curves and grades gradual mught help. My current thought is to rip out the scenery and track there, do a better job of laying the track, and then redo the scenery and structures. Luckily, that switch is in front of the Abinante and Nola packing house which I learned was completely unlike the actual location. Now that I've got that 1934 photo of the J.S. Roberts packing house that I found down at the San Jose library, I've got a ton of great, photogenic detail to try to incorporate into the layout. Stay tuned for progress reports.

Even with the Mystery of the Derailing Boxcars, the weekend was still amazingly fun. The open house and operating session over the weekend brought some interesting folks by; the pictures of the operating session show their smiling (and occasionally pensive) faces. This open house also brought some folks interested in San Jose history, so I had some great conversations about about the layout. I heard about the fun of stacking cans at the Del Monte cannery, and how my Plant 51 model matched memories of taking the Daylight from San Jose to visit Grandma in San Francisco.

Thanks to all the folks who stopped by, stay tuned for maintenance progress, and I'll see the rest of you at the Layout Design and Operations meet next year!

[Photos: operating session on Sunday. I managed to shoehorn six operators onto the layout this time, including one new operator who I hope will become a regular on some of the local layouts. I also got enough questions about operating that I really need to think about getting back to regular operations...]

Friday, January 25, 2013

Movie Night XI: Let's Go to the New Idria Quicksilver Mine!

It's hard to be interested in San Jose history and not be caught up by the whole history of mercury mining. San Jose's New Almaden quicksilver mines were the biggest in the Americas; there's not many signs of the mining up in Almaden Quicksilver County Park, but at least it's easy to get to with a bit of hiking.

But for a raw look at mercury mining, New Idria's the place to go. The New Idria mines are a couple hours south of Gilroy, hidden away in a difficult-to-reach portion of the Coast Range. That isolation also means that some of the buildings left over from mining have survived... and that the mine tailings were never cleaned, and still spew significant amounts of mercury and other metals into the San Joaquin River.

Getting to New Idria's difficult and unpleasant, but we can enjoy the trip by tagging along with some young'uns with exceptional video and photography skills, a healthy disregard for danger and death, and a snarky sense of humor!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On This Day In 1922...

I've been poking through the Evening News on Google News Archive for a couple days looking for some interesting late-January news from San Jose. There's not a lot that's exciting to us twenty-first-century people, but the January 23, 1922 "Patronize These Local Businesses" section showed an interesting fact:

FRUIT ASSOCIATIONS: CAL PACKING CORPORATION, district office: San Fernando St., S.J. 156. Central Cal canneries, Plant No. 4, Seventh & Jackson, J. K. Armsby Co; Plant #52, Cinnabar, Griffin & Skelley Co., Plant 51, San Fernando; Cal Fruit Canners' Assn., dried fruit dept., Plant 50, W. San Carlos; Cannery Plant 3, San Carlos and Narrow Gauge.

There's two odd features of this list: first, it's showing the original owners of each property some six years after the creation of Del Monte, and second, they're still referring to the Santa Cruz branch as the narrow gauge, some ten or twelve years after the line was widened to standard gauge. I might expect this from an old-timer, but I'm surprised to see how Del Monte continued using the old names for so long.

If I was modeling the 1920's and needed nicknames, this would give me a bunch of hints about how the railroaders probably described the branch and the businesses.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bay Area Layout Design and Operations Meet: Next Weekend!

Two quick notes:

First, James McNab, who created the PICL Report style for SwitchList, is the guest on the The Model Railway Show. James talks about how he chose his Iowa Interstate branch prototype, and the benefits of a smaller layout and a specific prototype.

Second, next weekend is the annual Bay Area Layout Design and Operations Meet, my favorite model railroad event. This year, we'll be at Harry's Hofbrau on Saratoga Avenue, so access to beer may encourage some interesting discussions.

There's a bunch of great talks this year that I'm looking forward to. Seth Neumann and Chris Drome will share how they successfully built an RFID car reader that's automating switchlist generation on Seth's layouts, Dave Falkenburg will be sharing lessons on designing modules based on prototype locations from his N scale modular group's experiences, and Tom Knapp will be sharing details of the Pacific Coast Railway's operations. I remember seeing Tom's Nn3 modular layout based on the Pacific Coast Railway at the 1981 NMRA national convention in San Mateo. As a high school kid, this was my first real exposure to serious model railroading, and the layouts I saw that trip certainly started me off the right way in the hobby.

In addition to some fun talks and panels, we'll be offering free layout design advice to all attendees, so sign up for a time slot and bring that sketch of the dream layout you've been considering.

As usual, all will be invited to operating sessions at local layouts on Sunday. My Vasona Branch will be operating from 1:30 to 4:30 on Sunday. Although all operator slots are full, you're welcome to stop by to see the layout if you're not operating elsewhere. Drop me a note if you're thinking of stopping by!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Pretty Feet in Feat of Almost Defeating S.P."

And, of course, life at the San Jose Market Street depot wasn't always fun and games. From the San Jose Evening News of Wednesday, January 5, 1921:

Southern Pacific depot employees are still laughing today over an amusing occurrence which delayed the departure of train No. 53 for San Francisco at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon. The train was all ready to go ahead and the air brakes gave that gentle sighing sound. The conductor was wigwagging peacefully, when all of a sudden he shouted wildly: "Hey, lady!"

He madly motioned to the engineer to hold his horses a moment.

"Lady, lady!" he shrieked, making a desperate effort to be "courteous to patrons" as the rule books require, and at the same time to get the train started on time, as the rule books also most vehemently require.

By this time everybody in the station was looking in the direction of the conductor's eyes, which, like the poet's, were "in a fine frenzy rolling."

And there, on the car next to the end, were visible the neatly integumented-to use a word Henry James employed to describe similar things-were the neatly integumented dainty feet of a lady.

Delectably unconscious of the conductor's agitation, the lady swung her feet slowly as she sat on the bottom step of the car in question. She was enjoying the air and swinging her feet as happily as though she was sitting on the front porch of her own home. Slowly, gracefully, the two feet swung back and forth. And everybody in the station gazed, grinned, and gesticulated.

The conductor made one last desperate effort with his lungs and a brakeman started running back in the direction of the offending but not visually offensive feet.

And then-whisk!-the lady "caught on." The feet disappeared with wonderful celerity in a scurry of skirts. The conductor wigwagged once more to the engineer. And nobody ever did find out who the lady was. But the conductor would probably recognize her by her feet if he met her in a subway crowd in New York ten year's hence.

Yep, sure sounds like Edith Daley's reporting.

Also in today's issue: 450 tons of prunes worth $100,000 burn at the S. Sanfilippo ranch on Infirmary Road (Bascom Ave., I think), 11 acres near Petaluma sold to "Pakashi, a Japanese" in violation of the "state anti-alien law", authorities are talking with a witness to a torture-murder in LA, and a car stolen in front of a downtown theater ends up abandoned at Hamilton and Meridian Aves, stripped. Willow Glen was always a rough part of town. Leo Tolstoy's son Ilya, will be lecturing at the Normal School on Friday at 8pm on "The Truth about Russia".

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sunsweet Plant #1: More Progress

I rearranged the sidings at Campbell last year to open more switching possibilities, and one of the results of that work was space for California Prune and Apricot Growers (Sunsweet) Plant #1. It's an interesting building both it's a classic multi-story dried fruit packing house (with space to store the year's dried crop), and because the building still exists in downtown Campbell as office space.

My model of the packing house has been lingering for months, but I finally got around to putting a roof on it and adding a bit of detail, and it's worth sharing. There's a couple of spots of glue to remove. I also need to work on the paint on the fascia and getting rid of that smear of red under the eaves. Overall, though, it's coming along nicely.

And this was only one of the projects completed over Christmas. I'd explicitly decided to focus on some of the projects cluttering the workbench, and that resolution led to completion of the WP West San Jose tower, decaling two resin boxcars that had been sitting painted since February, and assembling a farm tractor that had been sitting in its Woodland Scenics bubble pack since... 2008?

I also was bad and started another project, and I'll need to show the beginnings of the San Jose Market Street train shed another day.