Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Additional Bog Photos

Following is a small batch of pictures (close-ups) I took mostly for myself — to get a look at things and make note of what might need to be addressed, etc.

I've already mentioned the bog's rather "abrupt" trackside edge. This would have been relatively simple to fix had I noticed it before I poured the EnviroTex® water . . . but, alas, I missed it. The pour is the last thing you do in this process, and all the detritus and plants and things have to be secured in some fashion (or they'll float up as the resin is curing). Once everything is in place and you begin to do the pour, it's just too late to make any changes.

I'll point out some additional boo-boos the photos brought to my attention, and philosophize a little about the hobby in this post.


Here's a hint for beginning modelers: Watch your track spikes. As we look down toward the bog, at track-level — and this shot isn't all that bad — what screws it up are the two track spike-heads clearly evident beyond the crossing. I'll slap a little light gray over these in due time but the point is that this kind of thing should be avoided. Why are they here? Well, for the most part I use small brads to secure my track to the roadbed, and the ballast covers them up. But once in a while I use something that goes a little deeper into the sub-roadbed (in this case the Dow-Corning pink insulation I use) because I'm using Atlas flexible track, which sections are three feet long, and so I need slightly longer nails at times to more firmly secure the track on curves . . . and these nails or brads have larger heads. You really don't notice them from the slightly elevated view we generally have, but at this level they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb(s).

What I get a kick out of in this photo is the reflection of the gondola in the "water," at bottom right. What I don't like is that my ballasting leaves a little to be desired, more often than not. Fact is, ballasting track is a major P-I-T-A. It's tedious and boring, but it has to be done. Commercial track is available that is "pre-ballasted" but it looks so toy-like as to be almost funny. The next time you're around any railroad tracks take a close look: the ballast (which is busted-up slag that comes from blast furnaces, btw) will generally be up to the level of the tie itself. It won't be on the tie but will be level with it. Here too much of my ties are sticking up above the ballast. To fix this will require an afternoon of additional tediousness. Can the solution be a thing as simple as paying more attention when first putting down the ballast? Yes, but who wants to do that? You want to get it over with . . . and you say, "I'll tidy this all up later."

Who looks that close? is a good question, too. But the person who asks it isn't a model railroader, probably.

They're those who say, "Oh, look . . . toy trains . . ." I've written previously about so-called "rivet-counters" in the hobby and have said I'm not one of them. But the slope is very slippery, to be honest. And, believe it or not, while there aren't
arguments about this in the hobby (the kind that end up with people standing with pistols at ten paces), there are discussions about it. It's the debate between the "I'm-having-fun,-leave-me-alone" crowd versus the "If-you're-going-to-do-it,-do-it-absolutely-right" crowd. When you sit for a few hours or a few days making something from scratch — something as minor as perhaps a fence that you could just as easily purchase commercially for a few dollars — you begin to think about a few things. One of them is to question your own sanity. But if you find the activity enjoyable you can get past that. The next question is about the fence itself: what does a fence (a wood one, say — a picket fence) really look like? Can I do this to some more or less realistic degree in 1/87th scale? What do I remember about these kinds of fences? And so on.

The "reeds" need to be more various in color. The dusting of the pines (a dry-brushing with one color) needs to be addressed. I'll take a darker green and go over the places I've already lightened . . . perhaps with a brown or a black and a light touch.

The ballast at the far right of this photo is close to being good; that in the middle much less so. Do you see it?

A few things . . .

I'm going include the same photo but in black & white, next. Compare and contrast, as the saying goes. It says a lot, including how we see the world, or how we imagine it in our memory. And the devil is in the details, yes?

The blue CSX gondola here is what's known as a "shake-the-box" freight car. This means you get it at the hobby shop, bring it home, and it's ready-to-run. A car like this will cost about $15 to $18 and these days comes with a knuckle coupler and, often, metal wheels. (Metal wheels are the modeler's savior, but more about that another time.) The car even comes with the four rolled steel coils — bonus. But its details — grab-irons and ladders and so on — are part of the mold, and while they're no doubt in scale they're not very realistic.

On the other hand, the Erie Lackawana gondola is a kit. It comes in a box in pieces and you have to assemble it. The pieces are myriad, including grab-irons. It's not rocket science to put one of these kinds of kits together, but it takes about an hour or two and, in this case, I added my own grab-irons (even though the kit supplied them — the ones I use aren't plastic but metal; you buy little packages of them for a few dollars). Now, if I'm
not a so-called "rivet-counter" why would I do this? (And when I put my own grab-irons on a car the distance between the car surface and the grab-iron is without doubt out of scale.)

I do it for contrast. I'd rather have an observer feel or sense that the grab-irons and ladder stiles are "realistic" to them — have depth and contrast — than not. Few people are going to pull out a micrometer and measure.

Next: color. The EL gondola has been "weathered." I use powered chalks for this. I bought a set of weathering powders from a guy in Southern California and they are the best, though a bit pricey. His powders seem to "stick" or adhere to surfaces better than home-made. (I make these by scraping a knife blade over commercial chalks, shaving them onto a piece of paper and dumping the shavings into little containers.)

No freight cars in the steel mill environment are "clean and shiny." They're old; they're beaten-up, abused: most of them are a mess, frankly. Toys are clean and shiny. Will I get around to "dirtying-up" the CSX gondola? You can bet on it.

Here's the same photo in black & white —

The CSX car doesn't look so bad here . . . though it will need a good dose of weathering, eventually, regardless.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bog-building 101

When it comes to model railroading and water, suffice it to say that they don't mix. Not REAL water, anyway.

On one of my layouts when I was a youth I decided once that I wanted water. Unfortunately I'd never seen it modeled. An inventive — if not slightly misguided — 11-year old, I decided to take the bull by the horns and came up with something . . . that, well, didn't quite work out. That's a minor understatement but remember, I was eleven (for Godsakes). This first "water feature" consisted of some sort of roundish shape made out of tin-foil that I painted a shade of blue that doesn't exist in nature and then embedded in the landscape beneath a mountain.

There were two problems: the first was that I had no way of putting my "pond" actually at ground level or a little below and the second was that I used real water. The ground level business didn't seem to bother me — when we're young we give ourselves a lot of latitude. The pond sat up about a quarter inch from the surrounding terrain, and I addressed that by pushing a sort of 1960s version of Sculptamold® (papier maché) border up around it. The water, though, was puzzling — it didn't look right. Strange, eh? Real water doesn't seem for some reason to fit to "scale." There was also the matter of evaporation. I'd placed my little pond in an area that was difficult to reach without my shirt cuffs, or just my arms and elbows, having a Godzilla effect on the town's buildings, and so after the first bit of water evaporated and I realized how difficult it was going to be to keep the thing "fresh," I left it to its own devices, a scar on the landscape.

Thus for many years after I nixed water as a factor on any of my layouts. So be it.

When I began building my latest layout, though, I'd seen water modeled by others and knew it could be done effectively and (relatively) easily, so I decided to try it. My first dealings with this (a waterfront/wharf area at the town itself combined with a stream that runs under some trackage at the "west" end of the layout) turned out relatively well, all other things being equal. I'll post some photos of that area eventually.

There are a lot of choices available these days for modeling water, though I won't get into any detail about them. You can choose the "easy pour," one-step method offered by Woodland Scenics, for instance, or you can use a mix-and-pour epoxy material known as EnviroTex®. I've used both on this layout. (Woodland Scenics also offers a product they call E-Z Water® which consists of little pellets that come in a bag: you heat these on your stove in a can till they melt and then you let 'er rip . . . but IMHO the few dollars saved using this vs. their Realistic Water® or EnviroTex isn't worth the hassle. Mixing EnviroTex is a much simpler matter than the attention needed for something that must be heated up then rushed over to the layout and poured before it starts to cool, etc).

I have three (perhaps there'll be another) "water features" on my layout: the previously mentioned town waterfront area and associated stream; a small bit of water at the ore dock; and a swamp or bog. I'm not much of a naturalist in the strictest of terms, so am not entirely sure whether to call what I made a swamp, a bog, or a marsh. They're all different on some technical level, but I'm too lazy to look it up. Perhaps what I've made is more of a marsh or a marshy "area" than anything else, but I've decided to refer to it as a bog. Sue me.

There was a corner at the mill area (ground level) on the layout and I'd decided early on that I'd put a bog there — to use the space in an interesting way and also because I had seen something called "Reeds & Cattails" in a
Scenic Express catalog that was reasonably priced and difficult to resist. For twenty bucks you got everything you needed to make a small marsh or swampy area: reed and cattail material; 8 oz. of EnviroTex; soil and sand; moss and weeds; and lily pads and deadfall. I thought, "Perfect, a bog in a box," and ordered it. This was two years ago and I finally got around to doing the scene earlier this year. Fact is, while I might have wanted to have used the lily pads (having once built a real pond of my own) it turned out to be far and away too tedious to cut the pads off their background with an X-acto knife, and I never used those . . . and the other materials I could have gathered up on my own, but we live and learn. It was all there in one "kit" and convenient, so what the heck . . .

What follows, then, is a sort of step-by-step primer on swamp, bog, or marsh-making. I'll comment above the photos.
One of the advantages of using pink or blue foam (insulation panels made by Dow-Corning, for instance) over a plywood base is that you can dig down into it. And that's how I began shaping my bog . . . by doing an outline and then carving out the shape with a moto-tool (the drawbacks to this way of terra-forming is that you end up with teeny little bits of electro-statically charged foam flying everywhere and sticking to everything . . . you
do need to keep a vacuum close and use it often).


I've done the outline of the bog here.

I've put up a block to keep the foam off the tracks and have used a Dremel tool to carve the shape of the bog.

The end result

(A few photos are slightly out of order, time-wise, sorry.) What I've done here is to make a background for the area, a border, using ceiling tiles that I find here and there. You break them off into pieces and they end up doing decent duty as stratified rocks. Not perfect, but decent.

A shot of my cattail-making. A good friend of mine asked me about the sanity of anyone making HO-scale (1/87th) cattails. I thought it was a very good question and I didn't have a very good answer, other than to say that if you're going to do it you might as well do it the best you can. These look more like Q-tips than cattails, and I should have done the tops either in white or in brown, but I was having a "moment." I don't like these two shades of green and eventually I'll bend over the layout here and address this however I'm able.

Another shot of the background "wall." I used plaster molds for the top of this, which you can see in the foreground. Then I use a variety of "washes" (diluted acrylics) to color the tiles and the plaster rock molds.

The wall coming together. As an erstwhile woodworker I learned the magic of clamps. Clamps are important. If duct tape is the secret of the Universe, clamps run a close second, and you can never have too many clamps. This bit of business was bonded with Woodland Scenics Foam Tack Glue, which is more or less like a commercial latex caulk.

It's beginning to have a "look." One of the drawbacks of using pieces of ceiling tile like this is that you end up with parallel horizontal lines that really don't exist in nature. You try to cover that up, or cover over it, with foliage and ground cover and so on, but . . .

I found a package of these pines for eight bucks at a craft store and thought they'd be just enough for this space. There were different sizes of trees and I tried to arrange them in a decent way above the bog and at ground level. My cousin Judy Johnston, an art teacher, suggested that I might want to dust the trees with a variety of greens and blues, and I did so later but I don't feel I did the best job possible and will readdress this another time. (The "cliffy" backdrop was a module that I built off the layout, which is why it's not in place in the following few photos.)

I've used my airbrush to begin to color the bog. Like many modelers, I'm not yet entirely comfortable with an airbrush. They're wonderful things but a bit difficult to learn how to use with skill. I don't claim to have much skill or grace with the instrument yet, but to shade and attempt gradations of color they're what one has to learn how to use.

Feathering in a little green . . .

Then some blue. (A note here: the trackside border of my bog was too abrupt. I should have or could have shaved that down but at the time I simply didn't "see" it. And this is one of the most positive things about taking pictures of ones own work. It isn't so much to be all joyous about whatever minor thing has gone on but rather to see the mistakes . . . which I'm not at all hesitant to point out.)

Shades of a bog-to-be . . .

Beginning to add a few things to the mix . . .

No water yet, but I'm getting there. What I really wanted in my bog was a grocery store buggy turned upside down in the water, but I've never seen one in HO scale, so I settled for a tire. I dropped some rocks in there, put in a few dead trees, and so on.

Could one sit on the edge of the rock face here on a summer night and listen for frogs while the trains pass?

Perhaps . . .

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blast Furnace Area — "No Perfection" Philosophy

I've found in the relatively short time I've been doing this model railroading blog that one of the more interesting aspects of it is simply deciding what to post. A friend of mine who shall go unnamed (but you know who you are, if you're reading this) recently made an observation about me (to me, in an email) that I felt compelled in my own defense initially to dispute but realized I couldn't — and that was that I'm a perfectionist. While this has little to do with whether I ever achieve anything even remotely close to what might be deemed "perfection" — which goes without saying — after some thought about the matter I decided that for better or worse my friend was right. For a writer this can be a real problem, and for a poet a potentially destructive problem — but that's what one has to learn to deal with one way or another.

In model railroading, where the standards might seem to be different — in some ways less demanding (it's supposed to be fun, and so on; no one's standing over you with a whip, as I sometimes feel, regarding poetry, that the ghost of Keats or T.S. Eliot is standing over me) and yet in others more so — the decisions about what to make public and what to keep to oneself can become difficult — particularly for the so-called "perfectionist."

For instance: I've talked already about posting a track-plan of my layout. I know this would be a boon to any follower(s) of my blog if only in the sense that when they see certain photographed scenes they'll know where they are in that "world", etc. I'm aware myself that while I very much enjoy close-ups and limited perspective photos of other modelers' work, I also am always curious about the bigger picture. A track plan is nearly always provided, for instance, in featured articles on individuals' work in magazines such as Model Railroader. But, interestingly enough, often there are no "bigger picture" shots: it's as if either the editors of MR or the owner/builders of the railroads don't want the spell of the "fictive dream" to be broken or interrupted. Writers know that anything they do which causes a reader to step back, even for a moment, and move
outside the story or poem, spells a kind of doom or at the very least indicates that something's wrong with the writing. (On the other hand, were a reader to step away from his or her reading because they might have been distracted by something that moved them deeply in some or another way, or because they wanted to see how a writer had affected some particular move, some particular sleight-of-hand . . . any writer would no doubt be flattered by that.)

While I don't have these
same sorts of fears regarding my modeling efforts, I'm still concerned to some degree about presenting my work in the best possible light. Thus though last week or the week before I did, indeed, draw a track-plan, it's hopelessly amateur and pitiful. One might say, "Well, who cares? Let's see that baby . . ." and so on. Frankly, I care, and this is my blog, and so such business is simply going to have to be put on hold till I can find a way to render a track-plan diagram in a way that pleases me. And readers of the blog are going to have to wait a while before they can see the bigger picture. (Might I add, though, that one needn't hold ones breath. Notwithstanding with whatever efficiency I might eventually manage to do this, my railroad is small and seeing a wonderfully rendered diagram of it I guarantee will change no ones life.)

In the meantime, the photos below are various shots of the blast furnace area, which is on a slightly raised level from the rest of the pike. Originally this hadn't been the case, but once I had decided to "build out" enough that I could have at least one continuous run of track, I ran into space and design problems. I solved this by elevating the whole mill area itself, an area about two feet wide by about seven feet long. I used a "view block" to isolate two areas in this part of the layout (more later about this) and, for the most part, have been pleased by how it has worked out — both design- and operation-wise.
An "observer" confronting what I've done can fill in the blanks. Modelers count on this: suggest enough or represent enough accurately and the person looking will fill in the rest. (Writers count on this as well, of course — particularly poets. I and my poet friend Melanie Reitzel have long gotten a tremendous kick out of a bit of comedy by Eddie Izzard where he talks about Dr. Heimlich and his invention of the eponymous maneuver that has saved many lives over the years. Izzard "acts out" Dr. Heimlich's early [humorously failed] struggles to perfect his maneuver, and at one point has him saying, "Well, it's not really a
maneuver yet . . . it's more of a gesture." A lot of modeling is more or less a gesture, too — and so much of it never perfected nor even approaching that point. But we learn by doing, and by doing we learn.)

Some photos then, here, of the upper mill area — blast furnace and cast house.

(Note: the background on the view block is or was an experiment for me in painting a backdrop. I am no more a painter than I am a draftsman. One can purchase backdrops or background scenes and they're not very expensive, but in keeping with my need to teach myself things and learn from the experiences I decided to ask a cousin of mine, Judy Johnston, an artist and high school art teacher in North Carolina, to help me do "clouds" with acrylics. She did the best she could from a distance and I did the best I could in following her guidance. Oddly enough, I found working with acrylics fascinating, and a new adventure. The results of these first attempts I'm not so sure about, but the view block is removable and I can redo and work with a little more diligence in the meantime on the this background "sky.")

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Note on Digital Command Control

Digital command control (DCC) had already been on the scene for a while when I began working on my most recent railroad, and I knew from the outset that I was going to avail myself of this newer technology. For those following my blog who aren't modelers, here's a quick and dirty primer on DCC.

Back in the day one ran trains with one or more DC power packs (rectifiers) feeding electricity to the track. This was all well and good, but the problem was that if you put two locomotives (or three or four) on the track at the same time both (all) would "respond" to the juice flowing through the rails, and move simultaneously (and if their motors' polarity happened to be different then they'd run in opposite directions simultaneously). Most inconvenient, to be sure (and shades of Gomez Addams . . .). The only way to get around this was to electrically isolate sections of track into "blocks" by having the power routed first to double-pole/double-throw (DPDT) off-on switches and from there to the track blocks. You could connect two power packs to the tracks then and by alternatively allowing power to be sent to this block or that block (by toggling the DPDT switches) it was possible to run more than one loco (thus trains) at the same time. Obviously things could get a little complex, and the wiring was a chore, to put it mildly. And if you had a large railroad the number of "blocks" could become unwieldy. Additionally, running trains was often an effort in memory and concentration, as you would have to make sure that train A (loco A) didn't accidentally drift into a block where train B (loco B) might have been under power, and so on. People back then used (bought or devised) all sorts of ingenious electrical circuitry to facilitate easier running of trains in this fashion, but the fact remains that it was tedious and cumbersome — a pain in the butt, frankly. All of my railroads from when I first began getting serious about the hobby, in the early 80s (and I built four of them in that decade — two rather large) till '05 were done using this method . . . standard DC. (Suffice it to say that nothing I'd done when I was very young involved much complex wiring at all . . .)

I won't get into the history of digital command control here, but will say that most modelers are probably grateful for its appearance on the scene. The basic idea is that instead of 12-volt DC current going to the tracks (in whatever roundabout fashion) digital information (sent in packets) is passed along simultaneously with that current. Each locomotive is equipped with a chip (a decoder) that responds only to the signals (the "address") it's set up to respond to. That's basically it. Locomotive A responds only to the signals recognized by its own decoder, loco B the same, and so on. You can have as many locomotives (thus trains, if you care to see it that way) as you wish on the tracks at the same time . . . or as many as your command unit will allow you to address. So now the power packs are actually little computers, small digital switching devices, basically, that also provide the 12-volt DC current; and you "dial in" locomotive A, or B, or whichever you choose, and move only that one around. Brilliant. Ah, technology.

Most basic DCC systems allow you to control at least ten locos in either two- or four-digit addresses. You program the decoders individually, giving them whatever numerical address you desire (many use the numbers on the locomotives, for instance, for the sake of convenience or expedience). Additionally, standards have been established by the NMRA (National Model Railroad Association) across the board to ensure that one company's decoders will work with another company's command systems, and so on. For instance, I use the Digitrax Zephyr, an entry-level system, but I may buy decoders for my locos that happen to be made by another company.

DCC allows, as well, multiple "cabs," or individual control and throttle units that are not themselves power sources. These can be corded (tethered) or wireless. In the case of the former, "plug-in" panels are placed at various spots around the layout. In operation, disconnecting the control unit ("cab") from one panel and re-plugging it in elsewhere doesn't disconnect power from the locomotive — so you can walk around looking for another panel closer to where you might wish to be and your loco or train will continue running. The only hitch here is that you cannot change the address of either the main control unit or any external cabs or throttles "on the fly," as it were. You must let go of the train you're controlling and reselect another loco by unplugging the cab, dialing in the new address, then re-plugging in. Perhaps in the future manufacturers of these systems may find a way to allow one simply to dial in another loco's address without removing the cab's plug: the act itself of changing the address would suffice to deselect one loco and select another, etc.

DCC has allowed, in addition to all this great stuff, the introduction of on-board sound. For a premium you can now buy locomotives equipped with sound chips and a small speaker (or the owner can add these after the fact). The sounds include such things as the proper diesel rumble for whatever model the loco might happen to be (which "rumble" increases in volume and intensity as the loco accelerates and vice versa); coupling sounds; dynamic brake noises; horns and whistles (again, appropriate to the particular engine); and even wheel flange squeals . . . among other things.

This is, again, the quick and dirty low down on DCC. But as with everything digital, things can get more complex and involved. Suffice it to say, though, that DCC allows one the flexibility to "keep it simple, stupid" or grow the system as the railroad itself may grow. (Note: one may still use a DC locomotive not equipped with a decoder [address 00] but the unit will make a high-pitched whine or hum, called "singing," something that's a bit distracting, if not altogether disturbing to the ear.)

Below are snapshots of the components of my very basic Digitrax Zephyr system . . .

Zephyr's DCS 50 main unit

Digitrax UT4 tethered cab/controller

Plug-in panel (I have two on my small layout)

Panel and throttle/cab controller

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Furnace Alley detail

Years ago I was talking with my Dad and he told me a story about "the alley" that seems to be what sticks most in my memory now. I didn't have much of an understanding of what went on there in the 60s, though I would try at times to imagine it. I didn't see the alley myself until the summer I spent on the MonCon when, one afternoon, I decided to walk up and take a look (from the carshop to the Eliza furnaces was about a ten minute walk). Dad wasn't working in there by then (1974), which fact I know made his life a lot less stressful.

Whenever I might have strayed out of the immediate shop area, though — and for whatever reason — I would feel apprehensive and not a little frightened. Nobody needed to tell me what sorts of dangerous business was going on constantly all over the plant; and if I hadn't been able to figure it out on my own, the Monday morning "safety meetings" in the shop would have done (and did) the trick.

(A sidebar note: irony is something some of us enjoy a little more than others for any number of reasons — just as some are drawn more to puns than others are, and so on — and I'm always interested in either noticing irony or bringing it to bear in my own writing when I can. What was ironic about those Monday safety meetings, or briefings, was that nothing untoward ever seemed to happen until an hour or so after we had left the lunch room and settled down to whatever jobs or tasks we were up to. It was always then, and almost no other time, that somebody would get hurt — stumble over some cable lying on the ground and then bang their head on a ladder stile on a hopper or a grab iron on a gondola, etc., or burn themselves, or a spark from a torch would fly up into somebody's [unprotected] eye, or somebody would drop a twenty-pound coupler part on their foot, and so on. None of these incidents were permanently maiming or very serious, but their timing was haltingly less than auspicious. What occurred to me, after I began to pick up on the pattern— something I thought should have been obvious to any observant individual [though which, knowing my place in the order of things, I never spoke to anyone about] — was how simple might it have been to have shifted these safety briefings to Fridays . . . say, and after lunch. Then the carmen would have the weekend to forget about these matters ["Safety is everybody's concern;" "Think before you act;" "Are you grounded sufficiently;" "Goggles atop your hardhat when they should be atop your nose is what's between you and blindness;" and so on] and come to work Monday morning with nothing on their minds but their jobs, which they were always able to do with great skill and grace, I think the frequency of the stupid little things that happened immediately after our safety meetings would have dropped off significantly.)

I approached the alley with trepidation that afternoon, not sure if, having wandered away from the carshop I wasn't somehow violating some rule, either one that might have been codified somewhere or was simply generally understood: "One does not go where one doesn't belong." I could write here about the noise that overwhelmed me the closer I got to the alley (my unprotected ears being assaulting in a way I'd never before experienced), or the strange silver flakes of something (like snow [it was graphite]) floating in the air, or the smells — smells I can't describe: sulfur, lemon, heavy and intense. I could write about the visual apprehension of that place when, standing at bottom of the yard office where my dad had spent so much time, I first looked down the alley at ground-level. It was so narrow . . . no more than the width of a small street in a city neighborhood, fifty feet or so across. Looking west the furnaces were on the right; on the left were various buildings — none of them particularly small — the length of the alley that served various purposes. The tracks themselves were set in asphalt — no crossties or "ballast" there — and, as I've mentioned elsewhere, serviced the furnaces themselves in a kind of maze of crossovers and puzzle-switches. Tracks went into one furnace in one way to facilitate the ladles receiving the molten iron — down one or more troughs — and in another way to take the slag that floated atop the hot soup in the furnace and would be poured off into cinder pots and taken away to be dumped somewhere — still hot. Another furnace would have a different arrangement of tracks. Six furnaces, and none of the trackage to each was the same. "Who designed this?" I asked my father once. He just chuckled and said, "If the person who'd done this had been known, he'd probably have been hunted down and killed a long time ago."

I smoked a cigarette while standing at the steps of the alley yard office and somebody came along, stopped and asked me if I needed any help, did I need something? I was wearing my burning clothes, the green tunic and pants that marked me as somebody from the carshop, and he said, "You're a little out of your neighborhood, no?" I told him I'd come up just to take a look at the alley, that my dad had been the yardmaster there off and on for years, and that I was curious to see what he'd told me he hated so much . . . what the big deal about it all really was. I was not being facetious or sarcastic. He said, "So, what do you think?" "I don't really have much of a way of understanding this at all," I told him. "Well, let's go upstairs and get a cup of coffee," he said . . . and escorted me up the steps into the yard office. Once there, two or so stories above ground-level, the perspective was different. No less frightening, though, if perhaps a little quieter. We stood looking out, sipping our coffee. When I mentioned my dad's name he smiled and said, "Whitey was good in here and we miss him," he said. "Your dad had a lot of it figured out pretty well. It becomes a habit, really. The whole place is a fucking nightmare and you learn to adapt to it or you get out. That's all there is to it."

My dad had never talked much about what he didn't like about working in the alley but later, after he was retired, he told me on the golf course, once, that it nearly got to him. More years passed and he was beginning to suffer from emphysema. We talked late one night at home in Pittsburgh and I recorded the conversation on one of those small recorders — the ones with the little tapes. I wanted him to talk about the railroad and his memories. He wasn't a reluctant story-teller but one who, I think, wasn't sure that anything he might have to say would amount to much that anybody might be interested in. But I got him to talk, that evening, a little about the furnace alley. He asked me for a piece of paper and then drew a quick sketch of things. "What was so difficult about it all?" I had asked. This was of course years after my own brief moment in the alley but I had kept in my memory, and still keep, what I'd experienced there —saw, smelled, heard, felt, and so on.

Dad's story ended up being about how when those huge ladles would go down on the ground in the alley — when they would derail, for whatever reason — it would be a total mess. The first thing that happened would be somebody calling for the wrecker, a crane on rails they'd bring in to lift the ladle back onto the tracks. But that took time, and was an expense, so Dad would say "Hold on . . ," and leave the yard office and go down to take a look at things. There was a lot of spilled metal around those tracks, he told me, and if they were lucky enough they could get the car back up on the tracks just by dragging it a little, slowly, over that spilled and long hardened iron. The car would ride the iron and slide back up onto the rails, and then the three or four ladles full of their smoking hot metal would go on their way across the bridge to the South Side, and nobody was ever the wiser.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An Historical Glimpse

Whether or not I end up in jail — making little rocks out of big ones, as the saying goes — remains to be seen, but I'm going to throw caution to the wind and, in addition to some of my own photos, will include a few I've either scanned from books or are pictures I've taken of other photos, etc. In the case of the latter, on the South Side of Pittsburgh where J&L's actual "steel-making" went on (the open hearth furnaces, later one or more electric arc furnaces) there's a series of plaques describing in some detail what used to be there. A few of the plaques explain the process of making steel (from beginning to end); one is a blue-line that shows the entire plant (both sides of the river), and another is a photograph of one of the open hearth departments. I have my own blue-line of the furnace alley (not included with this post) though it's not from what's on the plaque but a scan of something I was sent from an MCRR VP, upon request, about twenty or so years ago. I will have to rescan this but it shows the utter complexity of the trackage in the alley, which is what my father had to deal with as the yardmaster in there until he'd achieved the seniority that enabled him to avoid it. The representation here of the alley is a much less detailed one.

For those interested and so inclined, I highly recommend a rather lengthy book written by John P. Hoerr, published in 1988 by the University of Pittsburgh Press and entitled, And The Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry. The book is 620 pages of text that describes, in perhaps more detail than the casual reader might wish to know, what happened between the 1950s and late 70s in the American steel industry and, in Mr. Hoerr's opinion, why it might have happened. A great amount of the book deals with the back-and-forth between the USWA (United Steelworkers of America) and the various integrated steel corporations, with most of the emphasis on what used to be called "Big Steel," which was of course United States Steel. Mr. Hoerr uses USS (as opposed to J&L [LTV], Bethlehem Steel, Republic, Inland Steel, and others) as his point of focus since it might be said that whatever was going on in the industry probably went on there at first, or if not so, then had the most repercussions there that might later have filtered down to the less notorious or well known companies. Mr. Hoerr's book is a narrative history, thus one is allowed into the minds of both union and industry leaders as well as other players and local (Pittsburgh and McKeesport, PA) individuals. We read these various people tell their stories and give their versions of what happened and it's at once extremely fascinating if not, in the end, a little distressing and sad.

While on the subject of books, another offering from the same publisher is a volume called Big Steel: The First Century of the United States Steel Corporation 1901-2001, written by Kenneth Warren and published in 2001. As the title indicates, this is a corporate history and as such is a bit more sterile than John Hoerr's book and is rife with facts, figures, and charts (which seem to accumulate in dizzying fashion). The text itself is chock-a-block with statistics and as a result the reading is a little dry, to say the least. But if one is tolerant and patient one might begin to get hold of an understanding of the huge scale, costs, and significance of this (or any) integrated steel operation.

In the future I'll post some other photos I've taken over the recent years of the USS Edgar Thompson works, located in the Braddock section of Pittsburgh and still in operation. Along with these I'll add a few of the now derelict Carrie Furnaces, across the Monongahela River (down river) from Homestead. I'll also include excerpts from some autobiographical writing regarding own my summer in the MCRR's carshop and, I can only hope, get back to posting photos of my modeling work.

For now, though — a brief trip back in time:

From the plaque on the South Side of Pittsburgh placed by Rivers Of Steel Archives

Aerial view of J&L, 1952: Rivers Of Steel Archives

Blue-line of the Eliza furnaces ("the alley") at J&L; Rivers Of Steel Archives. Note: the furnaces themselves are indicated by P1, P2, and so on. The High Grade is immediately beneath Second Avenue (though in reality it was above street level and behind a large stone wall). At the bottom of the drawing is the Monongahela River; the tracks running parallel to it are those of the Low Grade. At left, the tracks curving toward the river lead to the two bridges mentioned on the plaque above (photo of those are at the end of this post).

Eliza furnaces, date unknown, but probably in the mid-60s (source unknown). The two tracks running along the bottom of the photo are the B&O mains from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh and on to Chicago; we are looking west. The commuter cars here are Budd cars which ran from McKeesport into downtown Pittsburgh. Second Avenue is between these tracks and the furnaces, below in this photo and out of sight. The structure between the Budd cars and the furnaces is the stock house.
Second Avenue looking east, 1948. Middle photo is the B&O mains; lower right is the hot strip mill complex, new in 1937. Middle right are the MCRR main offices on the High Grade; behind them the stock house and the six blast furnaces. Pittsburgh Press photo.

J&L open hearth department #2, date unknown. Left background are the railroad bridges and the Eliza furnaces across the river. The gondolas pictured here were known as X-cars and belonged to the MCRR. I worked on these types of cars in the carshop, summer of 1974. Tracks below the overpass were the P&LE RR (owned then by the New York Central). Rivers Of Steel Archives.

MCRR yard known at "the Eastern," 1952. This is one of a dozen or so photos my father took on the railroad from the Eastern's yard office.

MCRR carshop; winter, 1987. There was no activity in the shop since it was a weekend. The X-cars are ready to be attended to Monday morning. These are the kinds of cars I worked on in 1974. They were the workhorses of the railroad and were ubiquitous — and as a result took constant pounding and abuse. Author photo.

Carshop, March 2007. Top of US Steel building in downtown Pittsburgh at far left. The Eliza furnaces would have been a thousand yards or so west (in the direction of downtown). Author photo.

Carshop, 2007. The slightly elevated area at the right had been utilized as a general junk yard of parts: wheels, wheelsets, couplers, brake parts and pipes, and piles of ladder stiles and grab irons. When we might have to replace one of those in the course of fixing a car, I'd have to trudge up the little hill, pick through the mounds of junk, and find something that I felt could be used. Often I'd have to do a little blacksmithing on my own to make the part serviceable. I would heat, with my torch, the ladder stile or grab iron and then bang away at it with a hammer on an anvil. My great grandfather, Adam Haenel, had done similar work for a living. Author photo.

Low Grade, 2007. This single track is all that remains of the MCRR's Low Grade. The line is owned and operated now by an entity I don't know the name of. I don't know where it originates, where it terminates, or what its purpose is. Author photo.

MonCon railroad bridges, 2008. I'm not positive but believe the bridge at the right was the railroad bridge (which now carries auto and truck traffic) and the one at left was the hot metal bridge, now a foot and bicycle bridge. The photo looks north across the Mon River. The Eliza furnaces would have been just to the right of the lower bridge; downtown Pittsburgh is out of the photo to the left. Author photo.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Upper Level Details (B&W photos)

Some notes:

At the rear of the upper level (the mill area) is a corner formed by a scene block and the apartment wall. I've built this corner up about two inches and populated it with flats and 3D buildings representing various mill shops, delivery points (by road — there is no trackage in this space) and so on. Four house flats at are right, adjacent to one of the three high tension towers positioned in this area (which bring power to the mill). Next to them will eventually be three tenement apartments I'm building from scratch. Those will be at ground level, with their roof tops at a level to that of the lowest house flat's roof (the houses themselves, or the backs of same [since only the rears are represented], are stepped down).

Visible in these four shots are the two tracks that come up to the mill area. One (where the ore cars are in the photos) goes up to serve the blast furnace stock house, where iron ore, coke, and flux (limestone) are stored and then taken as needed from there to the tops of the furnaces by skip cars. This is known as the burden, or charge, for the furnace. Once a blast furnace is "blown in" it never stops, except for periodic maintenance (or some malfunction or emergency). This track is generally known as "the high line" due to it being elevated somewhat above the ground level trackage in the furnace department. On the MonCon Railroad at J&L Steel's Pittsburgh works, this was called the high grade, for some reason. The main running tracks, on the other side of the furnace alley itself, were referred to as the low grade; one supposes this is the explanation. These tracks fronted the Monongahala River. Most high lines in blast furnace departments consist of two tracks, sometimes more. On the MCRR there were four on the high grade, and two additional tracks that went into the stock house itself. Factors of space precluded me from representing more than one high line track, however.

The track to the right leads to the blast furnace itself. It splits on the grade, with one line running up and into the furnace cast house (after having split, itself, into two tracks), and the other running in front of the cast house for slag service and as well to empty the furnace dust catcher. Additionally, this track divides, with one line serving the rear of the #1 electric furnace positioned below. Both of these tracks go off the layout into "infinity" . . . ostensibly to a connection with a Class 1 railroad or to some other part of the plant not represented.

Note: beneath the bridge at this point runs the layout's left side mainline track, at ground level. This is the only track that runs in a "circuit" (offering continuous running).

(In the future I'll post a diagram of the entire "railroad."

Empty ore cars heading downgrade

Upper Level Detail #1

Upper Level Detail #2

Upper Level Detail #3