Downshifting

By Craig Bisgeier

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I'm really happy to note that after over three and a half years, the 1892 Housatonic Railroad has been realized, at least in part.  The experience to date has been very satisfying and a lot of fun -- but there was a time when that wasn't always so... 

Let's go back in time to about 2003.  The basement was finally finished, I'd completed a lot of research on the 19th Century Housatonic Railroad, and it started to become time to build the layout.  But instead of being excited at the prospect of finally beginning,  I started to feel uneasy.   I found I was looking for other things to do when I should have been working on the railroad.  For many months I couldn't understand what was happening, but finally I figured it out -- I was very nervous about starting a HUGE undertaking without any guarantee that it would be a success.   It's really easy to be an armchair modeler and talk the talk, but when it came time for me to walk the walk after years of planning, I was having more than second thoughts.  All of a sudden all of the tasks involved in building a large early period model railroad started to loom over me, and I was feeling sick about the effort I was expecting would be needed.  Here are a few of the things I was thinking about that made me so uneasy:

Where the heck do I start?  As it became possible to actually begin construction on the railroad, I started to get depressed because there was just so much to do.  The list was just staggering -- build benchwork for a multi-deck layout, scratch-build structures, railcars, even locomotives, do hundreds of feet of hand-laid track, wire the layout, install command control,  and a laundry list of many other things.  The more I thought about what would be required the queasier I felt!  The project felt like it was going to swallow me whole, and at the same time I felt paralyzed because I did have the first idea where to begin.  This had the effect of keeping me away from the basement when I really ought to have been working on starting the railroad.

Will it even work?  Though I'd gotten a good start on modeling some of the railcars of the 19th century (see the The Coal Gondola Page and the The Caboose Page), I still had not yet tried to make useful small steam engines yet.  It looked like (and still looks like) it will be a LOT of work to build the stable of locos I'll need.  But the biggest problem was no guarantee when they got made they would perform as needed to make the dream work -- haul at least 6-8 cars up a 1% grade.  A tall order for tiny engines, I'd been told again and again.  Not to mention getting command control receivers into the little buggers!  And if the locomotives won't pull, any other efforts to build the railroad are simply useless, as I'd never be able to operate it as planned.

Can I build everything that needs to be built?  In my lifetime?  I was pretty sure I could do all of the things that a railroad this size demanded, but there was a real fear that I could be mired in years of modeling, turning out models of boxcars and locomotives and stations and all the other unique things I would need, and in the meantime there would be a lifetime of track laying ahead too, as well as building and scenicking the layout.  While I knew it could be done, I didn't want to be an old man before the first train made it from one end to the other.  Other modelers had shortcuts they can take, like buying freight cars or flextrack to minimize the effort of starting an operating layout, but those options simply were not available to me, if I was to keep true to my druthers.  Looking at the list, it seemed I'd never be finished.

A steamer Leaves Roton Point, which is just east of Wilson's Point.  Similar ships would have served the railroad's passengers.The irritation was palpable, I couldn't seem to get myself  started even though I really wanted to.  Not understanding wat was happening, I started to lose enthusiasm for the project.  At one point I even considered abandoning the 1890's project altogether and modeling the 1940's New York Central High Line in Manhattan.   I did some research and came up with some good ideas on how it could be modeled, but I knew deep down this wasn't the answer, at least not yet.  So I turned to my friends in the Layout Design Special Interest Group for help.  

As I vented my feelings and frustrations to the group, it soon became clear to everyone that I was feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the project, and hesitant to start a very significant undertaking without the confidence that it would really work.   There were many differing opinions on what to do.  Some folks suggested I just bull forward into it, that I should "Build something, even if you tear it out later, nothing is worse than inaction".  I wasn't sure that was right for me.  I put a lot into a model, and I hate to spend precious modeling time on a project I'm not going to be able to use.  Others suggested a change of prototype, or scale, to bring something fresh to the plan.  I'd already been down this road, I had flirted with O scale for a short time before settling on HO as my ideal scale, a cross between having enough layout to operate to my satisfaction and modeling appearance.  Likewise, I'd already looked at a prototype change as noted earlier, and that wasn't the answer either, my heart was still in the Housatonic.  

A stub switch at Promontory Point, UtahA few learned folks suggested, "All right, why not stay with your prototype and scale, just start smaller?  You can pick a small part of your plan, or an area you weren't otherwise going to model, and build a small segment to test all your skills and equipment".  This idea intrigued me, as it confronted me directly into facing my greatest fears, that of getting a large railroad built to 19th century standards - and then be unable to run it.  I thought hard about this idea.  

I decided I could pick an area that wasn't going to require a lot of scenery to keep the structure count low.  I thought about a small town up the line, but what I really like in operations is switching, and a small town wouldn't provide much interest to me.  Besides, I wanted something I could use to try out as many aspects of the full-size railroad plan as I could without building the whole railroad.  It had to provide ample opportunity to practice trackwork, including building switches (especially stub switches).  But I also wanted to try out other potentially difficult elements, such as the carfloat and ferry operations.  This left me with only one real option -- model Wilson Point at South Norwalk, Connecticut, on the southernmost tip of the Housatonic.

This idea really appealed me.  I'd be able to start my railroad as a small to middle sized yard-switching layout.  I'd only need 3-5 engines to start with, and I could use some Rivarossi 4-4-0's as stand-ins until I could develop better, more accurate locomotive models.  I would need a lot of railcars, but not the hundreds I knew I'd need for the complete layout.  I would have a good amount of track and switches to build without the task being overwhelming.  And once I was able to determine if the locos would do the pulling job, I could decide whether to build the whole layout or just stick with the Wilson's Point switching layout as built.  I could even expand it to the South Norwalk area in the future, if desired, without requiring a grade climb while providing an excellent interchange with the New Haven RR.  And if I never get around to building the whole RR, that would be OK too, as long as I was having fun with the Wilson Point layout.

As I thought about this approach, I started to feel a lot better.  Gradually a lot of the things that were bugging me seemed to fall away.  The layout was no longer too big to think about.  I could grasp the enormity of it and think clearly about it without freaking out.  I could get three of foulr locomotives working in time.  I could get or build 30-40 railcars to populate it.  I could make five or six scratch-built structures.  And if it didn't work, well, I'd know I gave it my best effort and could move on to something else with a clear conscience. 

There was just one problem remaining.

Wilson Point was the only part of the layout plan still left undeveloped after three years of planning.  I'd been able to turn up almost nothing on it in all my research.  So the perfect solution remained just out of reach for me.  The frustration continued to mount.  I thought about taking up basket-weaving.

And then, just a short time after that, there was a moment of serendipity.

A website visitor named Joe Smith read my Wilson Point page and saw my plea for more information.  Joe contacted me and offered a copy of a 1909 nautical map, which had some details of what Wilson Point looked like at that time.  I gleefully thanked him and he sent it along in a matter of days.  My excitement turned sour though, when it turned out the map was not well drawn, more representational than accurate, and was some 17 years out of date for the period I modeled.  Still the effort on Joe's part was very much appreciated.  It was the best data found to date, other than scattered pictures in a handful of books, none of which seem to match.

And then a few weeks later, Joe contacted me again.  He had made another discovery at the online archives at the State University of Connecticut (UCONN), and sent me links to similar nautical maps of the area from 1888 and 1896.  Eureka!  The two maps formed a sort of 'Rosetta Stone' of Wilson Point for me, giving me a very accurate view of what the the facility looked like during the end of the Danbury and Norwalk era in 1888, and at the end of the Housatonic era in 1896.  (These maps can be seen by taking the layout tour and bringing up the Wilson's Point page.)  One of the best things about the 1888 map was that it aligned nearly perfectly with the long-distance 1888 photo I had of the same area, which convinced me of their accuracy.

The discovery of these maps meant that I could finally proceed with the Wilson Point switching layout without fear that I might be making a huge design mistake.  The nagging doubt which had been holding me back from starting the layout melted away, and I was finally motivated to begin working on the layout.

The story from this point picks up in the Layout Construction Journal, Volume one, and continues to this day.  If you've read the journal as many have, you'll know that after we got started we never looked back, and today (July 2007) the lower level benchwork is all in, as well as 95% of the trackwork for it, and we've been working on operating the layout since the beginning of 2007.  There were some lucky breaks along the way, such as Bachmann introducing useful 4-6-0 and 4-4-0 locomotives in HO scale, research breakthroughs that revealed key insights about the railroad and the layout, and making many new friends with great modeling skills all helped a great deal. 

To describe how my plans had changed to others I called the process downshifting, which I likened to slowing things down and concentrating on a part of the problem rather than trying to speed along and try to plan everything at once.  It turned out to be a winning strategy for me, and today I have a great layout to show for it, and many new friends, and some old but better friends. 

As I said at the top, it's been very gratifying and loads of fun, but there was a time when all of this was no certain thing, the outcome was highly in doubt, and I thought seriously about abandoning the whole thing before I started.  Today I'm glad I did not abandon it.  If my experience rings a bell with you, I suggest you think about downshifting too, and see if you can't tame your demons by picking a part of your plan and concentrating on doing that.  The rest will come in time, when you have more experience and everything doesn't look quite so daunting anymore.

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