No. 145: Milwaukee Road’s Mason City Freight House

In the beginning of August I took my family away to the Solk Pass, Styria, Austria, for a quiet mountain getaway.  We rented a little cabin literally in the middle of nowhere and hiked the weekend away.  It was wonderfully relaxing.


Right out of our cabin we hiked to several mountain lakes.  This is the Kaltenbachsee, which translates to “cold river”.  The hiking was rugged, the lakes were beautiful, the water ice cold.  The kids are taking it easy after a two-hour, uphill-all-the-way hike.


On our last day we drove to the nearby village of St. Nikoli and hiked six miles to another mountain lake called “Hohensee”, which translated means the High Sea.  Elevation was around 3,000 meters, or about 10,000 feet.  It was stunning–the best hike I’ve ever taken.  Below, the kids are heading down to the lake for a dip.


The nearest railroad was about 12 miles away.  I was able to stop briefly and caught a meet between a passenger train, at left, and a work train.  The passenger train took the station siding and slowed to a crawl while the work train–seen heading at us in the distance–sped by.  Unfortunately I had to shoot into the sun and this was the best photo I got.


The Freight House

I’ve been thinking about a building a small, city-themed switching layout for years.  I laid out a concept plan for the Milwaukee Road’s Mason City downtown branch in a previous post, which can be found at

In the last year or two I’ve been kicking around ideas for two very small layouts, one of which I call The Freight House and the other which I call The Factory.  Inspiration comes from, among other places, Chris Nevard in England.  I’ve mentioned Chris’s work before before.  I highly recommend a tour of his Flickr and Blog sites as they are full of great ideas and outstanding modeling.  Here’s a link:

Below.  Here’s a snap of one of Chris’s layouts, Fountain Colliery, used with permission.  This is a small layout with enough potential to keep you switching cars for an hour or so.  It is the inspiration for The Freight House.


My thoughts on The Freight House are an 8 x 2-foot, city-themed layout with a large railroad freight house as the centerpiece and a few supporting industries filling in the spaces.  An eight-foot staging “tail” is also essential.  Here are a few places I have considered:
1.  The Seaboard Air Line freight house in Savannah, Georgia.  I grew up in Savannah and know this area well.  The SAL freight house is at center, below, and there are a number of other small customers on the SAL tracks on the left.  Just enough for a small, balanced layout.

2.  The Illinois Central freight house in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  The freight house and a few other nearby industries, turning off the main IC artery through town, is a strong candidate.  Interchanges with NYC, Illinois Terminal and Wabash are at the top of the photo.  Another good candidate is the still-standing IC freight house complex in nearby Decatur, Illinois.

IMG_1972 (1)

3.  This is the B&O depot and freight house complex in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Freight houses, a heavy transfer crane, some industries, and REA traffic (switching passenger-express cars?) would make a fun and different little layout.  This is too big to model in 8 x 2, but double the size and it’d be a great layout.


4.  Finally, the Central of Georgia terminal in Savannah, Georgia, just across the canal from the SAL freight house (which can be seen in the background).  The large Central freight houses, with a dozen tracks for box cars, reefers and vents, and other tracks for coal, sand and lumber dealers, would make an awesome terminal layout.


Below is the image Clark Propst provided of the Milwaukee Road Mason City freight house, circa 1948.  The freight house is the center piece, but there are other industries all over the place that could be included.  This is my favorite candidate for The Freight House but the problem is I haven’t been able to lay out a track plan that is modelable while maintaining the  prototype track configuration.

The Problem:

The Problem with planning this layout isn’t necessarily the layout.  It is what I want that is the problem.  The Givens and Druthers that John Armstrong made famous.  

I want a small layout that features everything in 8 x 2: The Freight House, plus supporting industries that require the use of flats, covered hoppers, gondolas, tank cars, and hoppers.  I want it all–in 8 x 2.  And it has to be prototypical.  It’s practically impossible.  THAT is the problem.

In a movie I saw 30 years ago, Clint Eastwood said “A man’s got to know his limitations.”  Clearly I don’t know mine.

So after a month or two of frustration I decided to let go of the prototype track configuration to a certain extent, but that led to a lot of freelancing.  That didn’t work either.

Then I tried “flipping” the scene.  I flipped the photo, re-orienting things so the  freight house is in front with the freight house tracks closest to the layout edge.  The brick buildings in the back would be along the backdrop.  That’s much better.

SL4761, 9/17/38.  Roosevelt Stadium. Night football photos (ALSO AERIAL VIEWS)

Below.  Here’s a Sanborn map, also flipped.  The important element of the flipped arrangement is the freight house–a single-story structure–would be “in front”, meaning along the aisle nearest to a layout operator.   In this configuration an operator isn’t reaching across buildings to uncouple cars.


Here’s another flipped view.  To the left are a power house and a lumber dealer.  It would be possible to put the freight house in the center of the layout and have other industries on the left and right, with expansion opportunities in each direction.

SL23100, 3/30/52. Mason City downtown aerials

I spent months track-planning it out on the floor.  In the photo below, this was about as close as I could get, with the Kato boxes standing in for the freight house.  It is flipped and completely full of freelancing.

Making things worse, this is 14 x 2-1/2, not 2 x 8.  And there’s only two feet left for a staging yard.


It still doesn’t work.  And no matter what I do, I can’t make it work in the space I’ve got.

At times like this I have to remember: Model Railroading is Fun.

– John G

3 thoughts on “No. 145: Milwaukee Road’s Mason City Freight House

  1. John –
    One possibility that jumps out at me when i see the sanborn map is (numbering the tracks from top to bottom) to:
    1) move the industrial switch lead from track 1 to track 4 (freight house lead) eliminating that switch on track 2.
    2) shorten tracks 1 and 2 to the right and call them your staging area tracks.
    3) Eliminate track 5 (second freight house track).
    4) Eliminate track 7 and 8. Use track 6 (instead of track 8) as your second industrial site by pushing industries located between howard and miller streets leftward.
    5. Leftward shift of industries then allows leftward shift of switch leads, and elimination of track 7 and 8, brings your module closer to your original dimensions.


  2. John
    Non railroad email. I noticed in your email to JohnM you flew C141s. Did you ever fly to Acension Island? I was stationed there in 1971 and we flew from Patrick to “the Rock” on 141s.
    Bill Michael


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