The Layout Concept – Penn Central’s CASO (Sort of)

I recently placed an order for some New York Central decals (along with some other stuff) with Tim at Action Hobbies Kingsville.  By the way Tim, the courier delivered the parcel today.  Noticing that I’ve been buying a number of NYC/PC items over the past year, and knowing my interest in the railways of Niagara, Tim asked me if I was planning to build a layout based on the Canada Southern Railway (CASO).   The abridged version of my response to Tim was: “No. Well actually, yes.  Sort of.”  While composing a better answer for Tim, I decided that I should make it a priority to write a post about the layout that I’ve already started to build (sort of).  I’m finally getting around to that now.

What era am I modelling?

I could write a great deal about choosing a suitable era to model, and anyone reading the sub-title of this blog can deduce that I’m most interested in railroading from the 1970s, but it’s convenient to define my era by period of time when Penn Central existed.  I love images of trains from the entire sweep of that decade, but there was a great deal of change that took place over those ten years.  I imagine the 1970s as two distinct periods: everything that existed before April 1, 1976, and everything after.  To me, the period of time before the commencement of Conrail is distinctly different.

Without getting into too much detail, I can say that if I tried to depict a train from 1975, and that train showed up on my layout hauling a Conrail boxcar, I’d feel like my efforts fell short of being reasonable.  I’m not rigidly dogmatic about this kind of thing.  I think I could be comfortable with a certain amount of flux in the space/time continuum.  For instance, I could probably accept having a boxcar that was scrapped in 1973 pulled by a locomotive that was delivered from the builder in 1975.  But I can’t be comfortable with the Conrail logo showing up on a layout that is attempting to depict a Penn Central train from before 1976.  So, the “Penn Central era” is the best descriptor of the time period I’m modelling.


What location and railway does the layout depict?

In a way, Tim was correct in guessing that I was working on an HO scale version of the CASO.  Before I proceed, I should mention that anyone looking for a proper and thorough explanation of the CASO should see Terry Link’s website about the Canada Southern Railway. Basically, the CASO can be described as a short-cut through Ontario for east-west traffic moving on the NYC between the international gateways at Buffalo and Detroit.  Again, I defer to Terry Link’s website for a map that shows the CASO route and a proper treatment of its history.

I was searching for a way to model the CASO and the TH&B. The locations that I scouted didn’t appeal to me.  Waterford definitely had promise, but there were some challenges around fitting such a large bridge in my small space.  Plus there were no industries to switch.  Looking further east, the area around the TH&B Welland Yard is just plain creepy.  The “scenery” is best described as an alienating wasteland of massive and jarring non-sequiturs – decidedly not the effect I’m looking for in a model railroad.

East of Welland, the CASO split into two routes.  In the most general terms, the southerly route took trains between Welland the Fort Erie / Buffalo gateway.  The northerly route provided a connection to the gateway between Niagara Falls Ontario and Niagara Falls New York, called Suspension Bridge.  The TH&B and CASO trains used the gateway at Suspension Bridge in the 1970s, and this area doesn’t have that same vast, human-sculpted landscape of the Welland area.  This routing always seemed illogical to me because the CASO and TH&B trains used Frontier Yard in Buffalo as a terminal.  The route through Fort Erie was shorter and more direct, but for a number or reasons I’ll get into in a later post, the Niagara Falls gateway was the one they used.

CASO and TH&B trains used the former NYC Niagara Branch to travel between Suspension Bridge and Frontier Yard.  The other interesting thing about this area is that the there were also Erie and Lehigh Valley yards at Niagara Falls.  The Erie got into Niagara Falls by way of their own branch line from Buffalo, and the LV got there using a combination of their own branch and trackage rights over the NYC.  Careful examination of maps, track charts, and a few local history sources lead me to conclude that that Town of North Tonawanda was a pretty interesting place during the Penn Central era.  The map below provides an overview of the whole area.  North Tonawanda is about in the middle of the map, 1/3 of the way up from the bottom.  Suspension Bridge on the map is Niagara Falls New York.  The big island is Grand Island New York.
North Tonawanda through lines copyNotice that in the Town of North Tonawanda, the Erie Lackawanna (bold dashed line) and Penn Central (solid line) are virtually beside each other.  The Lehigh Valley went through town on the PC, but picked up their own branch (dotted line) south of the Erie Canal.  Someone standing trackside in the town of North Tonawanda during the Penn Central era would see the following rail traffic:

  • Penn Central transfer/local trains between Niagara Falls and Buffalo
  • Penn Central through trains operating between the CASO and Buffalo (and points beyond)
  • TH&B/PC jointly operated trains FT-1 and TF-2
  • C&O trains operating between their Canadian District and Buffalo
  • Lehigh Valley trains from Sayre and beyond
  • Lehigh Valley transfer/local trains between Niagara Falls and Tifft Terminal in Buffalo
  • EL switcher based in North Tonawnada for the local industries.
  • Two PC switchers based in North Tonawanda for the local industries.

To make matters even more interesting, International Paper had a plant on Tonawanda Island.  Penn Central operated a small yard in North Tonawanda to handle local traffic on the Niagara Branch and the line out to Lockport.  Tonawanda Iron and Steel produced merchant pig iron in a relatively small, one-furnace facility across the road from the ex-NYC yard.  There was also an assortment of small to medium sized industries flanking both the PC and the EL, which ran virtually beside each other through town.

The possibility of modelling my favourite American fallen flags and two Canadian operations sealed the deal for me. I’ve decided that I’m going to try to model a slightly compressed version of about two miles of the former NYC Niagara Branch, roughly between the Erie Barge Canal and the border with the town of Wheatfield.  I’ll post a schematic drawing once I get some time to scan it.  Basically, layout operating sessions will be based around the small PC yard in North Tonawanda, with local switching to some online industries and a branch that goes to International Paper.

My plan is to build the layout in achievable chunks.  The first piece is will be a switching layout depicting the International Paper plant.  After that, I’ll build the PC yard in North Tonawanda and some local industries, depicting about a mile of track right in town.  Finally, I’ll model another mile of track on the north side of town where the PC and EL ran side-by-side.  This area also includes some online industries, including Tonawanda Iron and Steel which was switched by the EL.

I’ve already started on the first phase, but I’ll post on that next time.

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