Hiding the End of the World

The priorities I had in mind when I designed my layout were these:

  1. Operations
  2. A stage upon which I can photograph my models.
  3. Large enough to create the impression of a large industry.
  4. Small enough that I can build it, given my limited leisure time.
  5. Easily expandable if things go well.

With these priorities in mind, I chose at 12 foot wall next to a crawl space in my basement, and I think things are going well so far. I’m modelling a small, somewhat outdated and specialized paper plant the produces high quality fine papers. But even in 12 feet, I had to give up many parts of the factory, and fudge others, in order to make it work. Part of the fudging involved two long staging tracks that represent the woodchip unloader and a place to unload a number of different liquid raw materials. I put these under the crawl space at one end of the layout.

It was a challenge to deal with making the transition between on-stage and off-stage less obvious. I couldn’t completely conceal the transition, but I’ve placed buildings in such a way as to make it less obvious.

In the photo below, PC 9574 is arriving at the plant and coming on-stage from a staging track that will eventually connect to the modelled portion of North Tonawanda yard. For now, I back trains onto the staging track before an operating session. The building in the foreground was placed to make it difficult to see the hole in the sky where the train comes on scene. The dashed green line shows the bottom of the wall, which doubles as the sky backdrop.

In the foreground of the photo below, the closest track goes to the woodchip unloader, which is completely off-stage. The second track is where tank cars are unloaded. I’ve sketched the outline of a building that I haven’t placed into the scene yet. The idea is that it will help to conceal where these two tracks slip off the edge of the world. At least, that’s the plan.

Foreground building

Layout Concept Drawing: North Tonawanda New York

I’ve finished framing the walls in my layout space and I’ll be starting the preparations for the suspended ceiling very soon. Over the past weeks, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the basement, planning and pondering the different ways to approach building this layout.

The overall concept has been crystalizing as the room started coming together.  It’s been sorting itself out in my head, and I have nearly a dozen pages of scribbles and doodles in my layout file folder, but there hasn’t any pencil-on-paper design work until now.  In fact, most of my efforts since about February have been focused on research, which has been much fun.

The place and era for my layout came to me long after I sorted out some other things.  I wanted a layout that I could operate on my own, one that I could actually achieve with my time and ability.  I also wanted a design that was open-ended so that I could continue to dream of bigger things, if I so desired.  I would have settled for anything that involved TH&B, Canada Southern, Lehigh Valley, or Erie Lackawanna.  Lots of good options came up that offered me one or two of those, but when I discovered that I could have all four (plus more) if I modelled North Tonawanda, the choice was obvious.  You can see an overview map in my previous post about this concept from last year.

Last winter, I jumped headlong into building some benchwork, and by spring I had laid out the ties and some building mock-ups for International Paper’s plant at North Tonawanda.  This would satisfy my immediate goals of having a switching layout that I can operate on my own.  I plan to build the town of North Tonawanda along the wall across the aisle from the paper plant.  After researching and doing two field trips, I came up with a way to model Penn Central’s pocket yard and the Niagara Branch that ran through it.

Below is a concept drawing of what the basic track geometry will be.  I’ve had to move some things around from the prototype, but I think this overall concept will depict the place and time quite well.  What I’ve drawn below the represents the majority of Penn Central’s operations in town, which includes the International Paper plant, the yard, a place to stage trains for the Lockport Branch, and a few of PC’s customers around the yard.  This represents about a third of the full space that I could eventually use for the rest of the layout.  Keep in mind that, while this was drawn to scale, it should be understood as conceptual, which means that things will still move around some.  I noticed that a few things are out of proportion (like track spacing at the top of the drawing, and the width of the roadways), but turnouts and curves are generally to scale will fit into the space, with some fine tuning.

layout schematic1 copyThis is how I envision operating the layout.  Through trains would operate between staging that represents Penn Central’s Niagara Falls yard (above the drawing) and staging that represents Frontier Yard in Buffalo (on a shelf below the town of North Tonawanda).  Those through trains would be PC, TH&B, and LV.  Some of them would lift or set out cars at North Tonawanda yard, but most just roll through.  Also, there are two local train crews that work from the yard.  The Island Crew works the paper plant, and the Mainland Crew works the industries around the yard, and they run up the Lockport Branch as needed.

I could operate any of those tasks in sequence on my own so that the events of an entire day might require a number of short operating sessions.  If I have a guest, we would step through the various jobs, one at a time, though working the paper plant might be enough work to keep one person occupied for an entire operating session.

The Mainland job could start the operating session by coming off of the Lockport Branch with a few cars that have been pre-staged.  Work would involve bringing the short train into the yard, working the industries around the yard, and preparing lifts and sorting set-outs related to the mainline trains.  The session would end with the Mainland job heading up the Lockport Branch with cars for some or all of the industries there, which included Durez (Hooker Chemical), National Grinding Wheel, and Wurlitzer. I’m still working out the details, but that’s the overall scheme.

Lastly, my vision for the area beyond the top of the drawing is to focus on the EL Niagara Falls Branch as it ran through North Tonawanda, and parallel to the Penn Central.  EL worked their tiny yard from the north end of town because there were no grade crossings to deal with.  EL customers in North Tonawanda included Roblin Steel, Tonawanda Iron & Steel, Art Gromart Lumber Co., Recreational Warehouse, and Ashland Oil.  The EL ran a Day Falls Turn and a Night Falls Turn between their yards in Niagara Falls and Buffalo.  C&O had trackage rights from their Canadian Division into Buffalo across the EL, so there is the possibility of modelling another pair of through trains during each session, if I expand the layout to include the EL.

My hope is that my plan provides me with a layout that I can achieve, and one that will be fun to operate on my own or with a guest.  It also provides the opportunity to expand out, in the event that I actually “finish” the part I’ve shown in the drawing and somehow summon the motivation.

The Rest of the Wall

Earlier this week, I wrote about the first short section of wall that I framed in my layout space.  Today, I finished the rest of the same wall, up to the corner of room.

Unfortunately, I had to put a very small jog in the wall because of the way that the builder installed the utilities.  I considered re-routing all of the offending utilities so that the finished wall could be a few inches closer to the foundation, but ultimately, this proved to be beyond the scope of my skills, and I simply couldn’t justify paying someone to do all of this work.  The jog of about 4″ is a trade-off I’m choosing to live with.

I’ve included two photos of the nearly finished wall, taken from both either end of the room.  Total length is 34 feet.  In the first photo, the shelf at the far end of the room on the right is the paper plant.  Immediately across from the paper plant, I’ll build the Penn Central North Tonawanda yard.  The Erie Lackawanna Niagara Falls Branch will run just behind the PC yard, tight against the backdrop, and hidden by trees and buildings.




The photo below shows the same wall from the opposite end of the room.  In the foreground on the left is the benchwork for the International Paper plant.  The PC North Tonawanda yard will be in the foreground on the right and will run nearly half the length of the wall.  About a third of the way along the wall, the Erie Lackawanna branch will emerge from behind the buildings and trees and run parallel to the PC.  EL had a long siding and a service track that I’ll model at the far end of the room.   I could operate the layout quite nicely with just that much of the system modelled.  If I get ambitious, I could continue around the corner at the end of the room.  One step at a time though.



IMG_3063The whole space is in disarray right now.  As soon as I finish off the jog in the middle of the wall, I can start putting things back together.  I’m surprised I was able to do the framing on my own.  Good tools make all the difference, and for this larger framing project I was able to borrow the necessary tools from two different Pauls.  Thanks guys.

I needed at least 8 feet of wall to build at least the first part of the North Tonawanda yard.  With that much in place, I could create a layout that operates between the paper plant and the yard.  The rest of my scheme could be entirely omitted and the layout would still function fine without it.   I’ve come up with a plan for a layout that can grow in proportion to my ambition.  You’ll be able to see for yourself how far I can take it.

Research Field Trip

Last weekend, I took a road trip across the border to do some research for my layout.  I’ve spent a crazy amount of time digging through Doug Kroll’s website called RR-Road Trip while researching the North Tonawanda locale for the home layout I’m building.  I decided it was time to actually meet the man.

Doug was kind enough to spend last Sunday afternoon driving me around North Tonawanda.  He took me to all of the places that are crucial to my layout’s theme.  Each time we stopped the car, he provided anecdotal recollections, all the while referring to maps and photos that he took in the 1970s.  I asked plenty of questions and took ample notes.  I feel much better positioned to move ahead with the layout, now that I have more detailed insight to the operational patterns and physical layout of the place.

It rained the whole time we toured around town, so I didn’t bother trying to take photos.  I’ll be going back some time in July so that I can grab some shots of the key buildings in town.  There are few structures still standing, but I’ll take what I can get.  In the meantime, here’s photo that Doug Kroll posted to RailPictures.Net which depicts a scene I hope to recreate.   A trio of St. Thomas-based GMD geeps rolls through North Tonawanda on July 21, 1974.  One I’ve acquired another Genesis GP9, I’ll get to work on building a representation of this lashup.  With Doug’s help, I hope to get the scene right too.



Layout Progress – Track Plan and Ties

I was able to start laying track for my industrial layout.  I’ve put down all of the ties on half of the layout, and most of the ties on the other half.   The track plan is the result of many hours examining topographic maps and aerial photos of the International Paper plant that once existed on Tonawanda Island NY.  A paper plant is a pretty difficult thing to try to squeeze onto a 12-foot long shelf, but I’ve moved ahead with my plan.  If it doesn’t work out, I’ll take a chainsaw to it and burn it on a camping trip.

In the photo below, you’ll see I’ve built an a siding for a building flat to represent the warehouse-end of the mill.  The lead will hold about 4 50′ boxcars, but I might designate two spots for loading and two for empty cars ready to be moved to the loading spots.

IMG_0217The track next to the shipping track will be a storage track, and it holds about 4 50′ boxcars as well.  I anticipate using that track to get cars out of the way for switching moves, and for short-term storage of empties ready to be spotted for loading.  Alternatively, I could run this area like a mini-freight shed, with loading going through the cars on the track nearest the building into the cars on the far side.   The aerial photos show that there might have been such an arrangement at the mill.

The next track out from the backdrop is the “main” into the plant.  The tail track from the runaround siding is in the foreground.  The runaround will easily hold five 50′ boxcars and a caboose.  Penn Central assigned a crew to switch the plant and some other industries in North Tonawanda, and they typically rated an Alco S2 and a caboose.

The track closest to the edge of the benchwork is for unloading coal destined for the power house. This track also runs off the edge of the layout, suggesting that it leads to the actual storage pile and unloading equipment.  The lead will be able to hold three 50′ cars, but will likely only see two hoppers spotted there at a time.  The plant consumed around 150 tons of coal per day, but they had a huge stockpile on the south side of the plant. I’ll model the edge of the pile next to this lead.

Off in the distance, at the far end of the layout, the leads for woodchips and tank car unloading will come off the runaround track on the left.  Those leads will disappear into staging in the midst of some buildings and the digester tanks.  Those will probably accomodate three tank cars and four or five woodchip cars. The “main” snakes its way around the white cardboard box, which is coincidentally positioned approximately where the paper machine building will be located.  That building will have spots for boxcars of inbound stuff.   And that’s everything I’m able to fit.