Why model the 1890's?

By Craig Bisgeier

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It’s a strange and winding road that got me here, that’s for sure.

I never set out to build a craftsman level, faithful-to-prototype model of a small, obscure New England railroad that ceased to exist before the turn of the century, a period nearly impossible to purchase ready-to-run or even kits for. Far from it! I started out like a lot of other new modelers do, unsure of just what, where and when to model for the layout I intended to build. Not having any real idea of what I liked or particular interests, I decided to create an imaginary railroad, one that would use whatever equipment I chose for it, regardless or the type, era or roadname. I began planning an extensive layout with tracks that looped and crossed over one another in a huge twisted loop, with a passenger terminal hanging off one end. And for a while I was happy.

In time, this idea of "anything goes" lost some of its luster. I had been buying all kinds of kits and locomotives, but when I started to put together trains it all looked like a hodgepodge. It seemed little more than a collection of toys, items I thought were neat but had no connection to one another. There was no theme, no plan, nothing to make the layout stand out, give it identity. Not knowing what else to do, and not really knowing anyone else to ask, I turned to the hobby press to see if I could figure out what was wrong, why I wasn’t happy any more with what I was doing. After reading through many model railroading magazines, I soon discovered the layout features I felt were most polished and attractive were those based on one railroad, in one geographic location, and in one set time period.

"Well, I can do that", I said to myself, and got to work. Over time, I created a theme to plan my new railroad around. I wanted to try and model a place I was familiar with, so I placed my freelanced railroad near a place I’d gone to school in Connecticut. I knew the area and liked the scenery there, so I was pleased with that. I decided to place the time period in the 1950’s, since most of the locomotive models I liked were from that era. I named the railroad for a river valley in the area, since railroads are often named for rivers and I felt a town name or names would not ring true. Thus the first Housatonic Valley Railroad was born.

Narrowing my scope like this had immediate benefits. I sold, gave away or stored equipment I’d collected that wasn’t in tune with what I thought 1950’s New England railroading was about. New acquisitions were made with a critical eye for appropriateness to the location and era, and shortly the equipment I was collecting started to look more like what I’d seen in the magazines. The trains I ran down at the local club started to look a little more "Right" to me.

As I started making these changes, my interest in making it look "Right" led me to begin learning more about railroading in general, about New England railroading in particular, and the Housatonic Railroad in specific. Imagine my surprise when I found out there really had been a Housatonic Railroad along the route I’d planned as the location for my freelance pike. Believe it or not, I was actually upset about this discovery at the time, because I felt it threatened my freedom of choice in what I might choose to model! (I was absolutely right about this, as it turned out, but I later found the perceived threat was really my salvation as a model railroader. Read on…)

While I didn’t want to model a railroad that actually existed, I did want to make my freelance railroad look like it could have really existed, to give it a sense of fidelity and truthfulness. This interest led me to start reading books about the area, to look through stacks of pictures in hobby shops, to ask other modelers their opinion on this item or that. It led me to field trips to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where I found the tracks and followed them. Many rolls of film were exposed on the scenery, trackside buildings, and other items of interest.

Knowledge is a dangerous thing. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to learn stuff. But once you start finding out about stuff, it starts exposing how much you DON’T know about that stuff, and how some of the stuff you’ve already done is wrong, and you find other stuff that changes the way you look at this stuff, etc. Knowing stuff makes you crazy because the more you learn the more questions you come up with. Reading books, looking at pictures, and talking to people about your subject of interest quickly makes you realize how much there is to learn. And the more I found out about the real thing, the more I wanted to learn. Among many other things, I learned the New Haven railroad had owned these tracks during the 1950’s, and operated it as their Berkshire division. This simple item of fact would, years later, drive me to a terrible dilemma and a decision that changed my life as a modeler.

As I learned more, my layout plans began to change. Slowly, elements of the Berkshire division of the New Haven began to appear in my layout design. The loop track at Danbury, with the yard and roundhouse inside the loop. The beautiful Union Station at Canaan. The paper mills at Rising. The interchange with the Boston & Albany at Pittsfield. The design collected so many elements I changed the plan to a double-deck layout in order to get everything in. I put in a long helper grade to get trains between the levels because I thought it would be fun to use helpers, even though I knew the grades on the real railroad were gradual and didn’t warrant it. Hey, we were moving freight up into the Berkshire Mountains, and mountain railroads had grades!

Little by little, the plan started to look more and more like the New Haven’s Berkshire division. I was pleased that the layout was getting to look so much more realistic, but another problem was just starting to bother me at the same time. As I was learning more about the Berkshire division of the New Haven, I started finding out disturbing facts. Like it had never been much more than a minor branch under the NH, and that there was very little freight or passenger service on the line by the 1950’s. This was very depressing to find out, as I’d planned from the beginning to operate the railroad as a high-density traffic line.

Worse yet, I found my plan of operating the line as an independent railroad made no sense. The NH and the New York Central, parent of the Boston & Albany, were the two interchange partners on either end of the line. They had numerous interchange points throughout New England and had no reason to cut a third minor railroad like my Housatonic Valley in on the action, so only local traffic delivered or picked up from industries on the line would be found. There went the express trains I’d planned on running in each direction several times a day.

Now, finding out things like this wouldn’t bother a lot of people. After all, we’re freelancing, right? We can still just run whatever we like, however often we like, and so what about the facts? Well, a funny thing happened while I was learning all this stuff I was studying – I started to care about building a model railroad that not only looked "right", it had to make sense and operate reasonably too. I tried for a long time to ignore the facts, but it would come to me late at night when I couldn’t sleep. I knew it was a lie and it bothered me a lot. I was feeling trapped -- I loved the area I was modeling, but there was no way to justify a high traffic railroad along the route I’d chosen. The New Haven was just too dominant in the 1950’s to support my railroad without a serious stretch of the imagination.

Once it really got to me, I started making changes. I dropped the "Valley" part of the name and overhauled the design. Double-decking was out, in favor of a single level layout with fewer towns and more space in between them, reflecting a quality vs. quantity philosophy I’d adopted. The planned schedule got lighter too, with fewer through trains and more emphasis on local train handling than had been considered before. These things helped, but I was still dissatisfied with the plan. Things just didn’t ring true, and I got very depressed about it.

During the time I was studying details of the 1950’s railroad, I’d started to look into the history of the line as well, to get ideas about what the line had been like in better days. Information was very hard to come by, at first. But tantalizing hints of a healthy, competitive railroad before the New Haven takeover kept coming up. The more I studied the original Housatonic Railroad, I started finding that railroad had been highly competitive with the New Haven and other neighboring roads of the time, and had carried a huge volume of traffic. It looked like the railroad I wanted to model had gone away sixty years before the time period I was modeling.

Slowly the thought started to surface: Why not model the original Housatonic Railroad from the 1890’s?

No, I thought, that’s ridiculous. It was a silly idea, trying to build and run an HO scale railroad with early steam engine models would be difficult at best. It would be very tough to find parts, let alone kits for cars of that period. Scratchbuilding most cars and even steam engines would take a lot of time and effort. Research would be difficult and time consuming, with no guarantee I’d ever find enough information to model it well. But even as I tried to discount these silly ideas, solutions started making themselves available.

Trains in the 1890’s were smaller, much smaller than their 1950’s counterparts. Fewer cars, then, need to be made for an equivalent number of trains to be run. A recent series of articles in Model Railroader detailed how to build your own brass steam locomotives, showing techniques that wouldn’t be too difficult to build simple 4-4-0 locomotives with. Resin castings and RTV rubber molds could be used to build both Locomotive and railcar parts and even kits, making the Scratchbuilding process less onerous. Many detail parts made for narrow gauge modeling are excellent stand-ins for turn of the century railcar hardware, and the research would be fun, even if it didn’t pan out in the long run.

Finally it came down to a very simple but very difficult decision I had to make. Continue to model the 1950’s, and just accept the light schedule and freelance aspects of the plan, which I’d really grown to hate. Or, take a big plunge into the unknown and model a difficult period in history that promised to provide the railroad I really wanted operationally, but which would require an awful lot of work for.

So that’s how I got here. I’ve been collecting research on the turn of the century Housatonic Railroad for about a year and a half now, and I’ve come up with more information than I ever dreamed possible. I’m still looking at an uphill battle, but I finally feel that I’ve found the answer to what I want to spend my time modeling, what will make me happy finally. I no longer have those sick feelings in my stomach that something is wrong. For the first time in many years of modeling, I finally feel that I’m on the right path.

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