Monday, January 30, 2012

Amherst Model Railroad Show

More than 25,000 men, women, children, and a couple of EMT rescue dogs gathered on January 28 and 29 for the annual Amherst Railroad Hobby Show at the Eastern States Exposition Fairgrounds in West Springfield, Massachusetts.  Said to be the largest such event in the northeast, and one of the biggest in the country, the show attracted hundreds of vendors and a large number of modular layouts, clinics, clubs and historical societies.   The show filled five buildings.  This shot of the crowds in just one of them gives you an idea of the masses of people interested in anything having to do with railroads.

In addition to the usual display of model railroad equipment in a range of scales, there were vendors selling books and tapes, materials for scenery, even benchwork!

If you were into antiques and collectibles, there were tables where  you could buy almost anything related to railroads from lanterns...

to switch locks ....

to conductor hats!

I was invited to  help out at the Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad booth for a couple of hours each day, and received a vendor's pass allowing free access to all the exhibits both during the show and prior to opening each day.  Jim Vliet is a fellow member of the FEBT and hauls the display all the way from Long Island each year, along with boxes of books, tapes and handouts. 

I had a good time chatting with fellow narrow gauge enthusiasts who stopped by during the show.  Among them I should mention George Cook, an octagenarian with an encycopedic knowledge of narrow gauge railroads, especially the EBT.  He expounded on the McKelvey Brothers logging road that once interchanged with the EBT in Rockhill.  George had actually interviewed a number of folks who once worked for the logging road back in the 1920s, and is transcribing the interviews using the latest high tech Dragon word recognition software!  Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Also stopping by was Malcolm Houck, who was born and spent part of his childhood in the EBT's southern terminus of Robertsdale.  I have been working on a model of the little mining town, and Mal had lots of stories about growing up in a stern Pennsylvania Dutch family way up in the mountains of south central Pennsylvania.  Turns out his great grandfather discovered one of the first seams of Broad Top Coal, identified as the Houck seam for many years.  Mal is also the leading expert on the O & W (sometimes known as the Old and Weary) Railroad in Pennsylvania anthracite country.  He's written the definitive books on the road, and I believe he has modeled every locomotive they ever owned.  He had a display just down from the FEBT table, and I took this picture of his diorama.

Since I model the East Broad Top, the last operating narrow gauge railroad east of the Mississippi, many of my modeling friends are into narrow gauge as well.  So the first place I visited was the SoundTraxx booth, also located in the same building as the FEBT table.  SoundTraxx produces top of the line sound decoders under the name Tsunami, and also a stunning array of narrow gauge engines and cars under the Blackstone logo.  Blackstone makes some of the finest narrow gauge equipment in the industry, extremely free rolling and equipped with incredible sound. 

If you look carefully at the cars on display above, you may notice the steel triple hopper car right behind the engine and tender.  That's Blackstone's new EBT hopper car, due out in late April or early May -- the first new version of the car in years.  The new hopper cars, like all Blackstone products, will be extremely free rolling and highly detailed.  They are a little pricey, but well worth it.  The EBT had a fleet of hoppers numbering in the hundreds, almost all produced at their shops in Rockhill, Pennsylvania.  Those of us who model the EBT have to be satisfied with a somewhat smaller fleet of cars (at $50 a pop!)

A friend of mine, Dave Trimble, joined me at the Blackstone booth.  We were fortunate to talk with Nancy, the owner of SoundTraxx, who assured me their next narrow gauge locomotive (the third run of K-27 Rio Grande engines) would be out in 2-3 weeks.  When questioned about an EBT engine, she was a little reticent, saying only that their next major entry in the market would be a K-36 heavy mikado, but that the EBT engines were not out of consideration.  However, she explained that it takes at least 2-3 years to develop and produce a new locomotive, so EBT fans: Don't hold your breath!

By the way, for those with other DCC systems, there were also displays by Digitrax, NCE, TCS and many other manufacturers.  Clinics ranged from how to build, paint and weather roofs to the latest in electronics and command control.  Dave met up with me right after a seminar on the new JMRI software interface for those who like to control their layouts by computer!

Narrow gauge engines and rolling stock weren't the only new products to be seen.  A lot of new stuff was considerably less expensive and more immediately relevant to my own layout.  For example, if you are interested in adding rock formations to your railroad, but hesitant to get involved in plaster castings, you might want to contact Cripplebush and find out about their new line of rubber rocks!  These rocks can be cemented directly to your layout, cut to fit your needs, and when painted, they look incredibly real.  The prices are not bad either.  I bought a length of sedimentary rock to try out.  Here is a diorama showing some of the new rubber rocks.

Another  vendor was Brian Bollinger from B.E.S.T. models.  He was also a participant in the Fine Scale Modeling Show I attended last November in Peabody, Massachusetts.  He offers a nice collection of wooden structure kits, modeled on buildings he has measured himself.  He had several buildings on display with laser cut shingle siding that was unbelievably realistic.  I couldn't stop myself from buying a sheet to try out on my own layout.  This picture doesn't do it justice.  The roof is covered with paper shingles, but the sides are laser cut wood.

Some of the displays and modular layouts were simply incredible in their realism and detail.  Here, for example is a photo of a working bascule bridge that still operates on the Amtrak mainline from New York to Boston.  The gentleman who built it (that's him with the microphone) spent three years of his life constructing it.  There are over 33,000 actual rivets in the O Scale model, which was raised and lowered every 30 minutes during the show, and always worked perfectly!

Here are a few examples of modules from some of the operating layouts.  (There were layouts in almost every scale, from Z to G.)  Some of these modules had won a number of awards at National Model Railroad Association contests and conventions.

If you preferred something a little larger, you could walk over to another building where a dozen large scale, live steam locomotives were on display.  This one, a working Shay logging locomotive, won my heart the minute I saw it.  Of course, it probably weighs over 500 pounds.

Needless to say, by the end of the day on Sunday I was one pooped model railroader!  I felt a little like this life sized, ancient mechanical conductor at one of the displays, who stood and quivered throughout the weekend.  But it was worth it.....  I came home with an armful of tools, scenick materials, miniature trees, rubber rocks, bottles of modeling stain, railroad photos, and a lot of memories.  In fact, I am charged up and ready to get back to work on my own layout.  And that's what these shows are all about -- a chance to be refreshed and renewed in the hobby we love.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Saint Peter, Don't You Call Me!

If you have been following this blog, by now you know that the East Broad Top portion of my layout runs from the town of Blacklog (where it interchanges with the fictional Blacklog Valley Railroad) through the EBT shop complex at Rockhill Furnace, ending up at the village of Robertsdale.  The town was built by the railroad and coal company to service the mines on Broad Top Mountain in southern Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.

One of the first buildings to be erected in Robertsdale was the "company store", constructed on the western side of the EBT tracks between 1874 and 1875.  The store was demolished in 1993.  While the miners and townsfolk referred to it as a "company store", in fact the store was never operated by the railroad or coal company because Pennsylvania law prohibited coal companies from operating their own stores.  In order to get around the law, the coal company leased the store to a merchant who then paid the coal company a percentage of the profits.  (Information on the company store is taken from When Coal Was King: The Robertsdale Store  by Ron Morgan (c) 2011).  The picture below was taken in 1993 after the store had been boarded up for almost 30 years. 

Construction of the original sandstone block building was completed in the fall of 1875 by the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company in conjunction with the completion of the EBT from Mount Union to Robertsdale the previous year.  Besides specializing the sale of mining tools, black powder and other items used in area mines, the store also carried a wide range of general merchandise, ranging from clothing, hardware and food to candy and toys for the children.

No model of Robertsdale would be complete without including this imposing stone structure, which stood at the center of town for more than a century.  But there exist no commercial kits for the company store, so it was clear from the beginning the building would have to be scratch built.  Fortunately, the Huntingdon County Heritage Committee had approved an Endangered Historic Building Study of the company store in 1995, copies of which were still available from the County Building Commission.  Also a series of articles based on this study appeared in the Timber Transfer, a publication of the Friends of the East Broad Top (FEBT) in 1995, so there was ample information available, including a complete set of plans on which to base an accurate model.  Here is a view of the store's south facing entrance.

The first step in building a model of this interesting building was to convert the plans to HO scale.  Once the plans were drawn up on graph paper, the next step was to find windows and doors from Tichy and other sources that closely matched the originals.  It wasn't possible to find an exact match for window and door dimensions in every case, and in those instances the modeler's rule of "close enough" produced a reasonable facsimile.  The walls were then cut from a sheet of 1/16 inch styrene and the window and door openings cut out with an Exacto blade.  The unique porch and steps were built from two resin casting sets of stairs glued back to back.

The walls were assembled using Plastruct Plastic Weld cement.  Lengths of 1/8 inch square styrene were cemented as braces for the corners, and along the tops and bottoms of the walls to keep the thin styrene sheet from bending.  More problematic was the challenge of duplicating the sandstone block walls.  Some modelers, like my friend, MMR Dave Crement, have built outstanding copies of the store by carving their own stone walls.  That was not an option for me, so I began looking around for another solution.

It was then I stumbled across a new product from Micro-Mark -- innovative photo-realistic building papers that are printed with a special process that raises the surface of each individual stone above the "mortar lines".  And for easy, quick application, the sheets come with a peel-and-stick adhesive on the back.  According to Micro-Mark, the sheets even accept weathering powders and air brushed colors for weathering and aging!  I ordered several sheets of HO scale brown cut stone that closely resembled the sandstone blocks of the store.  I also ordered a couple of sheets of medium gray shingles that looked a lot like the store's original slate roof. 

Care has to be exercised, of course, when applying the adhesive papers to the model, especially since the building was longer than a single sheet of stone blocks.  It was necessary to line up two sheets as closely as possible, to avoid an artificial looking vertical seam.  I tried to place the seams where there were several windows and doors to disguise the seam as much as possible.  In the following picture you can see how the seam was located where the line would be interrupted by a window and a door.

Can you find the seam in the following picture?  (Hint.  It runs down from the cutout where the dormer window will go and is interrupted by two small 6-pane windows.)

The next challenge was to construct the three window dormer on the long east side of the building (the window once provided light for an atrium and staircase from the first to second floors) and the standing seam metal roof on the west side wing.  Fortunately, I was able to find a three window set from Tichy that fit perfectly in the dormer.  The metal roof had to be pieced together by trial and error.  Here are the results:

Working out the shape of the unusual standing seam metal roof was challenging.  I used cardboard to get the precise shape of the room panels, then used the cardboard as a pattern to cut out sections of Evergreen 4522 metal roofing.  After assembly, the roof was spray painted zinc chromate red -- a close approximation of the original metal roof.

Final details included the addition of fascia board and sofit panels around the roof, aluminum foil "flashing" in the valleys of the dormer, railings on the steps and signage on the front windows.  To give the impression of a busy store, I cut out pictures of the inside of a a turn-of-the-century drugstore, mounted them on styrene, and set them back a quarter inch from the window, giving an appearance of depth.

I was pleased with the way my company store came out.  It will make an impressive addition to the cluster of buildings in Robertsdale's "company square".  The stone block railroad station completed in 1914 will stand across the street from the store.  On the opposite side of the tracks will be the old Robertsdale post office and the imposing office building of the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company.  The EBT company buildings will be surrounded by a cluster of simple gray company houses that made up this coal mining town in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Homage to the Pennsy

Nearly forty years ago I was a young pastor serving my first congregation in Mount Union, Pennsylvania.  Mount Union was the junction between the Pennsylvania Railroad (modestly called the "standard railroad of the world") and the then century-old East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad.  The Presbyterian minister down the block was a "train nut" who loved to operate Lionel trains in a spare bedroom.  It was because of Bob Holmes that my childhood interest in model trains was renewed, and before long I had a small HO layout in the basement of the parsonage, the first "incarnation" of the Blacklog Valley Railroad.

The Blacklog Valley was a rather generic layout.  It hadn't yet occurred to me to consider the era or the location of my little railroad.  But all that changed when a member of the church discovered, while cleaning out her father's garage, a dozen dust covered cardboard mailing tubes.  She asked me if I would be interested in them.    Turned out they contained calendars -- Pennsylvania Railroad calendars -- from as far back as 1938.  Others were from the 1940s and 1950s, each one featuring a magnificent 18 by 24 inch color picture of the PRR in its heyday!   Here is the picture from the 1938 calendar, titled "The Main Line of American Progress".

As I studied these amazing works of art, I noticed that the vast majority of them had been painted by Grif Teller.  Over time I discovered that for more than 30 years, Grif captured on canvas the soul and spirit of the Pennsy, working each year to produce a single oil painting that would best represent this giant carrier employing thousands of people and serving 14 states.  I began to have my favorite calendars framed to preserve them.  Five of them now hang in my train room.  Then, in the early 1980s, have moved to Holidaysburg, near Altoona, Pennsylvania, I had a chance to meet the man who painted these amazing calendars.  Grif Teller was visiting the Railroaders Museum in Altoona; so I gathered up my little collection of calendars and trucked them over to show them to the artist who painted them.

Grif was amazed at the condition of the calendars.  He marveled how long it had been since he had last seen so many of them in one place.  Graciously, he offered to autograph them all.  That just added to the special character of these wonderful paintings, now signed by the artist himself.   But what really caught my imagination was the way Grif had captured the essence of mid-century railroading in the heart of Pennsylvania.   In paintings like the 1947 picture of "Working Partners" I could see the mighty Pennsy as it roared by little Mount Union and its junction with the EBT.

The seed was planted.  The Blacklog Valley would be a bridge route from Port Royal, on the Pennsy's Middle Division mainline, to Hancock, Maryland, where it would connect with the Western Maryland.  Those magnificent calendars helped me decide on 1950 as the era I would model -- a time when heavy steam was just giving way to the new diesel locomotives that would transform railroading in America.  Scenes like the 1948 calendar's "Progressive Power" captured the essence of rural Pennsylvania in the autumn.

On a more urban scale, the 1954 calendar, "Pittsburgh Promotes Progress" showed trains roaring by the Golden Triangle at a time when Broad Top coal, carried to Mount Union in EBT hoppers, cleaned, sorted and transferred to the Pennsy, was still being used to fire the steel mills of Pittsburgh.

Over the years, those wonderful Grif Teller calendars have continued to inspire my modeling.  Because of them, the Blacklog Valley has begun to evolve, and the connection with the Pennsy has evolved with it.  The new layout is set in a time when the BVRR has ceased to be an independent common carrier, and become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pennsy.  The RS-3 diesels that haul Broad Top coal from Blacklog now bear the PRR keystone logo, even when the lettering on some of them still reads Blacklog Valley.

Is this the end of the Blacklog Valley, or just another stage in the evolution of a working model railroad?  We'll have to wait and see.  In the meantime, the calendar art of Grif Teller on the walls of my train room continues to inspire my modeling a half century after it was painted.

One last P.S. for you narrow gauge fans, who are wondering by now what all this has to do with HOn3 and the East Broad Top Railroad.  In addition to the amazing calendars painted by Grif Teller, there is one more picture hanging on the wall above my work bench -- a print by Ted Rose that I received through the Friends of the East Broad Top: It's called "Mount Union Train".  It depicts the morning crew preparing to board the train at Rockhill Furnace for the day shift at Mount Union.  Maybe it will serve to whet your appetite for the next installment of this continuing blog on how I built my model railroad.