I’ve been thinking about the concepts of place, memory and meaning and how they influence our thinking and modeling choices.

I drove over to Centerville to shoot some images of the area around my parents’ old house and where the tracks once were. I wanted to recreate some of the old photos I shot decades ago. I knew the feed mill was torn down years ago, I knew the current owners of the house have made changes to the property. What I wasn’t expecting was the major repaving work on US 40 and the mass of road construction equipment being staged in the space between the siding and old mainline just across from the house.

The area felt different. There was more traffic in the neighborhood than I remember and the resulting chaos caught me off guard. Somewhat discouraged, I didn’t even bother getting out of the car. Images of vacant lots and overgrown weeds aren’t that exciting and wouldn’t mean anything to you. I was looking through eyes of the past expecting see traces that aren’t there any more. So, I simply circled the block and decided to head back to Richmond.

How much meaning does a single location carry? Does it translate to others across time?

This is how we often approach modeling. We go off on a search for a location of visual or operational interest, and attempt to find satisfaction in whatever surface appeal there is to be found. Admittedly, this approach to modeling and layout design works for a number of people. We see a striking photo in a book or magazine, maybe watch a video and the fire is lit: maybe for a lifetime, maybe for a moment until a different interest comes along.

How much meaning do we bring to a place? How do our own experiences and understanding influence and shape our choices? I’ve written at length about watching trains work Centerville when I was young. No need to recount those stories again. After many years of reflection, their influence on my views toward the craft is clear.

I’ve recently read that we filter the past according to who we are in the present. I think that’s what happened to me the other morning. I’m not a kid on my bike, chasing the local up and down the siding. Over half a century has passed since then and I see things much differently. In this case I saw the old neighborhood as it is, rather than how I wanted it to be.

This also makes it hard to truly appreciate and understand a past era of railroading.* I have zero experience of steam in ordinary daily service. It will always seem like a novelty on some level to me. It’s why the 1950s doesn’t interest me that much. I see that time as more of an historical artifact than a reality I can connect with.

Do we need such memories to enjoy the craft? There is no simple answer to this question. I don’t want to be prescriptive here, and I don’t have a tidy formula for how to build a satisfying layout to offer. People and this craft are far too diverse for such cheap solutions. My early experiences of the railroad bring a depth and richness to the work that I value greatly and wouldn’t trade for anything. I must also recognize that others find equal or similar joys in many different, and less personal ways.

Railroading that’s as resonant today as it was fifty years ago.

What I’ve learned is how to take the qualities of railroading that have consistently shown up in my work and make them my own. This goes beyond the notion of modeling, as most know it. Slow operations, short trains and sketchy track transcend time, place and prototype. I find a meaning in these qualities that speaks to me in ways that are hard to describe. Modeling is my way of expressing this connection. There is a familiarity and sense of comfort for me in watching a Norfolk Southern Dash-9 shuffling covered hoppers around the plant at 12th Street as there was in a Pennsy SW-7 backing a handful of boxcars down the siding in Centerville. The sounds of railroading, that is up close and personal: clanking couplers, groaning crossties, and squealing flanges are as resonant today as they were fifty years ago.


*See Dave Eggleston’s comments in this post.