Weekend Reading: Kingston Portsmouth & Cataraqui Electric Railway by George Dillon & William Thomson


A benefit of winnowing the magazine pile is the discovery of treasures long unseen. I spent most of my formative years in Kingston, Ontario and despite being a transit enthusiast from an early age I remained ignorant of the streetcar predecessor of bus based Kingston Transit. This little locally produced gem was my enlightenment.

Every city and town who could manage it had a local, privately run electric railway system back in the day. Kingston was no exception. Dillon & Thomson describe the growth of the system from horse car beginnings up until the almost universal car barn fire during hard economic times that spelled the end of electric operation.

This particular version of the local line history is a treat for me since I am so familiar with the area. My parents regularly took me to Lake Ontario Park when I was young to ride on the rides (especially the 15″ gauge miniature railway). I wondered about the funny double line of trees along the edge of the park in front of the courthouse and so on. It turned out that both were remnants of the electric railway.

Published in the early 1990’s by the Kingston division of the CRHA, this book is typical of the locally produced volumes with no glossy paper and black and white photos of moderate reproduction quality. On the other hand, it is signed by the authors was priced at $8. (I have no recollection of where I acquired it.) I am keeping this one.

Weekend Reading: The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen


The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention by William Rosen is not a book about railroading despite the cover (which is what caught my eye). I would call it train hobby adjacent. William Rosen tells a readable story of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the importance and interconnectedness  of inventions of names we know such as Watt and Trevithick as well as many most of us probably don’t know.

The main theme of the book revolves around inventions and the control thereof by their creators. Rosen’s thesis is that English common law’s treatment of patents is what made England such a standout at the foundational inventing that powered the Industrial Revolution.

I found the book an interesting and accessible read. The focus is not on technical minutia but it was enlightening to have various necessary supporting inventions covered. I had never considered that such things as precision measurement and boring of large cylinders represented inventions that somebody had to develop.

This book is still available in paperback and e-book form. It even has its own website which makes it more mainstream than most hobby books. I enjoyed the book in general and  learning about the origins of the external combustion engine we love in particular.


Weekend Reading: Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong

TPfROIf there is a model railroading book that does not need a review, Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong is it. It is not an overstatement to assert that all layout planning in the North American tradition is based on this book. I found my backup copy in the course of the ongoing shop cleanup and I am moved to share a few thoughts on this treasured book. Originally published in 1963, it is still in print and widely available.

I acquired my original copy from the Lewiscraft store in Kingston, ON in the late seventies for $5.99 which was a princely sum for a twelve year old. If only all my youthful purchase were so rewarding. John Armstrong was a master explainer and I avidly absorbed his ideas through his friendly prose. I still enjoy re-reading sections although I think I have the thing mostly committed to memory.

While I consider John Armstrong’s influence to be enormously positive on the model railroading hobby in general and myself in particular, I do wonder if this influence caused our general obsession with cramming as much layout as possible into the available space. John’s “by the squares” method starts with the minimum acceptable radius and is used to see how much will fit. Many of John’s inventions or inventions he popularized focus on getting yet more into the space: double decks and mushrooms, vertical turnouts, helixes, and inverted return loops come to mind. To this day, Model Railroader’s layout at a glance sidebar will tell you things like how big the layout is, how long the mainline and so on.

Is bigger necessarily bad? No, of course not. I have had the pleasure of operating on some large layouts with a large crew and it is intensely rewarding. But those large layouts are the product of a great deal of effort and resources. Usually, the layout owner is supported by a crew of dedicated helpers. I wonder how many maximum sized layout efforts have died under the weight of excessive ambition for everyone achieved. I know I have a few monsters in my past. Most never go beyond the planning stage but I still tend to go from a simple plan to three decks and eleventy-miles of track in rapid short order. My approach to Comstock Road and choice of 1:48 scale is a deliberate effort to rein in that tendency.


Weekend Reading: Model Building with Brass by Kenneth C. Foran

modelbuildingwithbrassOne of the things all modelers should consider doing is looking outside their particular niche for methods and materials that might be bring something new to their repertoire. Model Building with Brass by Kenneth C. Foran was recommended to me by a modeler who knew of my beginning brass modeling pursuit. I second that recommendation.

As you can tell from the dust jacket, Kenneth Foran builds beautiful large scale models of various vehicles to a incredible level of detail and finish. The full-page and two-page colour photographs are a highlight of this book.

This is no coffee table decoration, however. Kenneth shares many of his methods in detail including tools, fabrication and finishing. Step by step examples give you an idea of what can be accomplished. Some techniques are not obviously applicable to model railroading. For instance I am not sure how I might use something like electroplating but I am ready if the occasion arises. On the other hand, Kenneth’s techniques for fabricating things like gas tanks and working brake pedals would easily translate into things such as tank car ends, brake rigging. diesel noses and cab interiors. If you want to model a prime mover right down to working pistons, this is definitely the book for you.

Model Building with Brass won’t tell you how to build railroad cars and locomotives but it can probably teach you are thing or two that will make things easier and improve your results. I consider the book a good buy for the sheet brass fabrication techniques alone.

Model Building with Brass is still in print and available through the usual online sources.

Weekend Reading: Scratchbuilding for Model Railroaders by Bob Walker

sb4mrrs.jpgI remember thinking some years ago that Bob Walker’s Scratchbuilder’s Corner column in Railroad Model Craftsman embodied a wealth of knowledge that should be turned into a book.  This was apparently not a special insight since not long after, along came Scratchbuild for Model Railroaders. If you ever intend to build a structure be it kit or from scratch, you would do well to own a copy of this book as a reference.  Note the dogeared corners on mine.

In the same self-deprecating conversational style he uses in his columns, Bob covers everything related to scratchbuilding structures from basic tools and materials all the way up to moulding and casting. Things are spelled out in straightforward fashion and include warnings on common mistakes.

We are fortunate that White River Productions has picked up and continued the Carsten books including this one so you can buy it new online right now. There is a lot of information packed into this volume and at $19.95 USD it is probably just about the best value for money available in the hobby today.

Weekend Reading: Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton

Reading is the one hobby I have pursued longer than model railroading. Naturally, some of the former involves subject matter relevant to the latter. I thought I would share some titles that I have found interesting:

Scratch-Building Model Railway Locomotives by Simon Bolton is an accessible read covering the subject from a start useful to the beginner new to scratch-building in metal i.e. me.  This was an exciting find since the articles on the subject in such wonderful publications as Model Railway Journal tend to assume a basic level of knowledge and experience that many of us in North America lack.

Simon describes the construction of a simple British locomotive in a cheerful style illustrated with many colour photographs and hand drawn diagrams. Tools and techniques are introduced and explained in detail.  Neither is unachievable by the average intrepid modeler.  No lathe or milling machine required!

Even if I never actually scratch-build a locomotive, I learned several techniques that I have already put into use.  There is a sequel, Scratch-Building Model Railway Tank Locomotives that builds on the first book while tackling a more challenging modeling subject.  Both books are available through certain large online book sellers in North America which is how I found them when searching for books on the subject.