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Old Time Railroading

Old Time Railroading

Welcome to Old Time Railroading 2009

Compiled by George Riley, Gary Quale and Chris Lane/Photos by G. Riley unless noted.

Getting Into the Mind of the Nineteenth Century

Though little more than a hundred years removes us from the 1800s, this century would be completely foreign to our modern world view. The first two decades of the nineteenth century would have shown little change in mind set or technology from the earlier colonial era. Most of the population still lived in settlements and small cities located along the eastern coast or adjacent to navigable rivers in land. European settlers had barely penetrated more than 500 miles inland, leaving the rest of the vast continent all but unexplored.

The bottle neck to both territorial and economic expansion was transportation. As in centuries past, people and their goods moved at a walking pace. Vehicular transport was dependent on horses, mules or oxen drawing carts or wagons over a disjointed system of rough and often seasonally impassable roads. The most efficient means of transporting supplies was by water. Ships and boats were still dependent on sail power or lacking wind, the strength of their crews to pull, row or pole their craft. The building of canals that occurred at the turn of the 19th century did little to speed up the process since they too relied on either man or horse power. This world moved at a sedate three miles an hour.

By the end of the 1700s experiments with both steam and electricity were underway both domestically and abroad. These two sciences would prove to be revolutionary in the development of our modern world. The first to bear fruit would be harnessing steam. By 1712 Newcomen had developed an atmospheric steam engine that was the first machine to successfully harness the expansion of steam and mechanically put it to use. Though large and of limited efficiency the Newcomen engine successfully pumped water out of the mines in Wales. James Watt, working with a model of Newcomen’s engine, further refined the concept and developed the first practical reciprocating steam engine. Though large and not suited for mobile use this machine revolutionized manufacturing and was instrumental in heralding the industrial revolution. However, the marriage of steam power to transportation would take a number of decades of development.

Finally in 1804, Trevithick constructed and successfully operated what is considered by many the first steam powered railway locomotive. This ungainly machine heralded the future development of steam traction on rails and led to the rapid developments that followed. Suddenly the world accelerated from its leisurely pace to ten, fifteen or even twenty-five miles an hour. The next half century would prove to be a test bed in the evolution of railroads since there were no proven standards or pre-existing concepts in place.

Old Time Railroading

For our purposes as modelers, the first century of railroading in the United States began roughly around 1830 when steam technology finally began reaching our shores from England, which was at the time the leader in railway construction. American railroads then rapidly evolved to deal with the unique challenges posed by the continent. The twenty year period that followed the first introduction of steam traction can best be called "the age of experimentation." What occurred during this era would not only change the technology available, but would also impact economic, social and cultural standards.

By 1850 railroads had begun to more closely resemble our modern day concept of railways. Most of the Eastern Cities were now linked by rails that were inexorably moving west towards the Mississippi River. Rolling stock, physical plant and rights of way had begun to take familiar form. During this "age of challenges" over the next two decades, the nation and railroads would face many challenges that included a major domestic military conflict and the construction of the transcontinental railroad to link up the east and west coasts of the nation.

Coal had begun to supplant wood as a fuel source allowing for faster, larger, more powerful locomotives. Spurred by the necessities of war, the steel industry was able to more economically process high grade steel for both rails and locomotives. In addition, ancillary technologies, such as the telegraph, which allowed instant communication between distant points and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, also played a key role in the progress of the railroads.

Old Time Railroading1870 proved to be the beginning for the next era in railroad development. The years between 1870 and 1885 would be the "age of expansion" for the nation’s railroads. In addition to the Union Pacific/Central Pacific transcontinental route, several other transcontinental lines would be completed further opening the western United States to settlement and economic development. Narrow gauge lines were being built to reach even the most remote and sparsely populated areas. America was truly a railroad nation.

While railroad technology continued unabated with new practices and hardware, the financing of this expansion would bring about dramatic changes in the world’s financial markets. Improved accounting methods allowed for interchange of cars between the railroads which in turn increased competition and subsequently lowered freight and passenger tariffs. The ability to interchange spurred the final adoption of 4'-8" as the national standard for class 1 railroads and led to the rail network being re-gauged to this standard.

Old Time RailroadingConsidered the "Golden Age of Railroads" by many historians, the years between 1885 and 1914 should be the regarded as an era of great consolidation. At no other time in our nation’s history would the railroads be as crucial to the economy and culture. Goods and passengers could reliably and quickly be transported literally from coast to coast and all points in between. It was a rare location that did not have some sort of rail access. The railroads expanded their infrastructures and improved services. Many profitable narrow gauge lines were standard gauged and incorporated into larger systems. A series of consolidations gathered smaller companies into larger systems as well.

As speed increased with the advent of superheating and larger locomotives, so did safety. Westinghouse air brakes and Janney knuckle couplers became mandated for all interchanged traffic. Wooden passenger cars would be gradually phased out in favor of all metal cars. These would prove not only stronger but also less flammable than their predecessors. For freight cars steel would also begin to replace wood, first in its use for underframes and structural framing, finally the entire car would be built of metal.

Old Time Railroading

Perhaps, however, the most dramatic change would occur when the genie of electricity would finally be unleashed. Previously captured to operate the telegraph in the 1850s this source of power would lead to electric lighting, which would dramatically change railroad signaling and replace kerosene for car and locomotive lighting; telephones would streamline communications; and finally electric traction would make street railways practical, accelerating the growth of cities.

In a little less than a century, the United States went from a rough frontier to a fully developed modern nation due in largely to the part played by the railroads. Ironically, both scale railroad models and toys have been a part of the American experience since the first rail was laid down. Today, however, we rarely venture back more than fifty or sixty years when we look for subjects to model. Perhaps we should look back to the first century of the railroads to document both a different time and technology. The internet has been a boon for research in this era since one can now find a wealth of information without even having to leave the comfort of home. A number of first class museums also house a remarkable number of examples from this period in their collections. Books and old post cards as well as insurance surveys will also be an aid in capturing this bygone era in miniature.

The modeling the first century of railroading does not mean that one must scratch-build every item. There are a surprising number of models in the major scales available both ready-to-run and in kit form. One can either decide to model a specific place or capture a general time period with stunning results. So if the modern world just doesn’t strike your fancy, take an adventure into the past —George Riley

Designing the PastDesigning the Past
Seward’s Junction – Circa 1875

Getting down to the essentials
Designing and constructing any model railroad regardless of its era and size calls for a whole list of compromises. This is particularly the case when designing a small layout that represents a period over a hundred years in the past. The most basic question that arises in the early planning stages is that of the builder’s ultimate goal. Obviously, when planning Seward’s Junction the main purpose was to present a railroad set in the mid-1870s that would allow interaction between two railroad companies, the Southside operating east to west and the Orange and Alexandria whose main route was north to south. The setting would be the post-bellum south a decade after the War. The two companies serve both Seward’s Junction and Centreburg along their routes.

The operational fly in the ointment is that at the time period chosen, there was no equipment interchange, so that cargo going off line would have to be trans-loaded from one railroad to the other. What has evolved is an oval for continuous running at shows and demonstrations with two interchange locations. The Southside takes the foreground position with the O&A set inboard in the display, its main between Centreburg and Seward’s Junction concealed behind a stone retaining wall.

Designing the Past

The station at Hanover Junction on the Northern Central Railroad looks little changed from 1863 when Abraham Lincoln stopped over on his way to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Early stations often were located in preexisting buildings, often roadside hotels. Dedicated railroad stations would slowly evolve into the form that we are currently familiar.

A tale of two towns
As previously noted there are two main areas of operations, the town of Centreburg and the industrial hamlet of Seward’s Junction. Centreburg being the largest has a frame ‘Union Station’ serving both roads as well as car shops and freight house for the Southside Railroad. The O&A uses a team track for local deliveries as well as joint transfer platforms to trans-ship cargo to the Southside.

Seward’s Junction is the home of J. Seward and Sons Fine porcelain and China. The manufacturers of fine China tableware, elegant cuspidors and comfortable chamber pots, the firm has been in business since the 1840’s. Both railroad companies supply the plants with coal for the kilns and transport raw clays into the works and finished goods outbound over their rails.

In addition Sewards is a second trans-shipment point for the two companies. A series of flat structures from Model Tech Studios and DPM modular walls flesh out the China works.

Track and Right of Way
Atlas 21st Century O scale two rail sectional track, turnouts and flex-track were used to design and build this project. The track is weathered and mounted on cork roadbed and ballasted as per usual. When modeling old time railroads you want to keep the right-of-way clear of brush and weeds. When newly built, they would be cleared of all trees and brush by the grading crew. As time passed right-of-way crews would keep down growth to minimize fire caused by sparks from the locomotives. Fire was a major hazard during this period.

Old Time Railroading – High Tech Controls
As a rule most of our previous project layouts have been designed for DCC control, this railway could just as easily use DC and a conventional block system. However, it was decided that since this would be an O scale project and the equipment was large enough to use an on-board battery system, the Red Arrow system from Great Britain should be tried out. This system uses an onboard 8.4 volt rechargeable nickel hydride battery to power the locomotives and receivers. This completely removes the need to even power the track. Each locomotive can be addressed separately so multiple engines can be operated separately with the system. An un-modified small O scale locomotive will run continuously for almost 30 minutes without recharging. By re-motoring with a low voltage motor and adding additional batteries, runs of several hours can be had.

Seward's Junction Track Plan

Atlas 21st Century 2 Rail Track

45 - 10" Straight
16 - 36" Radius Curves
4 - #5 RH Turnouts
4 - #5 LH Turnouts
1 - 4" Straight
2 - 40" Radius Curve
3 - 1 Straight
2 - 40" Flex Track

Seward’s Junction is designed to fit into an 8' x 18' space in O scale. The layout can easily be built in HO scale on a 4' x 10' table using Atlas sectional track. The curves for HO would be 18" and 15" radii. Similarly, N scale modelers should be able to replicate the layout in 30" x 72".

Arguably, the one group of items that sets the time and place on any model are personal and business vehicles. Too often an otherwise perfect scene is disrupted by the inclusion of an inappropriate car or truck. If you are modeling the nineteenth century, you will need to include an assortment of animal drawn vehicles. You will need coaches, carriages and buggies for over the road travel of your miniature citizens; wagons and carts for goods and freight.

Horse-drawn vehiclesFortunately, finding models of these vehicles is not a great challenge, since there are many examples available from a number of manufactures in the three major scales. They range from pre-assembled and decorated models to laser cut wood and photo-etched metal kits. In addition, parts can be found should you want to scratchbuild or kitbash a particular prototype. Some may not be easily found and require some searching to find. For these, check the Internet, discontinued model specialists and train shows. Nothing suspends belief on a scene than a horse in full gallop. While it may make for a dramatic photo, under normal viewing, the scene will be compromised. If you have a choice, always use horses that are posed in stationary positions. Many kits allow this option or you may replace those provided with other animals. —George Riley

Building the Mt. Clair Roundhouse

Building the Historic Mt. Claire Roundhouse

Sowing the Seeds
When looking through old photographs, one of the most unique and commonly seen railroad structures is the full roundhouse. These fully enclosed, large buildings featured a central turntable with repair and storage bays radiating from around the table. After a visit to the B&O Museum housed in the former Mount Claire Shops in Baltimore during my teens I came away with the dream of one day building a model of such a facility. That was over thirty five years ago. Another strong inspiration for modeling early era railroading came through the many articles written by the late Irv Schulz about his St. Clair & Northern model railroad. His picturesque and unique models left an indelible mark on my then adolescent desires.

Building the Mt. Clair RoundhouseYears came and went with an occasional false start but the roundhouse never seemed to make it to completion. Atlas’ old model turntable, which incidentally was based on the Mt. Claire turntable, had been available for years. However, its widely separated track spacing seemed to defy the addition of any type of roundhouse. As it is with most things if you wait long enough a solution for any challenge will become possible. Atlas’ retooled turntable included 21 indexed tracks coupled with their three stall roundhouse look like it would be the answer to completing this long considered project.

Engineering on the Fly
Logic dictated that since each roundhouse kit was in a 45 degree arch, eight kits would be needed to complete a full circle. Laying out the bases on the floor showed that the completed building would be about 36” in diameter. This was going to be a large structure and having built other large buildings in the past, a base would be needed to construct the roundhouse on. A four foot square bench work was built complete with legs.

Building the Mt. Clair RoundhouseThe building bases were the aligned on the table and fastened down with counter-sunk screws in the track slots. This minimized bowing the bases. One section was left loose to cut out the base for the surface mounted turntable mechanism and motor. Once done the turntable and last section was secured in place and tested.

The walls, windows and foundation blocks were then added around the base’s perimeter. These had been pre-painted with spray cans and allowed to dry prior to assembly. A door way was cut into one of the walls to allow access into the building and the base notched out to accept track. At this point construction followed the instruction sheet.

Building the Mt. Clair Roundhouse

The interior beams had the lower roof supports removed and the long roof sections were trimmed to the edge of the beams before they were painted. While the paint was drying on these parts Atlas code 83 track sections were placed in the track slots, aligned with the turntable and feeder wires soldered to the track and fed through the base.

Building the Mt. Clair RoundhouseNow dry, the roof beams were glued in place and allowed to set before adding the lower level roofing. The clerestory (center roof) structure was to be supported by H columns glued the length of the supporting roof column. These were measured in place allowing for the front vent window assembly to slide into the slots in the columns. These used the front valence windows from the roundhouse kit with the detail side facing outward.

Adding the Lid
The remaining central opening measured slightly under 21 inches in diameter. As most model railroaders are aware, if you enclose an item that contains track or anything mechanical, sooner or later you will somehow have to get inside it to either re-rail, repair or redo something inside. After consulting with several other colleagues, it was decided to design the upper roof structure to work like the lid on a ginger jar. Additionally, the upper roof would be built using smoky colored Plexiglas to allow the interior to be viewed when backlit by the interior. The front area would be painted to look like normal roofing and the back portion was left clear.

Building the Mt. Clair RoundhouseA center point was marked out on the circle of clear Plexiglas and the 1 ½” to 2” ABS plumbing adaptor centered and glued in place. Eight panels were then cut into roughly 9” wide by 11” long 45 degree triangles and fitted in place using the collar on the adaptor to set the slope of the roof. Once glued in place and allowed to cure overnight the bottom edges were sanded smooth with roughly an 1/8” overhang from the roof base. Strip styrene was used to cover the roof joints and trim out the cupola. The final step in roof construction was the addition of the top half of a wooden egg for the cupola dome. Final painting and weathering completed the roundhouse. The addition of locomotives and rolling stock completes the scene. As time allows, the interior will have detail added. Fortunately, I planned ahead to allow for the roof lid to be removeable, preserving easy access to the interior.—George Riley

Mt. Claire Roundhouse Parts List

  • 1 Atlas HO Turntable

  • 8 Atlas Round House Kits

  • 21 Atlas 3" track sections

  • 21 Atlas 1-" “ track sections

  • 21 Atlas 9" Straight Track

  • 2 Packs Evergreen 1⁄8" H Column

  • 6 KS B-4 H Column

  • 8 1⁄8" Smoked Plexiglass 9" x 12" .060" styrene or 1⁄16" Plywood can be used as a substitute

  • 1 1⁄8" Circle of Plexiglass 21-" Diameter .125" styrene or 1⁄8" Plywood can be used as a substitute

  • 1 1-1" to 2" ABS Plumbing Adaptor Use a black fitting w/ Plexiglass: PVC adaptor w/ styrene

  • 1 2" Wooden Egg

  • 1 roll ea. Black and Red 22 gauge wire

Old Time Railroading

Old Time Railroading


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