No. 10: Ackley, Iowa – The Prototype

Last week I took one of my daughters for a hike up to Frankenstein Castle in Frankenstein, Germany, which is about 25 minutes from my house. The castle is a ruin and there’s not much to see, but the hike up the mountain is nice.  The ruin is on top of a mountain and a busy rail line between Kaiserslautern and Neustadt tunnels through the mountain. I saw several trains that day; the photo below shows an S-Bahn (local) train about to enter the tunnel.  It’s cool but it’s not Ackley–not even close!


Since I have writing about Ackley I thought I would devote a post to the prototype. I started looking at modeling Ackley in 2006 and sent an e-mail to the M&StL group on Yahoo. Here’s the original post:

“In my never-ending quest to find a suitable town to model, I’m looking at Ackley, Iowa. Ackley has a lot of the simple, small-town elements I’m looking for:

1. Reasonable to model in my space available with additional room for staging on one end)

2. A “typical” Midwestern location (there’s no such thing…but Ackley’s pretty close)

3. An RR crossing at grade (IC RR)

4. An interlocking and/or interlocking tower

5. An interchange track

6. A large industry (the canning plant)

7. Variety of other agricultural industry

8. A neat small-town depot with platform

9. A prototype track arrangement that is modelable, including the ability to model it with integrity in the space available (i.e. all the curves and turnouts in the right places, with curves going the right way, etc.).

Not mentioned in the original e-mail was my desire to model a place that was somewhat “typical” so I could plausibly operate scenarios featuring different railroads. In other words, I wanted to faithfully model a prototype location that—by swapping a station and a signal or two and some lineside structures—could be a suitable stand-in for a Milwaukee Road scenario, or New York Central scenario, or a Seaboard scenario, and so forth.  I think Ackley is both unique enough and generic enough, to serve both purposes.

Another consideration was that I wanted a layout that provided an easy ops session “run by one guy for about an hour”. This is what I call “The Propst Principle” because I first heard it from Clark Propst. According to Clark, “The perfect ops session is one or a couple of guys running about a one-hour ops session.” I like the one-hour rule and Ackley fits right in, and the whole concept helps me plan and build a layout that’s not too big. I’m not modeling Horseshoe Curve, after all.

Richard Hendrickson and I talked about the layout plan back in 2009 as I was moving back to Illinois and preparing to build the previous version of my layout in our new house. He said virtually the same thing Clark said:

“Let me offer you some unsolicited advice (doubtless worth exactly what you’re paying for it) about layout building.  I love realistic steam era operations – timetables, train orders, station agents, a dispatcher, the whole megilla.  But you can only get it on a huge layout like Tehachapi Pass in San Diego or Bill Darnaby’s in suburban Chicago, both of which I get to help run from time to time.  From an operations point of view, home layouts are almost never large enough the be realistic, and club layouts (Tehachapi being a notable exception) tend to be phony and incoherent, as it seems the members can never agree on a single prototype railroad or a specific era to model.  Given very limited space (hardly anyone has a big basement in the far west) plus the difficulty of rounding up several qualified operators who are all available at the same time, I decided a long time ago to follow the British practice of modeling a single scene to scale with a big hidden staging yard – a train-watcher’s layout, in short.  You give up running way freights and such (though you can have lots of switching if you model an industrial area, as Keith Jordan has done in suburban Kansas City) but it’s a great way to show off rolling stock, and one person can operate it.  A single well-chosen scene through which lots of trains come and go can be very appealing, and you can superdetail the hell out of it because you don’t have to have acres of scenery.  YMMV, but give it some thought.” – Richard Hendrickson

Included below are some photos and documents to help orient you to the town and how the layout will be built.  In my opinion Ackley has everything without having everything.

Copy of Ackley 2

The photo above shows Ackley around 1968. The depot is still in place and the new concrete grain elevator built in 1957 is prominent. I am modeling 1950 and at that time a wood elevator stood in its place. Marshal Canning, an important seasonal shipper, is partially visible at the top left, along with all the other small industries in the center of town. The important IC crossing and interchange connection is at the bottom right. I have made the point in several clinics that it looks like a small town but there is a lot here to occupy the time of the operator.  Photo courtesy of Gene Green.


Above.  Here again for reference is the Ackley drawing from the M&StL archives held by Gene Green. You can see clearly that the depot siding was to be taken up around 1940, but I will include it on my layout. You can also get an idea of the customers served by the railroad.

200 Ackley IA Depot 2

Here is a good photo of the Ackley depot while the line was still in M&StL control. It was a unique brick depot with a lighted train order signal. The depot was about 94 feet long and 25 feet wide. No known plans exist for accurate modeling.  Photographer unknown, courtesy Doug Harding.

Barriger Ackley Photo - Cropped

This Barriger Library photo, looking south from the IC crossing, shows the interlocking tower circa 1938. It was removed in 1942-43 when the crossing was automated. The cut of cars in the back left are on the IC-M&StL transfer track.  This photo is used with permission of the Barriger National Railroad Library.

Ackley Looking north from Jct

Above. Doug Harding visited Ackley in 2011 and took a number of photos, including this one looking north at the IC crossing.  CNW and later UP have chased all the business away.  In this photo the elevator is still in place but the depot is gone. Today all the tracks have been removed.  Doug Harding photo.

M&StL Industries (1936)  #   1a

Above. This list of industries shows the customers served at Ackley but does not include the biggest traffic generator, which was the interchange with the Illinois Central. Decker, a meat producer in Mason City, would typically ship 5-to 15 meat refrigerators every evening to Ackley for delivery to the IC.  Both carriers would exchange a variety of other cars at the transfer as well.  Gene Green collection.

A mountain of information on these customers is still available and that will be posted over time, along with operations scenarios, plus lessons learned from my last Ackley layout.

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