Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Thousand Words…

Another guest post from Gerry Fitzgerald. This time he points us towards research tools (and cool photographs). And there is a really nice philosophical underpinning about the way Gerry pursues his passion for railroading - revealed in what Gerry believes is the purpose of history.  -rt

A Thousand Words...

by Gerard J Fitzgerald

One of the many seismic changes to American culture caused by the entry of the United States into World War II was the flood of women into the workforce on the home front. Many jobs, including positions in the industrial sector such as on the nation’s railroads, were filled by women who labored in spaces vacated by men who had been drafted or had volunteered for formal military service. Long standing cultural and gender bias was checked, if only in the short term, by the expediency of a global wartime emergency.

Evidence of such radical change is seen in the photo above. Taken in Clinton, Iowa, in April of 1943, this snapshot of industrial life along the rails shows Mrs. Viola Sievers working as a roundhouse employee, preparing (I believe…) a Chicago and Northwestern H-Class 4-8-4 “Northern” for service. Dwarfed by the driving wheels and boiler of this Baldwin built giant, Mrs. Sievers is understood in this photo to be a small yet vital part of a dedicated national rail transportation network focused on American and Allied victory. Without the onset of war Mrs. Sievers -or for that matter any other woman-would rarely, if ever, have been allowed near a locomotive in that particular capacity as a railroad employee.

The person behind the camera was Jack Delano, and his name, not to mention his photographic style and artistry, is recognizable and familiar to many in our hobby. Perhaps best remembered today by some for his wonderful contributions to cinema and folk music in Puerto Rico, Mr. Delanao was, in 1943, working for the United State’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information as a field photographer. His mission, which was just as important as Mrs. Sievers and the crew of C&NW 3034, was to record on film life in these United States for posterity. Delano’s federal patronage gave him access not only to restricted areas such as railroad property, sites which were generally off limits to all forms of photography during the war because of national security concerns, but also to exotic materials such as color film, which at the time was exceedingly difficult to obtain because of war time shortages. This project had been initiated in 1935 to capture the toll of the Depression on the lives of rural Americans and was continued on into the war years through various government agencies until 1944.

The use of color in lieu of black and white film during this period was another indication of changing times, here a reflection of the impact of science and technology on consumer life in the early twentieth century. For better or worse science marches on and in 2014, much like in 1943, people are working to create and make available new devices and systems to enhance/complicate our way of life. At the same time the tools and methodologies that people use to investigate the past also continue to expand and evolve. This includes how we access and process photographs such as the ones taken by Mr. Delano back in the 1930s and 1940s.

Since at least the 1980s -and one can argue that the origins of this type of research goes much further back in the last century- work by scholars who were at the time considered outside of the traditional scope of social scientific research, much less the humanities, have worked synergistically with historians, anthropologists, archeologists and other academic types to create an entire new field called Digital Humanities. The field is considered so promising that in the United States the National Endowment For the Humanities (NEH) launched a formal initiative to encourage and fund this type of research in 2006. This sequence of events is, for a select group of humanists, very similar to when physicists were surprised to find out in the late 1930s that an understanding of neutron capture and fission was a license to print money. But I digress…

What the digital humanities is exactly, much less what the field can do, or what some practioners hope the field can accomplish in the future …is a very complicated and often contentious question. From a practical standpoint those issues are not really a pressing concern for any model railroaders reading this blog post. Although if you are really interested consider going to the page entitled “A Guide to Digital Humanities at Northwestern University ( or “Debates in Digital Humanities at CUNY ( but pack a lunch because you’ll be reading for some time, possibly for at least a few weeks. Be forewarned! If a sentence which reads in part “Despite the significant trend in Digital Humanities towards networked and multimodal spanning social, visual, and haptic media…” sounds like it was lifted from an Onion article (it wasn’t!), or just gives you a headache (it shouldn’t), just skip down one paragraph where I get to the point about how your tax dollars are paying off to facilitate your hobby needs.

For the record, Digital Humanities is defined on Wikipedia for the folks still reading in the peanut gallery in the following way:

An area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanistic computing, and digital humanities praxis (dh praxis) digital humanities embrace a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) currently incorporate both digitized and born-digital materials and combine the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archeology, music and cultural studies) and social sciences with tools provided by computing (such as date visualization, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining) and digital publishing. As well, related subfields of digital humanities have emerged like software studies, platform studies, and critical code studies.

So what does any of this have to do with that Sunshine kit you squirreled away five years ago into that secret closet in your basement and which has been gathering dust ever since? Well quite a bit as it turns out. There is a new Digital Humanities initiative at Yale called Photogrammar ( which is a “web-based platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United State’s Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI).” This is without doubt the niftiest thing to come out of the New Haven campus since Cole Porter.

From a model railroading standpoint this means that all those wonderful Jack Delano color photographs taken in the wintery Midwestern hinterlands during the 1940s, photos which RPM types love to drool over and incessantly argue about, are available in a new and more interesting format. Plus hundred of other photos Mr. Delano took which you probably haven’t seen. Not to mentions tens of thousands of other photos taken by greats such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and some other not so famous names, all of whom worked on what was the largest photo project ever undertaken in American history. (For a new PBS documentary on the life and work on Dorothea Lange please see the following: These artists and visionaries bequeathed to us a photographic vision that not only shaped our understanding of the terrible effects of the Great Depression on the nation, but, in so doing, also created a visual collective memory of the American landscape that guides our hearts and minds to this day.

Aside from the photographs the Yale site makes use of Digital Humanities software that allow users to find photos by state, by date, by photographer and also provides graphic analysis of photographs by category ( The site is very easy to use and builds upon the collective experience of mining the photo page at the Library of Congress: (

What modelers do with this wonderful new resource remains to be seen but time will tell. How “history” is employed within the hobby, and to what ends, is a topic that holds a great deal of interest for me and to be honest sometimes gives me a headache. Historical evidence comes in various forms and a photograph is a particularly accessible type of evidence especially in the age of the Internet. And yet a photograph can often be a very tricky primary document to wield, much less interpret, even as it remains a potentially powerful tool.

One of the other photographers involved in the FSA-OWI project was the late great Walker Evans who is a hero of mine. Evans, along with the writer James Agee, produced a book on the eve of American entry into World War II that chronicled their work exploring the lives of impoverished white tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, in 1936. Of the many works produced by scholars, writers, artists, photographers and journalists about the dramatic impact of the Great Depression on life in the United States, Agee and Evans’ 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, has achieved the status of a modern classic. One of the most unique and idiosyncratic publications of its day, the book combines Agee’s words and Evans’ photographs resulting in arguably the most significant documentary examination of the era of rural American life in the impoverished South. The book draws readers into the lives of those who labored and also into the spaces in which they lived. By focusing in part on rich descriptions of the sensory, spatial, material, and architectural aspects of a particular vernacular landscape, the authors created a powerful and often indelible historical image that, even today, has purchase in how Americans remember the rural South at that time.

Amazingly enough James Agee and Walker Evans went south to Hale county under contract for Fortune Magazine (yes THAT Fortune Magazine!) to chronicle the lives of enervated and near penniless sharecroppers. Apparently the editors passed on assigning the piece to Karl Marx as he was still dead and John Dos Passos was still editing the proofs of The Big Money. Agee realized early on his prose would probably not find a home in Fortune, knew he could still sleep soundly at night if that was the case, and bided his time. Both his words and the Evans photos reached a limited audience five years later when the 600 copies of the first edition made their way out into a country that was gearing up for war. It languished for a time but a small audience of astute observers recognized upon release that the book was a classic. Over time the book has become somewhat controversial, especially to the descendants of those photographed. Regardless, the book’s importance in American history flows out of photos and text that bore witness to forms of rural poverty and extreme material deprivation that was startling to many Americans in 1936. Such poverty, which still exists today in various locales, is equally disturbing almost eighty years later.

The photographs in the collection that the Yale platform has so graciously repackaged for everyone’s use provide a wonderful opportunity, not only as a visual and historic resource, but perhaps more importantly as a stepping-off point for objective analysis, discussion, and perhaps even personal introspection on the various meaning of American history. To paraphrase what I said on a model railroad chat group last year (when I was discussing the inherent complexities of modeling the Jim Crow South…): While some in the hobby do seem to want to embrace the nuance and complexity of American history when it increases the realism of their modeling endeavors when it comes to technologically determinist features such as rivet detail, prototypically correct paint schemes, operational minutiae, layout design, signal systems, and chronologically distinct weathering effects to name but a few examples…many place very specific limits on how much of the larger American cultural experience they really want to model. The type of details found for instance in a close reading of the photos taken by Delano, Evans, and Lange, among others back in the day.

Which is fine…as far as it goes… although history makes less sense if one cherry picks or filters culture through a cheesecloth. To be more precise and to the point, history is not supposed to make you comfortable - it is supposed to make you THINK! Which is why the new online archive from Yale is such a useful tool. This wonderful treasure trove of photos, coupled with the powerful new graphic and search capabilities available on the Yale webpage, will give all of us the opportunity to think carefully about what we see in these images of the American past. Because in the final analysis how we see the past, and how we struggle to objectively interpret history, ultimately tells us a great deal about how we view ourselves.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Guest post: Good-bye to All That: Railroad Model Craftsman (1933-2014)

The following is a guest post from Gerry Fitzgerald on the occasion of the suspension of a beloved publication. Gerry is a great friend and great thinker, but he is also a great modeler - largely due to his favorite publication. Is is important to note that Gerry is also a high-caliber historian and academic, which prompted him to place the magazine, personalities and ultimately himself in the rich and evolving context of model railroad history. 

I think you'll find his voice unique, clear and ultimately entertaining, and if you appreciate his contribution, please say so in the comments section so that I can get him to contribute more of his insightful commentary and deep knowledge of the hobby to the blog. -rt

Good-bye to All That: Railroad Model Craftsman (1933-2014)

by Gerard J. Fitzgerald

Craftsman [krafts-muh n, krahfts-]
noun, plural craftsmen.
1. a person who practices or is highly skilled in a craft; artisan.
2. an artist.

The unexpected closure of Carstens Publications this past Friday, and the end of Railroad Model Craftsman as a going concern, at least for now, is a very sad day for the hobby of model railroading. If you have been a serious or even a semi-serious model railroader for any number of years you no doubt read or subscribed to Railroad Model Craftsman (RMC) at one time or another over the years. If you are of a certain age it is probable you have a large collection of that magazine close by, perhaps bound chronologically in binders in a bookcase or more likely arrayed less neatly in piles on a shelf somewhere in your home, probably under your layout. 

The interwar period was an interesting time for model railroading and for model railroaders. The use of the term craftsman makes sense as those who were engaged in the scale modeling of trains, ships, aircraft, etc…often had to scratch build many of the necessary components needed for their hobby. While there were certainly various commercial distributers of various kits and parts for locomotives, rolling stock, power supplies, and track components, one needed to be handy with a lathe, calipers, volt meter, soldering iron, files, paint brushes, and a host of other tools, not to mention various precision instruments (if they could be afforded), in order to make a successful go of it. In addition, a familiarity with the ability to read blueprints and formal plans (assuming one had access to them) was also often a necessity. 

Many are keeping their fingers crossed that in the very near future Railroad Model Craftsman will be production once again in a somewhat different form, perhaps under a new guiding hand. Regardless of what the future may hold this is a doleful time for the hobby. More importantly this is an even worse day for those who have worked at the magazine, especially those who were employed there when the week began. Although I am sure they knew the end was coming that in the end could not have been much comfort. Since everyone else is weighing in with thoughts on various model railroad sites I asked Riley if I could put in my two cents…A few thoughts then from an avid reader about the magazine that has often guided my approach to the hobby beginning when I was a small boy and has continued to do so until this very day… 

One of the most obvious ways a commercial magazine defines its mission, both to the editorial staff and just as importantly to the readers, is the title. The title not only identifies what type of content lies within, but also acts as a lure to reel in potential customers. In the case of niche magazines, such as those dealing with hobbyists, the title may also reflect a goal or perhaps more specifically an identity for the reader themselves. 

This is not always the case, as there are only so many words and combinations available, but in many ways a reader is, or hopes to someday become a Model Railroader, or a Model Railroad Hobbyist, or a Railroad Model Craftsman by reading and learning from the magazine in question. The choice of the term “craftsman” was a wonderful one, an inspired choice in fact for those who are goal driven and wish to learn how to master various techniques and ultimately make themselves much more well rounded with respect to their skill set. As defined above “craftsman” indicates a very high, if not the highest, level of technical expertise in a given trade or occupation, a level of expertise that can be defined in some cases as art.

The term has various historical meanings that have evolved over time but for the magazine in question, the time and place of birth was the United States during the Great Depression. Emmanuele Stieri, who was undoubtedly an optimist, founded The Model Craftsman Publishing Company in Chicago in 1933. In March of that year, when the Depression was reaching its full force, the first issue of The Model Craftsman appeared. It was a problematic time to begin a new publication devoted to leisure activities (Sadly Thorstein Veblen passed away in 1929 and never had the chance to pick up a copy) and the next few years were quite rough although the magazine somehow managed to stave off the economic cataclysm that was destroying much of the country. While the magazine did survive it did not do so without experiencing various complications. 

Within a year of the first issue the company had pulled up stakes and moved to New York City. A year after that the company changed hands and a name more familiar within model railroad history, Charles A. Penn, took over as editor and publisher. Within five years Mr. Penn, would flee the high rents of Gotham and in 1940, move the magazine to Ramsey, New Jersey, a small suburban bedroom community along the Erie Railroad about thirty miles outside the city. Mr. Penn would stay at the helm until his retirement in 1962, replaced by former managing editor Hal Carstens.

Model railroaders during this time period, not to mention their fellow hobbyists engaged in building operational steam engines, ships and model aircraft, probably fell into readily distinct but occasionally overlapping groups of hobbyists whose approach to craft was defined in many ways along class lines, which was itself a reflection of education, expertise, and training.

The “professional craftsmen” -for lack of a better term- the customers most sought out for their consumer hobby dollars by those in the nascent hobby industry (those few manufacturers still making a good living in the 1920s and who were barely scraping by in the 1930s) were composed of two major groups of individuals. Leading the way, at least in theory, were college educated engineers, men who were trained to use tools and skilled in mathematics, made a very decent living, and had an abiding interest in all things technological. In addition there was a much larger cohort of equally well off, if not much wealthier professionals in fields such as law, medicine, banking, architecture, or commerce who were flush enough to outfit and purchase a home machine shop and also buy all the other various supplies and sundries needed to pursue their hobby interests. 

This latter group made up for their lack of formal technical training in engineering with energy, interest, and capitol. The remainder of the human hobby pyramid was made up of middle class and working class individuals, men who may have had less money to spend on the hobby but may have had much more hands on experience with tools and machine operation and came much closer by their job description to a traditional artisan or craftsman. What these individuals may have lacked in consumer dollars, they compensated for in tacit knowledge and the ability to build models of particular aesthetic beauty and mechanical reliability. 

Engineering culture was itself evolving during this time period as were manufacturing processes. The shop culture of professional engineering in the United States had evolved in the first decades of the Twentieth Century with a pedagogical shift towards a more mathematical approach to framing and solving problems, a shift that would only continue to accelerate. Hands on instruction leading to the mastery of a lathe and various machine tools was now augmented by increasingly sophisticated class room and laboratory based problem solving sessions in mathematics, physics, chemistry, mechanics, optics, thermodynamics, geometry, etc… The professional engineer was changing the American technological workscape and this in turn would alter in time how the hobbyist would model that workscape through choice of tool, materials, and perhaps most importantly outlook.

The point of this brief historical analysis is to put the word “craftsman” in some type of cultural perspective within the bounds of the world of American model railroaders during the 1930s when the magazine was founded. The word of course remained on the cover of Railroad Model Craftsman until just last week, which may demonstrate, among other things, the evolving meaning of the term for those within the hobby and also for those who write and report about it. While certainly not a completely plastic concept, the meaning of the word has been pulled and stretched in different directions over the years, changes that reflect the evolution of the hobby itself. Suffice to say while there are certainly overall similarities, the question remains open as to whether there exists a greater difference between a “railroad model craftsman” in 1934 than say in 2014 from a self-identification standpoint. 

Both The Model Craftsman and Model Railroader (Al Kalmbach began publication of Model Railroader in Milwaukee in 1934), having somehow survived the economic doldrums of the 1930s, probably found a somewhat easier time of it during the economic shortages and cultural upheaval found on the American home front during World War II. With most of the capable hobbyists otherwise occupied, and the vast majority of the materials necessary to either publish a hobby magazine, much less actually take part in the hobby of model railroading itself, out of reach, the hobby slowed until the postwar years. 

The immediate postwar boom of suburbanization and economic growth for much of the middle class accelerated change to those within the hobby and also those who were writing about it. The dawn of 1949 saw Charles Penn and his team change the name of The Model Craftsman to Railroad Model Craftsman, a change that reflected a new journalistic emphasis away from all the various scale hobbies such as ships and stationary steam engines to focus exclusively on model railroading. 

Outside of a direct historical perspective, understanding the changing meaning of the word “craftsman” within the hobby, and the importance of Railroad Model Craftsman to readers might be best accomplished by mentioning two important series which were published in Railroad Model Craftsman decades apart but which are still considered to be extremely important for the larger impact those articles had on the hobby. These two series also show the changing nature of how one might define being a model railroad craftsman. 

In addition, I will also briefly touch upon the March 1980 edition, which to me represents the magazine at its best. The publication of Allen McClelland’s articles on his Virginian & Ohio as an eight part serial between January 1977 and March 1978 was a watershed event in the hobby for those interested in realistic operations and layout design. In 1984 a book version, The V&O Story: How the V&O Was Built was published by Carstens Publications, a text that included additional RMC articles by other authors dealing with V&O operations and design. (1) The book and the series remain essential reading for those interested in designing, building, and operating a miniature railroad transportation system. 

One of the lasting contributions in this series was McClelland’s concept of “good-enough” modeling, an approach that in many ways showed the evolution for some of what was a self imposed upper limit on craftsmanship, a glass ceiling that might appeal to particular modelers depending upon the given circumstance. Here the approach was to do more by really doing less, perhaps a form of metacraftsmanship

McClelland was in some ways the logical extension, if not the conclusion, of layout construction, design, and operation concepts that were popularized by an earlier generation of other modelers such as Frank Ellison. When Ellison published his first article in Lionel Magazine in January of 1932, the goal of many model railroaders was to complete a small operational loop of track on a shelf around the heater and coal bin in the unfinished basement, an undertaking involving enormous investments of time and energy. This might involve building many of the components not available in catalogs, and as often as not significantly altering other items which were available off the shelf for greater scale viability.

Two generations later at the time McClelland was publishing in the 1970s, the unprecedented availability of items in HO scale gave certain modelers the option to pursue operations at home in a manner heretofore available only as an option in elite club venues. Here the choice was to pursue craftsmanship in a different manner. The goal for modelers like McClelland was apparently the layout itself, as an operational mechanism like a basement sized cuckoo clock or early electromechanical computer with trains moving along in a specific prototypical manner. Prize winning detail was still to be pursued in some cases for locomotives, rolling stock and structures but only as a secondary consideration, as an additional feature once the layout was operational and car cards were moving in tandem with trains. 

The “good-enough” philosophy was, of course, just one approach to craftsmanship, if not a new form of craftsmanship altogether that appealed to operations minded individuals. There were, of course, other possibilities including more traditional techniques. One example involved prototypical focus not on locomotives but for the first time increasingly on rolling stock. 

What is now generally known as the Railroad Prototype Modelers (RPM) movement began during the 1970s, if not earlier, and many authors found in Railroad Model Craftsman a welcome place to publish detailed articles on altering rolling stock to match specific historical prototypes. While RMC was not the only magazine that made room for such work, Model Railroading and Railmodel Journal also published such articles in large numbers, neither survived into the new millennium. Although such articles by various top flight authors and modelers became a regular feature in Railroad Model Craftsman, the “Essential Freight Car” series by modeler Ted Culotta resonated with mainstream hobbyists in much the same way McClelland had in the late 1970s. 

The Culotta series of articles began on the topic of war emergency gondolas in August of 2001, and continued onward for the next eight years, through forty-five installments, ending in the July 2009 issue with a feature on AC&F Type 11 tank cars The series sparked an interest by modelers in adopting an RPM approach to rolling stock, a subject that many had previously been unaware of, or, perhaps had just found uninteresting. 

The Culotta series involved the super detailing of various freight cars that the author, who had done impeccable historical research, argued were needed to build a balanced and prototypically viable freight car fleet for operations during the steam to diesel transition period. The series also acted as an advanced primer into the technological history of freight car construction in the first half of the last century. Here was a counterbalance to the good enough philosophy; here modelers were drawn into the intricacies of resin fright car construction, specific decal approaches and weathering, and also historical research to become craftsman is a way that was certainly traditional but also involved state of the art approaches to modeling and research.

Let me conclude this post with some observations about another form of craftsmanship associated with the magazine. In many ways this is the most obvious kind of craftwork, although it is often invisible to many. This is the care and work that went into putting the magazine together in the first place and hopefully giving it a unique and familiar voice. It is unfair of this author to not mention all the various editorial staff members (I apologize!) but for the sake of expediency I will only talk about some of the work done under Tony Koester. 

Interestingly enough I have spent part of the summer rereading, sorting, giving away, and throwing out boxes and boxes of model railroad magazines after cleaning out a storage facility near my home and deciding once and for all to cull my collections down to something more portable and manageable. Which is a long way of saying I have been rereading lots of magazines that generally go back into the 1970s and in some cases all the way back to the 1950s. Being old fashioned and a bibliophile I still cut out articles I find especially useful and slide them into plastic sheets and eventually place the sheets in binders divided by subject for later reference. The magazine, which is being kept both whole and also being sliced up the most for future use, is Railroad Model Craftsman. As a disclaimer, let me note that this might best be interpreted less as an indictment of other modeling magazines and more about my personal approach to the hobby.

So, in spending part of a summer perusing hundreds of model railroad magazines what have I learned?(2) Well, many memories flooded back which made me think about how I learned about the hobby. I recalled finding an old used copy of Railroad Model Craftsman in a hobby store discount box, which featured the seventh installment of the V&O story that focused on operation. Much was later made in the Layout Design Journal, and various online spots about the Tony Koester/Doug Gurin/Allen McClelland synergy that made the series possible. Interestingly enough I later became good friends with Tony and Doug, but at that time I had no idea who these gentlemen were or what I was reading.

The V&O series was, I must admit, something I didn't quite understand at first glance, and I also recall that I read the series out of order. I was sure however that this was somehow an important model railroad, and perhaps more importantly, this McClelland fellow had what seemed to me an advanced way to approach the hobby. I wasn’t quite sure what an advanced approach might actually be but this seemed to point the way… At the time I knew no adult model railroaders and had no access to any clubs so my approach to the hobby was in many ways grounded in what I could gleam from magazines.

This post includes the cover of the March 1980 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, which after a summer of model railroad review seems to be as good as anything that Carstens produced. (3) If a person can have a favorite single issue of a magazine, this might be it for me as I always found the editorial and modeling by Tony Koester entitled “Changing Times at Big Spring Junction” to be quite insightful. It sort of encapsulates the V&O series with one page of photos (plus the cover) and one page of text, which I suppose was the point. At 130 pages the issue seems slight but is packed with articles and also lots of ideas, which sounds normative but is more exceptional than a reader might think.

One feature I hadn’t noticed, or remembered was that one of the main articles entitled “Inglis: A Small Village in Northwestern Manitoba” was by a woman named Betty Jackson. Sadly, one thing that hasn’t changed much since 1934 is the makeup of the hobby from a diversity standpoint, but I was surprised and gratified to see the piece by Ms. Jackson especially back in 1980. An article that shows that “craftsman” is a term much like actor and has no gender specificity. In addition, the issue had articles by Jim Findley, Malcolm Furlow and Allen McClelland and the first of a two-part article on scratch building an L&N bridge over the Little Kentucky River by John Campbell. The bridge article was also linked to the “Observations” article by Alan Bates and Charles Buccola who went out in the field, and literally hip deep into the Little Kentucky River to shoot another prototype shot of the bridge, as requested by Tony Koester.

This type of model railroader/railfan feature was not unique to RMC in the 1980s but it was certainly never done better anywhere else as far as I know. Perhaps the most interesting driving force in RMC during this time was the “Editors Notebook” where Koester would think out loud about various projects and also detail in real time the success, and occasional failures he was encountering as he constructed the Midland Road. While “Trains of Thought” in Model Railroader is a wonderful feature, the real thinking occurred in these longer form editorial pieces back in the 1980s, where the editor was provided the room and freedom to tackle many issues in the depth they deserved.

That issue’s “Editor’s Notebook” featured two large black and white construction photos of bench work before the hand laying of track had commenced. My clearest memories of those earlier issues are of the “Editors Notebook” and in rereading them it is clear the editor was doing more than just thinking out loud, in many ways he was demonstrating different forms of craftsmanship both at the keyboard and down in the basement, where he explained both how and perhaps more importantly why he was constructing a base sized model railroad. It was this conversation he was having with the reader, as were many of the other authors and staff members whose work appeared, which made reading Railroad Model Craftsman so both enjoyable and instructive.

In the time before the Internet was available to those outside of DARPA, a boy or girl on their own in the hobby was guided by the hobby press, and Railroad Model Craftsman (and also Model Railroader) were ideal companions and tutors. In addition, reading Railroad Model Craftsman in New Jersey, where I grew up as a boy, was also exciting because the magazine was itself published in the Garden State. In fact, at one time it was published a few miles down the Erie mainline from where I was raised in the now infamous Ramsey Journal Building, a structure that was once a kit manufactured by AHM.(4)

I had the privilege of visiting Carstens Publications after they left Ramsey for Newton, New Jersey, a few times as a high school student - I grew up in New Jersey- and it seemed like an interesting place as far as it went. What I most remember, and which was eye-opening to me at the time, was that it was just an office out in the middle of nowhere (and to be fair still in the middle of nowhere which is hard to do in New Jersey) with people just sitting at desks doing work, no trains or layouts present except for a few locos and pieces of rolling stock that were under review. It was clear later this should not have been surprising as it was an office although perhaps I just expected something more magical.

But magazine work is not magical, especially when it often involves editing the work of people who are not for the most part professional writers. In the cold light of day magazine work is really all about the day to day tedium of writing and editing which involves a great deal of sweat equity about comma-splices and the active voice. It is not a Willy Wonka dreamscape infusing with the best of John Allen and George Sellios, a fact that often escapes the notice, or is perhaps just simply beyond the comprehension, of many model railroaders.

In the end, this was about work as craft, and for decades many people put in long hours and more often than not produced a wonderful product. Carstens Publications was not without its problems (paying authors always seemed to be a problem year after year which raises the question how they could have run out of dough…). But in the end it was the staff, month after and month, year in and year out who gave people something wonderful to read. It also gave some of us something to aspire to, perhaps someday becoming a railroad model craftsman.

All I can say is…Thanks!

(1) For more on the V&O see by the author, “More Than Good Enough: Some Thoughts on the V&O Story on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the end of Steam Operations on Allen McClelland’s V&O,” Layout Design Journal, 39, Fall 2008, 54-59. See also by Allen McClelland, The V&O Story: How the V&O Was Built (Newton: New Jersey: Carstens Publication, 1984).

(2) I was surprised by the changing personality of various magazines over time, which may or may not reflect the corporate culture of those controlling the purse strings and also the various machinations within the editorial staffs, although I assume both of these phenomenon are strongly interrelated. The magazine I was most looking forward to re-reading was in fact Mainline Modeler, a journal which now strikes me as a wonderful repository of advanced techniques and historical and prototype information but also positively antiseptic and soul less from a narrative standpoint. Maybe a blog post on that in the future...maybe not.

(3) The price tag is from the now departed Mitchell’s Hobby Store a main stay in Willington Delaware until it closed after 50 years a number of years ago (and a smaller and in fact nicer store opened down the street). I usually skipped magazine subscriptions so I would have an excuse to frequent my local hobby store once a month but that is becoming more difficult as those sorts of places fade away.

(4) For those interested in multiple layers of interlinked hobby minutia, the Ramsey Journal Building kit was the basis for the structure that housed the V&O Historical Society on the original Virginian & Ohio layout. A factoid which might (?) be of interest only to people reading this blog post or perhaps an American Studies graduate student interested in mining for cultural lacunae in late century American male hobby pursuits. And even within those two subgroups it might be a reach...

Monday, August 18, 2014

New Marker Lamp Available Online

And an ultra-short video of the AustNTrak modular layout that is on the front cover:

That is all.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Prairie Rail 2014 - Part 3: Chuck Hitchcock's Santa Fe Argentine Industrial District Railway

Briefing and job selection in the crew lounge.
There are many generous and amazingly friendly people in the hobby of model railroading, and Chuck Hitchcock is one of the tops I've ever met. My first visit to his Santa Fe Argentine Industrial District Railway cemented this in my mind.

As people arrived in the basement of Chuck's cottage, we took a self guided tour of the layout to rail fan as much as possible before our work started. There were a couple of interesting items. One was a notch in the wall to facilitate emergency (and other) traversing between the two extreme ends of the layout. A nice feature. This was right below a professionally rendered map of the layout.

Emergency crawl space
I also stuck my head into the yard clerks office, which is another unique item to the layout. Instead of a dispatcher or yardmaster, the clerk handles the traffic and assignments.
A well-appointed clerk's desk complete with plenty of pencils, cards and boxes, and even a pair of reading glasses.
We then assembled  in a most comfortable crew area complete with hot coffee, assorted cold beverages, and comfy chairs. We all introduced ourselves and got a quick briefing of how the Industrial District was conceived and operated. The various jobs were discussed and then put out for volunteers. My traveling companion Tom and I volunteered for the signature job on the layout, Grain Elevator A at the East end of the main yard.

Santa Fe's Grain Elevator A on the Argentine Industrial Railway
The whole point behind the operation here was to pull loads and place empties in two shifts. This was an easy job, but it took a while to accomplish because our west lead kept getting blocked by the yardmaster. Next time we will try to use the East lead more. We also swapped being engineer and conductor so we could each experience the momentum/braking setup on the EasyDCC system.

This was the same setup that Kevin Leyerle uses (Prairie Rail Part 2), and it really sucks you into the movement and especially sound of the locomotive. In order to get the drifting/idling coordinated for smooth movements, one needs to really listen to the engine rev up in order to anticipate the momentum for starting and stopping. Nothing beats the feeling of a locomotive drifting along on momentum and then playing the brakes to get a gentle coupling action on your target car. Chuck also cut the ill-placed reset button off at the face plate to eliminate accidental throttle reassignment and general mayhem. The throttle should come from the manufacturer like this!

Grain Elevator A and surrounding layout. Nicely spacious, organized and comfortable surroundings make for a happy session. No tight aisles or clutter in this basement.

So between getting familiar with the throttle momentum/braking settings and a clogged lead, we didn't finish our work before it was time to quit. This bothered the competitive nature of Tom and me, but there is always tomorrow's crews to pick up where you left off, and we still got the same amount of pay for our shift.

Work desk
I am always interested in the fascia treatment and how the various tools are organized for the crews at a layout. These work stations were only as large as necessary and had a nice trim piece around the edge to keep the picks, pencils and penlights off of the floor. The angled sides are also nice to eliminate sharp corners and provide a bit more maneuvering space.

Yard board

Another nice work feature is the magnetic yard board that allows the yard master to assign cuts of cars to different tracks.
Yard view. The grain elevator is to the right.
Downtown is where most of the industries are. This particular switching job is probably the most fun on the layout because of the variety of industries.
You don't often see residential areas on layouts, but here is a nice neighborhood at the east end of the grain elevator.
The Kansas City Kicker that holds up a large section of layout. I am amazed it is so sturdy, but the box structure of the layout itself is a big help.
Chuck was a most gracious host, and I look forward to trying a different job next time I'm fortunate enough to be invited. After a great time on the layout and some quick conversation with other attendees, we headed out for lunch and the next layout. Stay tuned for Part 4!