Don't forget to take photos

Posted by Bob Keller
on Friday, February 14, 2020

Even an 'ugly' layout can have those special moments. Here is a glamour shot from my first-as-an-adult railroad.

One of the things I most enjoyed about going to the TCA’s semi-annual event at York, Pennsylvania was interacting with readers. A highlight was always when somebody brought up photos of their layout. Some folks were proposing stories, but an awful lot were just there to share their pictures with someone else who “got it.”

One fellow was showing me a binder of photos. A friend who had accompanied him was standing close and he was demonstrating some interesting body language. When we were done I thanked them both for sharing the photos and the companion said, with a bit of attitude “My layout isn’t good enough to be in CTT.”

My response was truthful. “Neither is mine.” I told him it was flat, largely (at the time) undecorated, and was dedicated to trains running in circles. I told him to bring some photos to show me the next York I attended, but I don’t recall ever seeing him again. I was actually a bit sad because if we love our trains enough to build a railroad for them, they are good enough to be shared with others.

I’ve had a number of layouts that, except what I’ve posted in the blog, have only been seen by a few people. And in retrospect, I’ve regretted not documenting some things in the detail I might have wanted many years later.

I've used a number of cameras to shoot my trains over time. A Canon AE-1, a 35mm fixed lens job, a Polaroid, and a cellphone. Ironically, my iPhone does a better photo than my AE-1 ever did. So it is exceptionally easy to get clear, high-resolution images of your railroad. Come on, you really want to share your best scenes, don't you?

Ugly, ugly, ugly. But I had a heck of a time re-kindling my love of O gauge trains with this baby. For many years later, it continued to be used as CTT's test track.

Adult layout 1

My first layout had three ovals and as much stuff crammed in as possible. The inner O-27 loop would sometimes hit a car on the center mainline, but nothing ever derailed. Wiring was simple and switches were all manual. Way too much was stuffed into too tight a spot. But I had blast with it.

The only problem was that I lived on the second floor of an apartment building, and I could only run it with a clear conscience when the neighbors were gone. The wood legs created quite a rumble!

My ugly (but deep) basement. At this point I believe all the benchwork was done. I threw on an oval of tubular track to get an idea of how many power feeders I needed for a Z-2000 (for tubular track the answer was four).

Layout 2

The objective was to make a three-line racetrack for running long trains. I had no real plans for scenery on this one. Well, beyond a few basic structures and some of the accessories I’ve had since I was a kid. Paint, hills, and trees were of little concern.

The overall shape was 12 x 24 feet but very narrow. The two outer mains would be connected by switchers but were independent of the inner loop. The inner line had the small town and a yard.

I made modules that were about three feet wide. After a while I tried adding scenery with mediocre results. Trying to put anything between track that wasn’t designed to be moved (Curse you, Liquid Nails) was a challenge. I used Mountains In Minutes between some of the track. It looked bad, even with trees stuck in it. I discovered years later, was darned hard to remove without power tools!

I expanded the town with a post office, city hall, drug store, a Higbee’s Department store, a gas station, and several radio stations. So it looked more like a hometown.

This was about the only spot the Mountains in Minutes hills looked okay. Shout out to Becky, here is a better view of the old station.

I was surprised looking at this image. Only the station and water tower are in the same place in 2020!

This illustrated the point that my modules were too narrow. The outside mains were connected, while the inner loop was independent.

Over time, there were a lot of electrical problems. I started with tubular track, used Atlas O, added some RealTrax, and later began to work FasTrack in. Oh, I kept the original tubular just-in-case.  For the record, I think plain old tubular delivered the most reliable power connections.

I had to replace the septic system with a mound system, which require re-routing the basement pipes, so about half of the line had to come down during the construction. It never got reassembled, though I have a 12x24 foot ‘mini’ railroad. I am still formulating plans for that, but I’ll take pictures when it gets done. Live and learn.

Layout 3

My next layout was unremarkable, other than it was S gauge. I built it on top of a sheet of 4x8 insulation. I tried a little decoration, but running with a couple of postwar Flyer engines was unsatisfactory. Once I got some newer engine by American Models, S-Helper Service, and later by Lionel. I finally had an engine fleet where jerky stops and starts didn’t ruin the fun. Only one photo, but I couldn’t find it for this post!


My S gauge railroad was my first attempt at scenery. It worked for me!

Layout 4

I looked around my basement and concluded I had enough lumber to build a larger S gauge layout. It was still a loop, but I added sidings and a very small yard for my growing rolling stock fleet. There was a town of Lemax and other sort-of appropriately sized structures.

I also tried out more elaborate scenery, including a mad scientist’s lab and a lake with Bugs Bunny, Sponge Bob, Snoopy, and later, Home Simpson afloat on boats and inner tubes. I had that railroad six or seven years until I simply needed the space for more storage. Still have all the track, trees, and train gear for future use.

I wish I had taken more and better images. It was a tough area to light, and I just had a flip-phone!

Behold the Upper Chutney Division of the London Midland & Scottish Ry. Lots of trees, British die-cast vehicles, ceramic buildings, and Hornby structures hit the mark.

Layout 5

Where the old S gauge layout held sway, I built a British OO layout. It has a two track mainline and a small siding and engine backshop.

This time the scenery was a bit more elaborate, with holiday ceramic buildings sold by Walgreens two years in a row. They were all old English style buildings (could have passed for New England) of about the right size. I also bought a Hornby British station and engine shop.

I did much more decoration, mainly because smaller trees were cheaper than O scale trees! Greenery makes a difference. I’ve taken plenty of photos, but I can still walk downstairs and take more.

You can stage some great photos on a layout like this.

Circa 1995 this was the Pierce County Lionel Club's mobile layout. Ed Sulkosky, owner of Trackside Trains in Puyallup, Washington allowed us to park the layout there and run trains. It would draw traffic to his shop and let us give the sales pitch of it being the world's greatest hobby.

Not my layout …

When I was stationed in Seattle, I was a member of the Pierce County Lionel Club. While not designed for hauling to shows, the club layout could be disassembled into about five pieces and trucked to events. Our schedule included events like the Tacoma Dome holiday show, mall shows, events at senior community centers, the annual train show at the fairgrounds in Puyallup, but our greatest challenge was a two week run at the Western Washington State Fair, also in Puyallup.

Whenever I ran trains, I took photos. Almost 25 years later it is fun to look at the pics and remember the people, the times, and the postwar accessories on the layout.

So what is the purpose of all this? Take photos while you can. Even if you are just running a Christmas tree or a carpet railroad, someday, you’ll look back and wish you had.










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