“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” — Guy de Maupassant
This hobby means many things to those who engage with it. For most of us, I think it’s safe to say the hobby is an opportunity to create miniature representations of railroad equipment and/or settings — an activity that challenges a variety of skills, from observation and planning to actual fabrication and finish.
Some of this work is carried out in isolation — but for most of us, the hobby is also a powerful social tool. Whether it’s railfanning with fellow shutterbugs, collaborating on a model, hosting or attending work sessions on a layout, or taking in a Railroad Prototype Modelers meet or NMRA convention, the hobby is an important part of how we find and foster friendships. Any railroad modeler who has moved to a new city knows one of the first stops after unpacking is the local hobby shop or train show, to learn about the local scene. Such expeditions are a great way to start building a new network of friends to replace those left behind.
But even as we use the hobby to make friends, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that we also sometimes lose those friends. People move away or pass on. Those friendships that are so important to us are shattered, and the missing person leaves a big hole in our lives — much bigger than simply, “Who is going to fill their spot at the next operating session?” It’s important to honor these friendships — but how?
Modelers have been doing this for ages. A common example — especially on freelanced layouts — is to name an online customer after a friend. This may not be the best option if one is modeling a specific prototype. But there are other ways.
After the author lost a close friend, he honored her by naming a locomotive after her.
In early 2022, I lost a good friend to cancer. I met Dawn Brightwell many years ago when we both lived in Toronto, Canada, and were both interested in garden scale live steam. We hit it off and when she moved back to the United States several years later, we stayed in touch. We were Facebook friends and had conversations online a couple of times per month. I was devastated when she passed on and was looking for a suitable way to share with others what her friendship meant to me.
Since Dawn was a live steam enthusiast, I found the answer in naming one of my fire-burning locomotives after her. There’s a fine tradition of naming these wee beasts. Many of the (primarily U.K.-based) narrow gauge prototypes on which they’re based carried nameplates.
A bit of asking around put me in touch with a supplier of custom-etched brass plates for the small steam set. It was pretty emotional to unpack the plates and affix them to the side tanks on my Accucraft 7/8” scale Decauville. They’re the same style as found on the prototype for this locomotive — only the name is different. Now, when people see this locomotive, I’ll have an opportunity to tell them about Dawn.
While brass plates are a practical option for larger models, it’s also possible to name a locomotive in the smaller scales. There are several prototype examples. To provide just one, in November 2021 short line operator Ontario Southland Railway painted the name “James A. Brown” under the cab windows of FP9A 6508 in memory of a well-known local railroader, rail photographer, and railfan. Naming steam locomotives is less common, but names can also be applied to business cars, sleepers, or other passenger equipment.
It happens on the prototype too: This FP9 on the Ontario Southland was named in honor of railfan James Brown.
With a bit of work on a computer and a sheet of blank decal paper run through a decent laser printer, a modeler could do the same to pay tribute to a friend who has moved away or passed on. I suggest using a color that will contrast nicely with the cab color. Print out a sample sheet on plain paper with the name in several font styles and sizes to test various options before committing to the decal sheet. Even a modeler who adheres strictly to a prototype can add a name below a cab window without sacrificing too much verisimilitude. Plus, it’s a good reason to buy “just one more locomotive.”
Our hobby is richer for the people it brings into our lives — and anything that gives us an opportunity to remember and share the stories of those friendships is a good thing.
To absent friends.