Wednesday, February 5, 2014

And That's Why You Stare At Old Photos

J.S. Roberts, 1934

The dried fruit packing house at the corner of San Carlos Street and the Los Gatos branch has always gotten a lot of attention on my layout. When I was first planning the layout, I saw the name Abinante and Nola on a 1950 Sanborn map, and decided then to leave space for a packing house with that name on the side. The current model of the plant, kitbashed from a Campbell Scale Models "Tower's Flowers" kit, was a decent model - large, and with plenty of loading doors - but didn't actually match the real building.

When I finally got serious about history, I also found out that the building wasn't occupied by Abinante and Nola during the time I model. I instead found out about Higgins-Hyde, and prune pools, and crafty dried fruit buyers during the 1930's, and J.S. Roberts taking over the business after Higgins got run out of town on a rail. One of the Abinante or Nola sons told me about how he remembered the plant as a big, dark barn, and also that it was his dad's favorite warehouse because its location on a dead-end section of San Carlos Street made it easy for farmers to drop off fruit... and how my model didn't really look anything like what he remembered.

And then, I found an actual picture of the plant, and confirmed that the model was very, very wrong. Since then, making a more accurate model has been pretty high on my to-do list.

Model being assembled

Building the Model: Fast forward a year or two, and I finally start on the improved model. Because the one picture I had of the building was so poor, I instead grabbed my favorite photo of the Guggenhime packing house in San Jose and used that as inspiration. After a few pencil sketches to plan, I pulled out the styrene sheet and started cutting. This was going to be a big model - maybe 14 inches by 8 inches, and six inches high. I'd had problems with similar models warping horribly, so this time I built the model on a plexiglas core to give it some additional rigidity. That worked - I pretty quickly had the four walls, and so I moved on to painting them using my favorite trick of gesso and india ink on weathered styrene to get the appropriate weathered look.

This weekend, after much of the painting was done, I finally squared up the model and glued together the basic block. That, of course, meant it was time to move on to adding details, and the only way to do that was stare at some real packing houses and steal the best bits from them all.

Guggenhime packing house, San Jose.

Here's that photo of the Guggenhime packing house that inspired this model, taken by local commercial photographer John Gordon back in the early 1930's. Like the J.S. Roberts packing house that this model represents, the Guggenhime packing house was a big barn-like structure, three stories high, and already looking weathered here in the 1930's. My first detail was going to be the loading dock doors - I'd planned on using plastic castings, but they wouldn't fit with the plexiglas walls behind the cut outs. Instead, I turned back to the Guggenhime photo and zoomed in on some of those loading dock doors for inspiration.

Here's a close-up of one of those doors, along with my notebook scribblings as I stared at the photo. The loading doors are obviously simple things - some siding nailed on a frame of 2x4's at best. The door hangers look an awfully lot like the tracks used for boxcar doors (I even went rummaging around in my scrap box looking for just those sorts of tracks without luck, so looks like I'll be visiting the model train store soon for reasonable parts.) I really like the angled sheet metal keeping rain off the door, the half-circle metal hangars holding the door up, the 2x12 holding the track away from the building, and the plain wooden blocks acting as door stops. Look at the scratches and gouges as well - the scratches at the height of a hand truck, perhaps, and the wear and dirt close to the ground, and that scratch just where the door would be when the door was fully opened. These are great details, and I ought to be able to use them in the model. And if you zoom in on the original photo at SJSU, you'll even see that funky "2" indicating the door number in a surprisingly artistic hand.

Zooming in on Door 1:When I started looking at that photo tonight, I was having a great time writing down all these little details in hopes I could add them to the model. I even zoomed in on those doorstops, and decided they were crude blocks of 2x4s - nice detail, and easy to model. And then I zoomed in on door one, and saw many of the same details... and then realized there was a strange box stuck on top of the doorstop, maybe eight inches high. Zooming in, you can even distinguish the lettering on the box front: "SWITCH LIST".

Now, when a railroad switch crew comes to your warehouse with a boxcar, they need to figure out where to place that car. If your loading dock can only hold one car, maybe there's not a lot of choice, but Guggenhime & Co. had at least six doors spread across three buildings here in San Jose, and if the prunes for Poughkeepsie are behind door number one, you'll have some very unhappy warehousemen if they need to cart those prunes down the dock to a New York Central car spotted at door number six. Now, the railroad crew has three ways they can figure out where to put that boxcar. They might go by convention - you always want the boxcars on the near end of the track, and the tank cars over by the piping. They might rely on hearing your preferences, getting off the locomotive when they arrive and searching for the foreman to tell them what to do. And if it's the middle of the night and no one's there to tell them what to do, you might leave them a note.

The Switch List box is likely to be the place where the manager of the packing house would leave notes about where to put the different cars. He would have had his phone call with the agent or car department to find out that the empties he needs (or the cars he's waiting for) are arriving tonight, he would have known what cargos would go in each, and he could quickly scribble down what he needs. The Northern Pacific boxcar full of box shook goes to door six. The two cars for the East Coast go to doors 1 and 2. The SP car getting bags of prunes for a steamship out of San Francisco to Europe goes at door four. He pencils that in, folds the note, and puts it in the box. Late that night, the train crew rolls in with the cars for Guggenhime, stops, pulls out the instructions, curses a bit because they've got the cars in a completely different order, and starts their switching. The next morning, the manager comes in, checks his cars, and starts the crews loading and unloading them. (If it's a weekend, we might see something more like Vince Nola's memories of driving by the warehouse with his dad on Sunday night to make sure the SP had placed the cars they'd promised would be there by Monday morning.)

If an army marches on its stomach, the Switch List box reminds us that a railroad marched on a lot of paper, whether for internal consumption, sharing official correspondence with shippers, or leaving helpful notes to a crew about where a boxcar should be placed. Tony Thompson has talked about the equivalent for a station agent - the bill box used to trade the waybills (official billing papers) and switching instructions between station agents and the crews that might be visiting the town when the station was closed. Guggenhime's switch list box was very unlikely to have official paperwork because the railroads held onto that tightly for billing purposes, but the switchlist box seems just right for unofficial instructions that needed to survive a winter rainstorm. My model for J.S. Roberts will only be a third the size of Guggenhime and won't need the bill box to tell where cars should be placed, but I suspect my model will still have the bill box sitting up on top of one of those 2x4s.

[Guggenghime packing house photo from the John C. Gordon photo collection at San Jose State University. J.S. Roberts photo taken from the edge of another John C. Gordon panorama of the San Carlos Street viaduct, also in San Jose State's collection.

If you've got better ideas about how the switchlist box was used, leave a comment below or drop me a note. I'm guessing at a lot of this, and I'd love either some confirmation or suggestions about how to use a switchlist box like feature to make switching more realistic on my layout.]

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