Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Fresh Start

                      My CP&StL equipment will soon be operating on a new layout.

The model railroad that I was building and (somewhat sporadically) chronicling in this blog is no more.  A new layout rises in its place, and I hope to share my progress with you all in the months ahead.

There wasn't a single reason for starting over, but several.  I wanted to both add and simplify the wiring system and improve the layout lighting.  As I explain below, I also wanted a little more diversity in the traffic I had on the railroad -- to look more like the photo friend Frank Hodina took that I have posted again above.  But, more than anything, I had taken the concept about as far as I could, and with empty nesterdom looming, it seemed like time for a fresh start.

I have a lot invested in equipment for my freelanced version of the Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Railway, and as the railroad came down, I began by considering whether I wanted to make a complete break and model something different.

To be honest, if you read the model railroad hobby press with regularity, it is hard to escape the conclusion that freelancing – that is, modeling a fictitious railroad -- is increasingly passé.  That’s a fairly recent development in the hobby.   As recently as twenty years ago when I began planning a new layout in the basement of our then new home, a number of the most respected model railroads in the hobby were freelanced, including W. Allen McClelland’s Virginian & Ohio (which, at least in the modern era of the hobby, probably stated it all), Tony Koester’s Allegheny Midland, David Barrow’s Cat Mountain and Santa Fe, Bill Darnaby’s Maumee Route, and Eric Brooman’s Utah Belt.  It’s telling that today two of those iconic freelanced model railroads have been replaced by their builders with layouts that faithfully follow specific prototypes.  They have joined modelers like Jack Burgess, Lance Mindheim, Bob Rivard and James McNab who have likewise chosen to model prototype railroads to a high degree of fidelity.  

I suspect freelancing has waned for a couple of reasons.  First, as manufacturers began producing far more accurate models of prototype equipment during the 1990s, modeling a specific prototype railroad accurately no longer required scratch building, making it a much more manageable undertaking for more modelers.  Today, countless kits are available that not only match specific prototypes in great detail, a number of these models are even available ready to run – the modeler need only add some weathering and place the equipment on the layout.  

In addition to the boom in the production of high fidelity models, over the last twenty years historical societies and interested individuals started using the new technology of the Internet to post photos, maps and other railroad data online, making it far easier for modelers to research and obtain the necessary information they needed to accurately model prototype railroads, and, just as importantly, to easily communicate with other individuals all over the world with similar interests.

While the trend towards modeling prototype railroads shows no signs of slowing, there are still good reasons to model a freelanced railroad, particularly for those of us who are interested in smaller railroads that operated in very specific places and times where the number of suitable models is still limited and the information available is still imperfect. 

Which is where the story of my new layout really begins. 

I have long been interested in steam era railroading in Illinois, more specifically the line between Madison (outside of St. Louis) and Litchfield (south of the capital in Springfield) during the 1950s – a stretch of track that was operated by a number of different railroads over the years.  The corporate history is complicated, but the executive summary is that this section of mainline was built by the Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Railway in 1889 - 1890 as the last segment of its route from Peoria to St. Louis.  Unfortunately, the financial panic of 1893 triggered an economic depression, and the original CP&StL drown in a sea of red ink.  

In 1900, the bankrupt CP&StL was sold to another group of railroad investors who already had their own mainline from St. Louis to Springfield.  The new owners were interested in the northern trackage of the CP&StL between Springfield and Peoria and preferred the “Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis” name, but the southern portion of the railroad was surplus to their needs.  Accordingly, in 1900, the new owners transferred the southern operation of the CP&StL to a new subsidiary, which they named the Litchfield and Madison Railway, and then they went looking for someone to buy it.  It took them over four years to accomplish it, but finally the L&M was sold to a group of investors led by the rather notorious John R. Walsh, who was later imprisoned for bank fraud.   And so, in late 1904, the L&M and the reorganized CP&StL went their separate ways.

The Litchfield & Madison soldiered on for over five decades from 1904 until it was purchased by the Chicago & Northwestern in 1958, and in many respects, it was a very interesting railroad.  With every new layout that I have built based on this stretch of railroad right of way – this is my third – my friend Frank Hodina has suggested that I might be well served to simply model the L&M outright, and I seriously considered doing so before I started construction on the present layout, but it’s easier said than done.   The L&M 2-8-2 Mikados featured low 55” drivers, and while I think Frank may have figured out a way to create a passable model of an L&M Mike from a Southern Pacific MK-10 (the ex-Minarets & Western Mikados built by Alco in 1923 that look very similar to the L&M Mikados also built by Alco that year), it’s not an easy or cheap conversion and it still involves a number of visual compromises.  Building a small fleet of brass bashed L&M Mikes using this technique still seems a daunting task.  The same is true of much of the rest of the L&M’s equipment roster during the steam era.  Over time, Frank and I have figured out ways to do it, and InterMountain now even makes a very nice model of an AAR Alternate Standard L&M twin hopper, but the cost and time to assemble a representative roster has always seemed more trouble than it’s worth.

Still, if the only obstacle to modeling the L&M was getting suitable equipment, I probably would have gone ahead and become a prototype modeler, scaling back the size of the layout and, in the process, the equipment that I would need to operate it, but there are other obstacles too.  Part of the charm of the L&M is that it wasn’t very big – the mainline was just under 45 miles long and included only four intermediate towns that required depots:  Mt. Olive, Staunton, Worden and Edwardsville. Unfortunately, it’s small stature means that photos of depots and other railroad buildings along the L&M are rare.  It’s not easy to make even a semi-educated guess as to what these structures looked like, let alone reproduce accurate paint schemes for them.   Even after two decades of hunting, I just don’t have much data to go by, no matter what era that I might choose to model the L&M.  Of course, I could just use common kits as stand ins, but if neither the equipment nor the structures are accurate, would simply slapping L&M lettering on a readily available model really constitute prototype modeling?  To me, it wouldn’t.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while I wanted to keep the coal traffic on the southern portion of the line that was so important operationally to the railroad (both prototype and model), I also wanted more diversity.  Outside of the United States Radiator plant at Edwardsville, the L&M didn’t have much online business apart from the coal mines located along the line.  To supplement its coal traffic, the L&M moved a lot of bridge traffic to and from the C&NW interchange at Benld, but as the mines closed and the L&M became more and more dependent on this bridge traffic, the C&NW in turn exerted more and more control over L&M operations.  C&NW trains began running behind C&NW locomotives over the line in 1949, and within a decade, the L&M was no more.  To model the L&M in the 1950s was, in effect, to model the C&NW and a couple of L&M coal trains running behind the railroad’s trio of RS-3s, memorializing a time when the railroad was dying a slow death.  It just wasn’t what I wanted.

What I did (and do) envision is a layout featuring not only the Wabash interchange where the L&M delivered much of its coal – a single mine owned by the L&M supplied all of the coal needed to power the Ann Arbor Ferry Boats that operated on Lake Michigan – but also a layout that includes a couple of small farming communities so common to Illinois that were served by a small class one railroad under steam power during the early 1950s. To accomplish this, on this layout, like the previous two, I decided that I will continue to model not the L&M, but it’s parent the CP&StL, and explore what it might have looked like had the railroad survived in some truncated form until the 1950s – an alternate reality form of “what if?” freelancing. In effect, I am re-writing history so that the owners of the L&M not only got the track and equipment, but the CP&StL name and the line from Litchfield to Springfield as well.

I'll pick up the story from there in my next entry.

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