After last week’s model railroad version of War And Peace, I’ll keep this short.
Years ago I was serious about modeling the Pennsylvania Railroad operations in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana. As part of the design process, I was able to amass a surprising amount of information from obvious and not-so-obvious sources.
The obvious sources included websites discovered from search parameters, links and generally going down any online rabbit hole that looked promising. The fact I was researching the PRR didn’t hurt, because there’s a wealth of resources for it.
Other sources of info popped up in the most unlikely places. My local library proved to be a treasure store of good data. Talking with the reference librarians led me to files of newspaper clippings of local railroad events, such as the last day of steam operations, when this train stopped running and so on. Old city directories helped me establish the names and dates of businesses that were operating along the tracks. By comparing directories from different years, I learned when a specific business closed, changed names or relocated. This told me which businesses would be operating in the era I considered modeling. Further research on a specific company helped me understand their operations, traffic base and whether they were a railroad customer or not. The library also had Sanborn maps of the relevant areas for different years. These allowed me to track changes, although the track arrangements were a bit sketchy. I was even able to determine the weather for the month and year of the era I chose to model by looking through the newspaper archives on micro film. All-in-all, neat stuff!
Then it started to get good.
The County Surveyor’s office produced copies of track charts featuring a lifetime of information that would warm the heart of any railroad specific modeler.
These two photos show the trackage on the west end near the old passenger station as I remember it from long ago. Although a bit wrinkled from storage, you can make out the details. The depot is still there, along with an old steel water tower used to service engines during station stops. This saved cutting off and running east to the yard to top off the tenders. Stand pipes, and later fuel racks for diesels, were located at both ends of the main platforms.
In addition to these goodies, the City Engineer’s office had a large scale blueprint showing the roundhouse, engine facilities and car repair shops; plus the track arrangement, building outlines, their locations and more data than you could absorb in one sitting. You could build a unique and fine layout based on this single document. The railroad had to submit such documents to the city for planning purposes. They had a copy made for me on the spot.
All of this was the tip of the iceberg. Ongoing research turned up train schedules, timetables, rule books covering local operating practices, interviews with former railroad employees and on it went. A side trip to the state library at Indianapolis produced all the local valuation records from the USRA takeover period thanks to the kind assistance of the research librarian. (Note, I made an appointment with a request for this information.) Over time, I learned more about my hometown than I ever thought possible. At the time I wasn’t familiar with the resources at the Natural Archives. I’m certain there’s gold in those stacks.
Ultimately, the plan for what would have been a complex, club-sized HO model railroad was put aside. I like to model solo and I thankfully (and quickly) realized the scope of such a project would be overwhelming for one person. I knew I would never finish this monster. All wasn’t lost, however. The exercise taught me basic research skills and deepened a desire to do faithful modeling based on facts instead of made up fiction. Who knows? Eventually maybe a book of some kind might come from it all.
Sources of valuable modeling information are all around us; we just have to be persistent in tracking them down. I have to think that similar resources are available in most medium sized towns and cities. Richmond has a deep sense of its history and happens to be the county seat, which likely helped in my case. If you’re close to your county seat or government center, it’s worth a look if you’re modeling a local railroad. The satisfaction gained from more accurate modeling is worth the effort. You could say:
For more realistic trains, engage your brains.