I am often asked why I am modeling a little town in the middle of Iowa when there are so many other great places to model.
The answer is simple, but the process to get to that answer was not.
When I retired from the military, I bought a house with a basement and all the trimmings and was planning on building a medium sized Seaboard Air Line-theme layout. However, I started a second career and still had kids at home, and life was busier than ever. I didn’t expect to have the time or resources to devote to building a large layout.
So, I paused for a while and asked myself some tough questions about where I want to go with my hobby. Here are the three big questions:
- What do I enjoy about the hobby?
- What do I want a want a layout for?
- What do I want to model?
What Do I Enjoy About the Hobby?
- I am a model builder.
- I primarily enjoy freight car building, prototype research, signaling, track study, and writing articles.
- I enjoy re-creating a railroad system but desire an uncomplicated setting.
Lots of cars on the workbench–just the way I like it.
WHAT DO I WANT A LAYOUT FOR?
This is a simple question but I’ve gotta tell ya, I think a lot of folks embark on huge layout projects without ever asking themselves the basics. That’s one reason why so many unfinished layouts end up in the landfill. After some soul-searching here’s what I came up with:
- I want a layout to display and operate freight cars
- I want a place to operate a railroad prototypically
- I want to provide a fun learning environment for the family
- I want to provide a spot for small ops sessions, social gatherings
- I do not desire a large layout, nor do I want to host large ops sessions monthly and manage that process
The answers to these questions pointed me at modeling something small. A large layout is a space, time, money, and life eater. This rules out modeling the SAL Virginia Division, or Horseshow Curve. Small fits my lifestyle.
What Do I Want to Model?
I have the same affliction you may have: I want to model half the railroads in the U.S. I was able to narrow my focus to 11 or 12 favorite railroads. It is impossible to model anything like that on a small layout, so I needed to develop a methodology, or a framework, to narrow things down further.
To guide me through this process I developed a list of Givens and Druthers, John Armstrong-style. It was here that I had to decide what I really, really wanted. Here are the original answers to the question “What is it that I really want to model?”
- Small town setting
- Single track main
- Main track is secondary main or branch line in operation/appearance
- No CTC
- Interlocked junction with interchange
- Balance of typical industry
- Classic railroad architecture
- Typical Midwestern geographical setting
- A generic setting would provide some opportunity for additional operating scenarios…
- Simple layout, simple operating session
I don’t necessarily want a city layout, or a coal-hauler. I prefer a small town setting. I have always thought the heart of American railroading was the small town depot, featuring a friendly agent, a clicking telegraph and nicely-paced train operations. And the American Midwest is about as typical as it gets. Small town railroading in a generic American place like Iowa, Illinois, Indiana or Ohio.
Now I have a purpose. Now I know what kind of layout I want…
…which helped me narrow it down to a region…
…which helped me narrow it down to a few prototypes…
…which helped me narrow it down to the right place.
A northbound SAL local train, circa 1965, northbound at Denmark, South Carolina. Denmark was a good place to consider for a generic layout. Two crossings (Southern and ACL secondary lines), a little bit of lineside industry, and a good ops scenario. Bill McCoy photo.
The concept of modeling a generic location remained an important consideration. I felt if I could find a place that had some typical features then I might be able to change out a station and a few key structures and operate other equipment in a plausible setting. I found that idea very appealing. Every railroad has at least one small town, or a hundred. PRR and NYC had thousands. With the quick change of a station and a few signals I could run a Seaboard, or New York Central, or PRR, or other scenario which would make the layout versatile and dynamic.
In other words if I’m modeling Horseshoe Curve, all that layout can ever be is Horseshoe Curve. A small town layout in a somewhat generic setting can represent a thousand places—almost anywhere.
A Belleville Electric westbound in Belleville, Illinois. A neat operation, but certainly not typical. Photo courtesy John Carty.
The next step was to find the perfect location. I started by pouring through photos in books and doing a lot of online railfanning on Google Earth. I followed lines to junctions and small towns and studied them. This ruled out about 99% of the locations for one reason or another. Again, I was looking for typical, so if a place had something that was non-typical—like a three-way crossing or one particular industry—I ruled it out. If the place looked more appealing I’d find Sanborn maps and order vintage aerial photography from the USDA. I joined internet groups and asked questions.
After a long process of elimination I settled on about 20 locations. The top few included:
- Hampton, Iowa (M&StL)
- Chaska, Minnesota (M&StL)
- Gowrie, Iowa (M&StL)
- Rushville, Indiana (B&O or NYC)
- Petersburg, Virginia (SAL Rwy)
- Cordele, Georgia (SAL Rwy)
- New Hampton, Iowa (Milwaukee Road)
- Edinburgh, Indiana (PRR)
- Franklin, Indiana (PRR)
- Farmington, Minnesota (Milwaukee Road)
- New Prague, Minnesota (M&StL)
- Vidalia, GA (SAL Rwy)
Most of these locations had junctions, industry, interchange, and were located in sort of typical areas. Rushville was a particular favorite (interchange of B&O, NKP, PRR and NYC, with Erie RR running on the B&O), but Rushville wasn’t quite typical. Another favorite was Gowrie, Iowa (pictures below) but I didn’t think the junction—over two railroads, one of which was an electric—was typical enough to suit a setting on the Seaboard or the Milwaukee Road, for example.
Here is Gowrie Circa 1955. The M&StL main track runs north-south through the center of the photo. At the bottom right are CNW and FtDDM&S crossings. There was an interlocking tower, water tower, cool depot, and a couple of elevators and agricultural customers. A great location, but not quite typical.
I kept coming back to this little place called Ackley, on one of my all-time favorite railroads, the Minneapolis and St. Louis. Ackley had most of the essential elements I desired, including a typical Midwestern track arrangement with a secondary main line, an interlocked crossing at grade (with the Illinois Central RR), a mix of typical Midwestern agricultural industries, and an interesting small-town depot with a brick platform and an around-the-clock agent-operator. The right-of-way also included typical lineside structures and a water tank, and there was a large plant and several additional industrial sidings off the main line. To make things easy, the most of the rail-served industries were located on one side of the main track, which I could place along a backdrop on a model layout. The location featured no wyes, roundhouses, or complicated trackwork, which I felt was a positive feature. And I felt I could model the town and operate it realistically in anywhere from 15 feet or 50 feet, depending on the available space.
Ackley, Iowa. Small, but just about right.
The wide selection of in-town industries provides an opportunity to use most of my freight cars, and the interchange with the IC (called a “transfer” on the M&StL) would allow me to use virtually any car, making it a “universal industry.” Modeling the town in late August or early September 1950 would provide ideal operating conditions since the town’s main employer – a canning plant located on the M&StL main line – was in full operation canning corn after the harvest. The grain elevator and stock pen would be alive as well.
Getting to Ackley was hard, but taking a process-approach helped me realistically rule out a lot of places that wouldn’t fit the prototype vs. generic construct.