by Robert Law
Everyone’s layout is an expression of one’s experiences and association with railroads. I believe mine has taken a more circuitous path than others. For me it begins when I was a young boy of about seven. My mother and I went to visit an uncle, a retired steel worker who lived on the outskirts of McKeesport, PA. The single lane dirt road that led to his house offered an aerial view of the steel mills below. There was a steep embankment on one side with the old-fashioned post and cable guard rail to prevent cars from falling below. I could see the belching smoke of the steel mills with trains shuttling about here and there hauling odd looking freight cars.
When we arrived, I begged to see what was happening below but was scolded and refused. I felt trapped inside the house having to listen to my mother’s and uncle’s boring conversation. Fortunately, they were in the kitchen and ever so quietly I slipped into the living room and then out the door. I went across the road and sat on the cable watching the activities below. After about 20 minutes, my mother and uncle came out to find me and give me a scolding. Nonetheless I begged to see the activities down below. My uncle said, “You don’t want to go down there! There is nothing down there but hellfire, brimstone and damnation.” Yet this picture became etched indelibly on my mind thereafter.
Some 15 years later at college I met Betty, the girl who would become my wife. She also enjoyed trains. When we married we went to see the Cass Mountain Railroad. It was at this time that I became more fascinated with unusual steam locomotives.
Much later still, Betty decided she wanted to leave her career as a special education teacher and study to become an electric power engineer. Her first job was with Bechtel Power, which was then in Gaithersburg, MD, causing us to move from our home in upstate New York. As she prepared for her engineering licensing exam I ventured out so I wouldn’t disturb her. Curiosity took me to see the National Capital Trolley Museum. Meeting with the volunteer staff there, I told them that I had a previous business of restoring old houses. They encouraged me to work in the trolley shop and so I dedicated over three years part time to restoring an old New York City 3rd Avenue Trolley.
When Bechtel moved to Frederick, MD, so did we. We started investigating our surroundings and went to the B&O Museum where I got to see and climb around some camelback locomotives. This is a truly ludicrous locomotive. Because of the wide Wooten firebox, the engineer is consigned to a little compartment straddling the boiler. The fireman is left to the acrobatics of having to balance himself on two bouncing and shifting footplates while tending the fire. The cab is open to the elements more than other locomotives and for the engineer and fireman to communicate with each other, they must use a “speaking tube.”
We also went to see the Strasburg Railroad and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. There we not only encountered another camelback but also a GG1. I had seen a few pictures of these from time to time but knew little of them. I always admired the streamline appearance of the dark green and gold pinstripe livery. Betty quite naturally took to them as it was an electric locomotive.
When the Enron scandal struck, Bechtel lost most of its contracts for power plants. Betty, being a junior engineer, was soon laid off. In the recession that followed, she had some trouble finding work but at last landed a position with Con Edison in New York City. We were loth to give up our townhouse in Frederick, MD because I had done so much work on it and we also thought Frederick would be a good place to retire. With the willingness of our neighbors to look in on our place, we located an apartment right on the banks of the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ that overlooked most of Manhattan. It also overlooked the old Erie Lackawanna ferry terminal which was actively being restored at the time.
Every month or so we would drive back to Frederick to look in on our townhouse and take care of things, always passing the Roadside America attraction. Eventually we made time to drop in. This experience caused me to consider taking up model railroading. I knew little of the hobby even though I had my car serviced at a garage where the waiting area had a stack of old magazines that included Classic Trains and Model Railroader. Those magazines gave me some conception of what was possible.
I was also faced with a dilemma. As a young man I had suffered an injury to my hip. With hip implant surgery I recovered and was able to do most things, including restoring old Victorian houses. But with age, I started losing mobility. By the time we moved to New York City it was getting harder for me to get around. I often had to resort to a cane. We thought it would be best if I would take care of all the chores and shopping during the week so we could enjoy all the sights and entertainments of the city on weekends. Nonetheless, this left me with much time on my hands which I tried to fill by reading history books. Once I became bitten by the model railroad bug, I thought I could do the modeling in our apartment, box them up and then bring them back to our townhouse in Frederick to eventually put on a layout. This I did on a tiny dinning table we had at the apartment which every late afternoon I would clean off for dinner.
I went to a hobby shop and got a Walthers catalog, magazines, and some how-to books, including John Pryke’s Building City Scenery for Your Model Railroad. As soon as I saw this a modeling concept began to slowly develop in my mind: a steel mill town in Pennsylvania that would have an electrified portion of the Pennsylvania Railroad passing through a steel manufacturing city with an anthracite railroad servicing the mills not unlike Bethlehem, PA. My uncle’s comment about Hellfire, Brimstone and Damnation some 60 years prior was reborn as my model railroad.
Conceiving of a model railroad and delivering it now presented many challenges. A townhouse does not have much basement space and we had already turned it into a combination office, library and entertainment room. With some ingenuity we converted a guest bed room into an office for Betty. Bookcases were moved to create a wall. This then left me with an area of about 19 by 11 feet. Not a lot of space, but enough for a respectable layout.
Next came the challenge of how to work in all the catenary and cables required for GG1’s. I knew that modeling this would require a lot of work, possibly consuming too much time from getting the rest of the layout done. I came up with the idea of building the city on a platform above the catenary system which could serve as a staging for these trains to appear and reappear. Thus, only a simple loop of track would be necessary for the GG1’s to play their part. To protect the pantographs as they went through under the city, Betty came up with a solution to use fasten discarded engineering drawings that had been printed on large sheets of plastic under the platform, allowing the pantographs to slip underneath.
I also had only built a few models as a kid. All my life had been spent in building the macro not the micro. I decided to test my modeling skills by building the blast furnace kit first. I figured if I could build that, I could build anything. This was a challenge trying to build this on our tiny dining table at the New Jersey apartment. Nonetheless, the parts held together enough for me to be able to transfer the model each evening to a small cabinet top a few feet away.
I chose the Fall of 1937 for the setting of my layout for several reasons. First it was the “depression within the Great Depression.” This was so called because as the New Deal programs began to cause a recovery in the economy, Roosevelt desired to do some budget cutting. This resulted in a recessionary economy which did not recover until the Lend-Lease policy started in 1939.
I think that a layout should tell a story. The Great Depression opens a panorama of possible stories to be told in miniature scenes which I love to do: including hobo jungles, shanty towns, red light districts and tenement life. The New Deal programs hired photographers to go forth into the nation and record daily life in the 1930’s. This provided me with all sorts of prototypes to work from especially industrial scenes. It was also the point when the Pennsylvania Railroad was completing the electrification for the GG1. Dating a layout to a fairly specific date helps to eliminate anachronisms. I chose the fall season because it presents many interesting scenic possibilities and adds color to the depressing rust and grimy black of industry.
[This is the first part in a short series from Bob describing the history and construction of his layout. To read part 2 click HERE. -Ed.]