The late David P. Morgan, former editor of Trains magazine, once likened the Lima Locomotive Works to a Swiss watchmaker.

What an ear tickling analogy from the keyboard of a storytelling master. Few today can weave a compelling narrative tapestry about railroading as he did, and because of that, our craft is poorer.

From April 1954 to November 1958, his prose, coupled with the evocative photography of Dr. Phil Hastings, regularly graced the pages of Trains magazine in the form of a 33 article series that documented the twilight of steam operations in North America. Kalmbach reproduced the series as a hardcover book titled The Mohawk That Refused To Abdicate and other tales in the 1970s and forty years later, these stories still provoke an emotional response in the reader. One can only imagine the impact on the craft of railroad modeling had he turned his powers with the written word in our direction.

Still, there is much to learn from his writing if one is willing to make the effort.

From the chapter titled Lima’s Finest in Twilight, we journey with them to the New River Gorge deep in the mountainous hinterlands of West Virginia in June 1955. Here we learn much about the 1624, a Lima built 2-6-6-6 Allegheny. Recommissioned from retirement, she’s a beast of American craftsmanship, an homage to the Swiss precision and orderliness that D.P.M. found in Lima’s offerings. We also learn a great deal of the C&O and the coal traffic boom that brought the 1624 out of retirement and, equally, much about the author’s unabashed love for steam.

What is the impact of a good story?

A master storyteller takes you on a journey, both within and without to places you may never see first hand, while bringing them to life in your heart and imagination. Furthermore, a good story opens your point of view and challenges your preceptions. It both entertains and teaches.

To accomplish these feats, a writer has numerous tools to choose from as needed. The first and perhaps foremost is a curiosity that won’t settle for surface impressions. To move past the mind and reach the heart, one has to go deeper and our hobby literature falls woefully short in this regard. It’s a simple matter to recite bare facts and dry figures, or even explain abstract concepts but we stumble mightily when it comes to expressions of feeling and emotional depth about what this craft means to us and why. We’re not well versed in these narrative tools or if we are, we seem afraid to use them.

An author understands the power of words and how to use it. A compelling story is an exercise in contrasts, conflict, drama and metaphor, with all moving toward a resolution. David Morgan used all of these elements and more in service to the story. He was a craftsman and lover of words but never let them overshadow the story for his readers.

You and I might simply note that a surge in traffic necessitated resurrecting a handful of retired but serviceable steam engines to handle the increased carloading. But in his hands, the 1624 was a contrast to the dieselized efficiency of the modern era (1955) C&O. Via his storytelling prowess, she became an unlikely protagonist; past her prime and out of place in a world that under normal circumstances, had no use for her services. Yet the circumstances weren’t normal. The drama? Is she still up to the task? How long would her reprieve last?

How might we tell a better story of this craft?

As modelers are we so conditioned to and content with: “I only have a spare bedroom to work with so I plopped in a 4×8 sheet…” or worse, the instruction manual construction feature, where we’re told to cut a piece of 0.010″ x 0.020″ styrene to length, then glue it to…and so on ad nauseum.

In a given context, these conventional forms serve a purpose but, if someone like Morgan can see the literary potential of a surge in coal traffic that happened 60 years ago, couldn’t we also employ a different storytelling paradigm? Are there other forms and examples to learn from? Do the genres of fiction, journalism or biography have anything to teach us? If so, (and I truly believe they do), what are the lessons they might convey for our purposes in sharing the craft?

Know me, know my layout.

I’ve recently finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs. Regardless of what you think about Jobs as a person or businessman, the book admirably covers the sweep of his life and work. To understand Jobs as a person is to understand Apple as a company. This is equally true for us. I’ll better understand your choices in the craft once I understand what influences you as a creative person. If I bring my artistic education to my modeling, I suspect you also bring similar influences to yours. Such themes often run deep through our lives.

Do examples of the type of story I’m suggesting exist? I certainly think so, but they’re rare indeed because we seldom think about the craft in such terms. It would be a mistake to think that this type of storytelling is simple. Nothing could be further from the truth. David P. Morgan brought years of professional writing experience along with a profound love for and knowledge of his subject to these works. But the difficulty of the task won’t stop one who has it in his heart to share with others.

I have given these ideas much thought and discussions with my friend Chris Mears and others has confirmed for me a simple truth: we focus too much on the nuts and bolts. Perhaps the missing ingredient in our narrative is us. Perhaps the time has finally arrived to remedy that by bringing our own stories to the table.



  1. renegourley

    Wow, intimidating challenge, Mike!

    For myself, it’s hard enough to scrabble together a semi-coherent blog post, much less something of any literary merit! All the same, I accept your challenge to include more of ourselves into my writing (just not tonight because I already wrote and it’s already midnight).


  2. mike

    Hi Rene’

    Interesting take. I wasn’t consciously thinking of the post as a challenge but now see how it could read as such. Regardless, thank you for taking up the reins. I look forward to learning more about your own journey and how it’s reflected in your Pembroke layout.

    Well done with the staging yard turntable!


  3. Chris Mears

    Good morning Mike, I hope a lot of people read this post and I think you’ve done a wonderful job of illustrating the potential value we could realise in creating model railways around our own stories.

    I’d wager that works like the one you’ve decribed above have done more for promoting mid-century period modelling than anyone’s direct connection to the end of steam and the beginning of the diesel era. If it was just the contrast in fuels and combustion methods, we’d have a heck of a lot more 19th century modellers using their layouts to tell the story of that shift. If it was changes in the nation, it’s people, and industry, we’d have more people modelling the resurgence of modern railroad and the current scene celebrating the success stories found trackside today. We just need that voice. Storytelling is a powerful craft and it offers so much to the model railway designer and builder. It’s not hard to see how the rich visual Morgan paints in his words might make this an attractive scene for the modeller. Perhaps sometimes I’m too impressionable but I read it and found myself thinking that I “needed” to learn more about the C&O and then consider it as a prototype. In his words, I could see a story worth using to fuel the development of a model railway.

    At the end of your paragraph you wrote “How long would her reprieve last?” Isn’t that why we should build a model railway? I believe that in a model railroader’s soul there is a desire to develop a personal relationship with trains. That’s why “How long…” really resonated with me. Imagine how exciting it would have been to learn that the railway was restoring an engine or even an entire rail line to service that you believed was long gone?. Imagine how happy that would make you feel? How good? We’re human and we like “happy” but as good as that feels we’d remember how we felt before this second chance. We’d want to know for how long we could be happy so we could invest appropriately in this moment. Maybe this is the reminder that awakens a memory of that moment deep inside us when we’re browsing through a catalogue and stumble across a model of that same engine or those same trains. We go on to build, in miniature, a model to provide for us an opportunity to revisit that memory. If done well enough that model railway is laden with enough sensory triggers to punctuate that memory.

    I think we understand the power of good railroad journalism to inspire the design and construction of our model empires but, equally so, I believe that there is just as strong a case for us to tell those same stories about own model railways. We’ve been fortunate that in the pages of the various model railway magazines and today across many great model railway blogs we’re discovering those same story tellers describing their creations. I’ll never forget reading the opening paragraphs of Bob Hayden’s “Ride the Carrabasset!” in Model Railroader’s November 1979 issue. This was my first model train magazine issue and in his words I discovered a model railway as rich as any “real” railroad. The Frary and Hayden team inspired a legion of HOn30 modellers and the legacy of their work remains powerful even today. Their articles could weave an intoxicating story around beautifully composed scenes and photography that often left me feeling like I was standing there. As stories of the end of steam inspire a generation of modellers to build miniature celebrations of this period, Frary and Hayden fueled an equivalent generation of modellers focussed on the Maine narrow gauge scene. Other great examples of the craft exist in the stories told in the works of similarly iconic examples like those told by McLelland, Koester, and King. Layout builders such as these stand as great examples of how we can use a model railway to relate a fascination with a prototype or a point in time; how the layout can be used to help us understand its role in the community it served and play a role in its legacy.

    Perhaps our challenge isn’t whether or not it can or can’t be done but in finding in ourselves the motivation to expose a very personal connection. Maybe the design scope for the next layout needs to be an inventory of skill and of inspiration and the design itself be an attempt to mediate a common ground between those two lists? Perhaps in doing so we keep alive the story that inspired us and provides motivation for those times when things aren’t going well. Maybe in exposing that idea to those around us we can ask for their help in refining the decision making process over what we include or exclude and how to maintain focus.

    I’m just rambling now. Time to refresh my coffee and click on Post.



  4. mike

    Ramble away Chris!

    In a sense, we’ve done what you described for decades. The V&O series set a new standard for modeling journalism as did John Allen’s inspiring photography in an early era. Both broke the mold of convention in their day and inspired many to explore the new paradigm.

    I feel what Morgan demonstrated with his writing is how one can find great depth in the ordinary. A surge in coal traffic for a season is a boon to the company’s finances but little more until a writer employed his imagination and love of subject to otherwise dry facts.

    As you and I have discussed frequently, we can recite plenty of dry facts about the craft, but I wonder aloud where our imagination has gone? We have more sophisticated tools at our disposal than ever before in the history of communication, yet we are less knowledgeable in their use than ever before.


  5. Simon

    “Mixed Train Daily” does it for me: the writing, like the ‘roads portrayed, is from an earlier, less rushed and more respectful period. (I am aware that it had many faults, too.)

    Personally, I like to find the “back story” to a line, to have it brought to life. A brilliant example was in an early edition of “Great Western Journal”, where the daily life of Ashburton station in Devon was described. Not just the services, but the routines of the crews, the station staff, how they all helped out in the goods depot when required – and even the involvement of one of the drivers in the local council.

    It is also possible to use these behind a semi-freelance layout. Quite a common theme over here is to model a proposed-but-never-built extension to an existing line, taking a line history or more focused feature article (as above) as the starting point to creating a similar backstory. Bob Barlow and Iain Rice went as far as mocking up a published book for their “East Suffolk Light Railway” creation, which was out and about in the UK over 30 years ago now.

    Some of Tony Koester’s pieces about his Allegheny Midland had carefully re-worked article written about real life coal shifting railroads as their introduction. I think they were far and away his best works!


  6. Jeff

    I’d add Lance Mindheim to the list of great (current) storytellers. How many people were tempted to build a Miami switching layout after coming in contact with his compelling descriptions of south Florida railroading? (raises hand) From my perusal of forums and magazines, others have been and are building in that direction, too. Probably just as many as were inspired to go narrow with Frary/Hayden or model the C&O after reading DPM.


  7. mike

    Hi Jeff, welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting.

    Yes, Lance has a unique vision and a fine writing voice, two qualities the craft needs more of.


  8. Chris Mears

    Good morning

    I liked your point about Morgan’s ability to not only discover a story within the dry ordinary but then to present it as something in which we could find fascination. Further, I too wonder about that imaginative element in your closing paragraph. Imagination is not just the ability to see what isn’t there but the patience to see what is. It’s fueled by curiousity. It’s encouraged by an unquenchable need to share with others and discover tools and methods to get that vision from your head to their’s.

    I wanted to share this newspaper story with you as I felt it did for a modern railroad what Morgan did with the story you shared:

    Hauling Salt is the story of a day in the life of the Claremont-Concord Railroad. I was already a fan of the line and it was in an internet search for random “new to me” stuff about the railroad I discovered this article. Look at the way the author describes the relationship between the men of the railroad to their railroad and also to the community in which it serves; how it does its work and why it even exists at all. Heck, even if you don’t read the article just scroll through the seven photos included at the top and read the captions. One can easily see the opportunity for a literal recreation of the line defined by little more than just this article. There’s enough inspiration in those paragraphs and photos to base a fantastic freelance line too.


  9. Chris Mears

    Hi again. Sorry to flood this post with comments.

    Before Christmas I was watching a video on Model Railroader’s Video Plus about Jim Kelly’s Tehachapi-based N scale layout. I knew the layout from previous Model Railroader articles but found it really interesting that the version in the video was his fourth. He was rebuilding the layout and constantly refining it’s design and presentation as much to take advantage of changes in the hobby as to better share a vision of his favourite prototype. We often read stories of a modeller who builds a landmark layout and then replaces it with something completely different (e.g. Tony Koester) but in Kelly’s work he’s investing heavily in refining his vision. I think it’s a fascinating story and one I wish we could play up more in the hobby. I’d love to read an interview with Kelly in which he compares what he’s learned over four iterations of a large layout and not insignificant effort.



  10. mike

    Hi Chris
    Never worry about commenting. One of the reasons for this blog is to spark conversations. So comment away folks.

    That news article highlights what’s missing in much of our experience: the human element. Yes we’ve come up with all manner of contrivances, even gimmicks, to simulate real world operations. But we don’t operate in sub-zero temps, pouring rain or at 2am like the pros do.

    One of the reasons I think Trevor’s layout story resonates is in the way he’s incorporated so many of the physical aspects of operation via the aids included on the fascia.

    Setting hand brakes by actually turning a miniature brake wheel, physically coupling up air hoses both involve guest operators in visceral ways that shuffling a bunch of 3×5 car cards never will.

    Just another form of gimmicky? Perhaps, but it’s purposeful in a meaningful way, that teaches rather than detracts. Much to learn here and this is just one person’s opinion, not to be confused with dogma.


  11. Matt


    Once again, a very thought provoking post. As Rod Stewart tells us, “Every picture tells a story.” We forget that a lot, or never really give it much thought. As a model railroad imagineer, it is all about the story. Over the last few years I have begun to realize it is my interest in the story of the train and the people and material the trains carry that interests me. It is finding that interest and telling oneself that it is okay to have a layout as small as 1ft by 6 ft if that is what it takes to tell the story.

    To realize you are not doing what everyone else does, but instead what brought you to the hobby is lost in the drive to get something running. More modelers need to think of the picture that brought them to the hobby, and less of the pictures the hobby sends out as what you should do or want to be a model railroader.


  12. mike

    Well said Matt. Thoughtful as always and penetrating in its insight.