NEB&W Guide to the End of Steam-Era Modeling?

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Scenery, Structures & Details - Introduction
Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

There is an accepted theory in the hobby that I challenge - the idea that people will only tend to model the era of railroading they experienced in their younger days. This implies that the most popular modeling era lags a few decades behind contemporary railroading and therefore it is only natural and inevitable that in a few years the interest will shift from the steam-to-diesel transition to the first-generation diesel era and so on. I have actually been told by one magazine editor that I should be writing about '60's-era railroading since that is where the action will soon be.

Implied in everyone's acceptance of this is the biological notion of "imprinting". The textbook example is that when ducks break out of their shell, the first moving object they see they therefore accept as their mother. In nature, this is useful, but in the lab, strange results can occur when scientists explore this phenomenon, such as a line of ducklings waddling along behind someone in a lab coat, with thoughts of "Mama" in their bird brains.

Scientists have looked to see if this takes place in humans, even if it is a subconscious feature that we don't realize. There is evidence that at a certain stage of development, children need to be exposed to a language for it to be totally ingrained. Children can be raised bilingually, but after this period of development, another language can be learned only as a second language. One's first language(s) is so ingrained that even with the worse cases of amnesia, you can forget your family, even such a profound thing as to who you are, but you still can speak. This, however, is about the extent of any imprinting found in humans.

We use romantic terms to describe our modeling goals. ("I love the XYZ RR.") In finding a human mate, we accept the concept of "falling in love at first sight". Yet it's acknowledged that it is the just the right person we fall for at the first encounter, no matter when in our life, and not the first person we encounter at the right moment. (Falling for someone on a rebound is generally considered not long lasting.)

W.S. Gilbert explored the idea of romance imprinting, in his and Arthur Sullivan's The Sorcerer. At the start of the operetta, the hero and heroine are blissfully preparing for their upcoming marriage. The hero wants to make the entire village as happy as he is, so he hires a sorcerer to put a love potion in the tea for the nuptial banquet. The potion puts each (unmarried) person in a trance. When they awake, the first unmarried person of the opposite sex encountered becomes the object of desire. (This Victorian spell only worked on unmarried people, of course, nothing immoral here.) Well, it's a comic opera, so all the worse matches happen. A pretty young girl falls for the oldest man. All class distinctions are broken (horror!) as the lord of the manor falls for the lowly pew-opener, and a blue-blood lady chases after the sorcerer himself, a common tradesman. (The lady was so purebred that she would have married the lord except for "that scandal about Helen of Troy" in his family two millennium ago.)

When the hero insists his bride-to-be cements their love forever by also drinking the potion, she does so, but then mistakenly sees the village vicar before the hero returns. Therefore the spell has to be broken to make everything right at the finale.

In real life, if you were to sample a group of married couples, you could come up with an average age of when they fell for their mate. Yet that would be a meaningless number. We all know of people who marry their childhood sweetheart years later, and also those who have been engaged for just a few months before taking the plunge. We even know that being married doesn't necessary keep the "spell" from working. (A duckling devoting his attention to a particular lab worker will not change its affections when presented with an adult female duck, even if it is its true mother. The other aspect of imprinting is that once you past "that age" you can't change.)

Imagine if the imprinting theory applied to model railroading. You could time your child's entering the "romantic railroad" age and flash a picture of a Pennsy K4 under their nose, or place a Colorado narrow-gauge center-fold in a magazine in their room. If imprinting had any validity in the hobby, we wouldn't see so many "rubber-gaugers" who change scale each year, or people who rip up a lifetime of work to change era.

But it doesn't have to be that drastic. Someone may tell you they fell for the Burlington when they spent a summer on their relative's farm in Iowa as a child, or they railfanned the Florida East Coast when they first got their driving license as a teen, or they worked their summers during college as a brakeman on the Illinois Central. The point is that these stories don't even remotely agree as to what age this took place.

I have said this before, but interest in Civil War enactments didn't die with the last veteran of that war. Also, you only have to walk into the nearest toy store to see plastic models of clipper ships, Roman galleys, even dinosaurs, all things that children have not experienced firsthand. There are also Star Trek models that don't even exist yet (if ever) for anyone to have been "imprinted" on.

When Disney released 101 Dalmatians, they expect to make a boodle selling black and white spotted artifacts of every type available. Their marketing people don't sit back and throw up their hands saying "We just have to wait 20 years from now for today's young audience to get enough purchasing power to make it worth our while to promote." Well, we modelers certainly don't have the financial backing to have that much clout but we can stop being impassive.

But John, look at you, some of you might be saying: "You push '50's modeling, and that's when you grew up."

Actually, that's not true. The club layout is set in 1950, even though the rolling stock has a four-year window of 1950-53. Thus the layout is early '50's, but really 1950 means modeling the late '40's. However, I was born in 1950, and only really remember the late '50's.

My first encounter with a train was with a toy. My mother said to stop me from crying, she gave me toy after toy, and I finally shut up when she gave me a cast metal pull train. At first I wanted to be an engineer when I grew up, until it dawned on me there were no more steam engines left. As far as I and my family know, I never saw a steamer in real life until 1960, when we went to see one of the Reading T-1 Iron Horse Rambles, and we went because they knew I liked steam so much. (And no, I didn't become a Reading fan.)

My family had a summer house in Chester, NY, and we could hear the Lehigh & Hudson River trains passing just down the block. I would announce "Diesel" when I heard the grade crossing horn, and my younger sister would echo "Dee-da". (We weren't saying "Choo-choo" - no steam.) As kids, we played under an underpass and always stopped what we were doing to watch the occasionally train rumble by. I didn't become a L&HR modelers, or for that matter, have any interest in Wooten firebox steam.

I attended Stuyvesant School Of Science on Manhattan's lower east side for one year before we finally moved to Chester. Every day, I rode the IRT in from our home in Jackson Heights in Queens. As the subway passed over Sunnyside yards, I was able to look down on Pennsy and Long Island RR GG-1's glide along, giving off a giant spark now and then. I think a GG-1 is a nice looking loco, yet I didn't become a GG-1 fanatic, a devotee of electric operation, or a slobbering Pennsy fan.

When I was a teen, I got a record of The Music Man. It was set in 1912, and I wanted to model that era at first. At the time, there were no figures available. You could get 1830's or modern, and that was it.

When I came to RPI in 1968, I remember admiring Bill Mischler's model of a late '20's steel Erie gon, I think. It began to dawn on me that modeling the Jazz Age would let you model the WWI stuff plus the steel cars that came along in the 1920's. It was club member Geoff Hubbs who demonstrated to us that so much vintage equipment was running on the eve of dieselization and that this gives one the greatest range.

If I had my own layout, I might want to model some earlier period than 1950. The Rutland made a major cut to their passenger service in 1948, so I might want to model say 1946. Doug Gurin of the Layout Design SIG is interested in modeling WWII. Unfortunately, while the traffic was at a peak during those years, amateur railfan photography was "discouraged" (you could be arrested), a protection against sabotage. Also most young men were off at war, not taking pictures. Thus getting information about this era is more difficult. I might want to model the end of the billboard era in the late '30's. I really like small steam, but not balloon stacks, so WWI would be neat. All of this era-switching for me is speculation, but I do know modelers who are frustrated that there isn't better steam models available, so they could model earlier periods. They have settled on the steam-diesel transition so they can use diesel to operate with a finicky steamer or two thrown in to set the mood.

One thing about the model imprinting theory is that it is partially based on the observation that it is the first significant encounter with railroading that one falls for. (With romantic love, one may have a special attachment for one's first, but normally not the most intense. If imprinting was in operation, there would be no divorce.) Thus the oldest era of railroading that one has first hand intimate knowledge becomes the era of interest.

Do you see a pattern here? I think the modeling imprint theory has arisen because in general railroading since WWI has been a continuing retrenchment and down-sizing. Thus if you were born in 1960 and first railfanned in 1975, what you saw would be in general more interesting than say 1990, but if you first railfanned in 1955, that era in turn would likely be more interesting than 1975. One common thread that runs through the model imprint theory is that first someone models what they see, but then after a certain time of staying up with current events, they return to their first impressions, because they begin to realize that for every new thing in railroading that comes along, two or more things are lost. In other words, this imprint theory is actually the phenomenon you would expect of a dying industry.

Okay, not all railroading is dying, and what with the long-term effect of the Staggers Deregulation Act, any possible future effects of the oil supply, pollution, global warming, etc., railroading may make a general comeback. I think that any upswing in the industry will continue to jettison any efficient aspects, i.e., the most labor intensive, and it is these feature most likely to be of interest to modelers.

In scale modeling of say tanks, buses, airplanes, etc., you might hear hobbyists talk about the encounter that made them focus on that aspect, even at times, a first encounter, but I would bet they wouldn't project that experience as all-encompassing one for everyone. Even more so, such a theory wouldn't be accept as fait accompli. (With individual scale models, one tends not to be era-selective.) Or you might hear them talk about their first encounter with the hobby, such as "When I was 14, my father took me to see a Civil War enactment, and I've been interested ever since."

Actually, I don't think people feel they have to justify interest in other types of modeling. That we raise this issue so often might be a reflection of the state of railroading today, and how it is perceived in today's society. Amtrak barely survives it annual congressional budget fight, and Jay Leno frequently jokes about Amtrak derailments. John Allen popularized weathering to the hobby during the '50's, but I don't think it all was a matter of how much more observant he was as much as weathered, falling down ruins of railroad elements became so common at that point. He probably was the first to see this new trend.

If I was a bus or truck modeling, I doubt I could tell you my first significant encounter. My great great grandfather wrote in his diary every day (1849) about the weather and "went down to the cars". Not only was it a daily encounter, it was so significant to him that he wrote about it every day.

I can tell you that I have spent a lot of time pouring over the back issues of Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. Back in the '30's and '40's, this imprint theory wasn't even discussed in their pages. There was still a sense of excitement about new trends, such as the introduction of streamlined steam and lightweight passenger cars. We are talking here about modelers who may have been born in the middle of the 19th century, yet the number of modelers of the 1890 period was relatively rare. (A person born in 1850 would have been 15 years old when the Civil War ended and would have only been 84 years old when MR and RMC first hit the stands.)

Yes, Mantua's Belle of the '80's was a popular loco, but few modelers modeled that period, they simply ran this loco on their contemporary layout. Of course, running old steam on such a layout back then is not as implausible as running any steam on an Amtrak layout, because we have passed the dividing point of NO steam. The Belle of the '80's popularity back then is akin to running an SW-1 on a contemporary layout today - a historic loco, but plausible. Okay, potential modelers of the 1800's might have been overwhelmed by the same problem we face with practical small steam locos. In their case, it was the size of the motors then available.

Back before 1950, it would also have been hard to identify one's first significant railroad encounter, as railroading was everywhere. Even in the 1970's (despite few students having cars), railfan outings were very common at our club. I can't remember the last time our student members have ever gone railfanning, and they tend to run trains like autos on a highway, zipping along with sudden starts and stops. I bet more of our students today have ridden on a steam-powered tourist train than on Amtrak.

Andy Sperandeo on the internet, said that he was puzzled by those modelers of first class railroads who seek WWII traffic peaks, when even their road's normal traffic was so high as to be almost unmodelable. However, those of us not modeling the Santa Fe or PRR mainline may find that the steam-to-diesel transition traffic for our pet road (or branch of a mighty road) too small in some respects. (Selective compression can make a paradox here. A road may run a train of say 50 cars, which is too much for a model pike, yet if they only run one train a day, the number of trains may be too little at the same time.)

The peak of railroading was around WWI. Thus your descent down the slippery slope of period modeling can start with today's railroading back to your first encounter, but you may keep going past as you learn more. However, we modelers run smack into a brick wall at about 1950 on our "wayback" machine. This is the problem, the major problem of motive power. Trying to run steam, particularly small steam, is a staggering roadblock. While the hobby accepts the notion that if a loco has big wheels it can't be made to run reliably is beyond me.

If however the problem of motive power is ever overcome, we may see a resurgence of interest not in just the steam to diesel transition of the 1950's, but say in the period between the Wars. It looks like practical sound effects may soon be here. This would reinforce an interest in steam, if the walls shake with the thundering exhaust, the neighborhood dogs answer the lonely wail of the whistle, and even with the engine stationary, it hisses and thumps and makes all the wonderful noises that raise the notion that a steam engine is alive. If this becomes a reality, running a train may be an operation session in itself, even if the train does no switching whatsoever. I doubt we will see the "steamization" of the hobby, but certainly steam will have a strong presence. (We are just switching over the NEB&W to DCC, including getting our first steam-sound decoder. WOW! Our slogan now is "So good, that even Nehrich will operate".)

On the other hand, I don't think the steam-era is morally better than any other period of railroading. I don't advocate pushing it with religious fervor. The teacher of a music appreciation class can have personal favorites, but the aim of the class is not to have all the students mimic the teacher and toss their CD's to collect 78's. Steam-era railroading, either with steam engines at the point, or even with all first-generation diesels, is just easier to represent for operation sake.


Modeling the steam to diesel transition may be the most interesting in terms of variety of both motive power and rolling stock. Even if the gates of steam engine modeling were ever to be thrown wide open, you may want to stick with this era because of your interest in equipment.

On the other hand, each road may have gone through a time or two when their own equipment was in a state of flux, and you may choose such an era for its specific variety of equipment.

However, you might also consider other factors in choosing an era. Here are a few industry-wide watersheds you might want to take into account:

  • Before WWI, you would see few autos, and horse drawn vehicles are not very era-specific. Thus before you add even one auto to your gaslight-era layout, you might consider how big a window you have.

  • Safety Standards Act of 1911 - I don't know of any freight cars built before 1911 that had hand holds on both sides and ends, while after this went into effect, all equipment was so equipped. Thus it would be hard to proclaim an "era-window" that straddles this date too far. (You could claim 1895-1910, or 1915-1925, but 1911-1915 would be about as much as you could get away with.)

  • Arc headlights- Prior to the turn-of-the-century, engines had square boxes for headlights. From about the 1890's to the WWI, they had arc headlights, which were cylinders, with a little teat on top to enclose the top electrode. After the development of ductile tungsten in 1911, incandescent lights were hardy enough to stand the bouncing around, and the headlights were just cylinders. (Okay, maybe a minor point, but a headlight is seen at the front of every train.)

  • 1933-'38. Prohibition, 1920-1933, outlawed beer billboards on reefers. The billboard reefer law outlawed all such reefer schemes after 1938. This also was just about the end of arch bar and fox trucks.

I'd be interested in hearing what watersheds I've overlooked.