The invisible mill

St Leonard track in1

I’ve driven from “the East” to Montreal so often now. Along that road are two places that seem to have inherited a certain special significance. I’m not sure why and, by now, it’s too deep to question and both are in St. Leonard, New Brunswick. On one of my first of these trips I stopped at the Tim Horton’s in St. Leonard to buy a coffee. Returning to the car I switched on the radio and heard, for my very first time, both NPR and Garrison Keillor’s radio show The Prairie Home Companion. The second place is in the same town: the Irving sawmill just west of town. You can see it easily from the highway. The railway crosses under the road to serve the mill and you can see, peeking out from behind the mill, railcars at the mill. I always hope to catch the sight of a train serving the mill but, so far, no luck. So, in the span of one town, the stored emotional memories of these two unrelated things that I look forward to reuniting with, each time I’m driving through. Last time, though, I didn’t just drive through. I stopped. I left the highway and I went in.

Most of the sawmill, certainly the business end, borders the road that takes you from the Trans Canada Highway but still there’s a sense of how the road bisects it. Most of what’s on the other side of the road is storage for wood chips created by this sawmill that will be loaded into railcars and shipped to other plants, somewhere else, to be made into other things. In the opening photo at the top of this post, I’m standing on this road, the mill is to my back and I’m looking along the rail line toward town. The rich scent of cut lumber is the air, joining occasional snow flakes, saw dust, and the sound of trucks doing important truck work like you do in December.

St Leonard layoutplan1Back in the car, the above layout plan came to me. No turnouts and yet, I think it really works so let’s give this a try and see how it works. (I may as well apologize now for the above drawing is a photograph of the drawing and not a scan so it’s just not that good a quality of image that I’d prefer. I’m paying the price of being too lazy to plug in the scanner and I’m sorry. I hope it’s still legible enough to aid this study.) I’ll explain the drawing relating the following notes to places marked on the drawing and have labelled a number of them by letter. The main scene – the scenic area that is the layout proper – is the space between points F and A in the above drawing. When we adopt the typical theatre analogy in model railroad conversation The Train is the actor and it is here too, even on this layout with no turnouts and just one line of track for The Train to move back and forth across the stage on. For a story to work, we need some obstructions that force the actor to react and to punctuate the experience and these are: the derail (D), the road (B), and the fence (A).

Hole in the sky at F – enter stage left

Operating the layout always starts from the off-stage “staging yard” at G on the drawing. The train breaks through the sky (the backdrop) at F and appears on stage. Now, the play begins.

Derail (D)

The real sawmill is accessed by only one track that crosses the road and immediately fans into a variety of sidings for each part of the sawmill. Before it can enter, the train must stop at the derail (D), a member of the train crew must drop onto the track, and remove it so the train can proceed. In just about every modelling scale larger than HO these days we’ve figured out how to make a working model derail and ours will need to as well because the action of stopping our model train at this point not only replicates the prototype action but also is the first part of our play’s script. With the derail open, our conductor is back on the train and radios back to the engineer: “Shove ahead two cars.” Our model derail works just as the real one does and for our operating session to “work” the model must interact and we actually use it.

Road crossing (B)

The operating rules stipulate that before the train can occupy the crossing: it must come to a full stop before the crossing and wait until the crew are assured the crossing signals are active and the crossing is free of traffic. Once these steps are confirmed, a member of the crew must flag the train into the crossing as protection. It was fun listening to our model train enter the scene from off stage. I always enjoy the sound of a diesel engine “loading up” from stop to shove its train into action and these same joys are repeated again here: stop, wait with only the sound of our paused train at idle, the grab a notch on the throttle and it’s a hard shove forward. The model road crossing is marked by crossing lights and our model ones work. The point of including them is to add the break in the movement of the train while we await their activation so automated sensors are not needed. For this to be a success we just need a simply toggle switch that we flick On or Off to activate the crossing signal – letting go of the throttle to do this interupts the flow of the session in a way we enjoy.

Fence (A)

Of course before we can even consider entering the mill property our crew must actually open the fence that borders it. The mill is busy with movements of trucks and tractors and there are people everywhere. Our train will need to enter in carefully so its movements do not threaten the delicate environs of this place. Returning to our operating rules from the railroad we must check with mill’s representatives before unlocking the gate and entering the site. Our pause at the crossing (B) is made longer by the added step of opening the fence (A). Yup, the fence needs to work too. Just as have actually removed the derail, turned on the lights, we need to add to the game or play by actually swinging open our model fence.

Our operating sessions opening act is that first movement across the stage from F through to opening the fence (A) and entering the sawmill property – represented on the drawing but completely off-stage and is actually the other hidden staging yard at H. In a fast version of our operating session we just traverse this once and switch it all off and just walk away.

St Leonard loading flatcars by the road

The real sawmill has a gate to open but is not actually fenced from the road. On our narrow shelf we can assume either projects past the border of our scene. It doesn’t matter which option we choose. Interesting, at the real sawmill the day I visited, was the loading of bulkhead flatcars with finished lumber on one siding that is happening almost immediately inside the mill, after entering the property by crossing the road.

Deeper into the mill there are sidings for delivering or loading any imaginable variety of things a modern sawmill produces or needs such as the woodchip loading spots that appear in the above photograph.

In the drawing I propose a traverser or sector plate style staging yard in the hidden, off-stage, sawmill at H. There are no turnouts here, none are needed. In an operating session the layout could be operated like a popular Inglenook with the train shunting cars among at least three sidings at H. It would be no less satisfying shunting in this fashion than any of these popular shunting puzzle style operations. If we’re purely operating this layout it won’t matter that half is scenicked and half is not since our attention is divided by the joy of listening to our sound-equipped models moving through the scene, the validating joy of perhaps even using one of those exciting ProtoThrottles, and sorting through the cars we’re adding or subtracting by our switchlist on the sidings at H.

When the layout is stored the two staging areas (“wings”) are not attached and are stored (who cares where right now) so all that is visible is the original and detailed scene spanning between F and A. It’s a subtle, perhaps even mundane in the most satisfying way, diorama we can proudly display in our home. This scene is enveloped and is a defined by the container it lives inside that provides a built-in lighting valance and the flanking vertical walls of the backdrop.

St Leonard track in1

I’m repeating the opening photograph again to provide information on what is provided in our scene. The end and back borders of our scene are the same variety of trees that will someday be the food of the sawmill. Setting the scene in early winter, such as on the overcast day I visited, softens the colour palette so when the scene is viewed from further away it’s visually easier to digest. The dark green of the evergreens is countered with the pile of sawdust and plowed snow that shows on the left side of the above photo. I never considered how sawdust would spill from the just-loaded cars leaving the mill but there was a beautiful line of it bordering the track. In our model we need that as a signature or defining detail. That derail(!) What a chance to add one very beautifully modelled thing in our scene. It’s bright target marking its location. Like a sentry guarding the gate of a mighty castle it controls the start and points in our play – an operating session hasn’t truly started until the derail stops our train, while the derail is opened, and the play isn’t over until the derail is returned to its protective position.

Hamilton Kinnear July 2001 Scan0010

It’s a common question we ask, when considering a new track plan: “Is it enough?” and there is no prescription anyone can offer to treat that symptom. I was always first a model railroader and later a railfan. As I spend more and more time trackside I know how content I feel as I study or observe the railroading unfolding before me. I never question that joy and return, these days almost daily, to the same place on the railroad to watch the same scene unfold and to restore that same sense of calm satisfaction. I know it is enough there and can’t avoid the temptation to consider the same connection at home, in miniature. (The photo above is one I took at my original haunt, a place I could never, never ever, spend enough time at: the west end of CP’s Kinnear Yard. I loved being there and watching that trio of sw1200’s at work and love is not too strong a word here. I was never poor, never hungry, never alone when I was here; it was sanctuary and I could go there and be there and while there, nurture the chance to be here. I never said thanks out loud but I was never any less grateful. Thank you CPR.)

Youtube video from Trevor Marshall showing the working S scale derail on his Port Rowan layout:

James McNab uses both working derails and a hinged fence, both must be cleared, on his HO scale Grimes Line layout. Check out this Youtube video of his to see both in action:

This link should open a Google map of the location of this sawmill in case you’d like to visit sometime:

Matthieu Lachance really sparked my imagination when he proposed this no turnout layout design concept and I like crediting my exploration of the concept back to his work. Check it out on his blog here:

In 13th and North, Mike Cougill has created an important and powerful exploration of this concept. The blog on his OST Publications page contains a number of posts on this project, its evolution and direction, but I’m recommending you jump in here because he’s included an annotated visual in this particular blog post that will remain one of my all-time favourite presentations:

I’m fascinated with this concept and believe it has a lot to offer as a design concept. I think this is my first post on the subject:

Categories: How I think

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5 replies

    • Thanks! I think it has a certainly ‘atmospheric’ way of working that felt so possible as I continued on, in my drive toward Montréal that day. As a scenicked layout it still has so much potential for genuinely good modelling and flanked by the staging wings would equally suit some enjoyable shunting.


      • Absolutely.

        Atmospheric is a great way to put it.

        By having more atmosphere and less stuff jammed onto the layout you have more time and space to really drill down (slow down) into the operation.

        The things you mention like having to take the time to open the derail, guard the crossing, open the gate and etc are what make this most interesting.

        I often find that the details such as those mentioned are lost when operating on larger more crammed layouts where everyone is essentially by the end of it just rushing to get everything done before the session ends.

        Different strokes for different folks- but I know that I’d rather putter around at 10km/h and take in my locos, the sounds, the rolling stock, the trackwork- just the operation as a whole, over being rushed around.

      • And I think that in the last decade we (model railroaders) have progressed to include things like working derails as steps in operating and not simply neat parlour tricks. In this layout the working fence and working date are not only obstructions the actors (trains) work around but actually act as bookmarks in time marking the beginning and end of significant acts in each operating session.

        Sound has come so far in our hobby. The models sound amazing! I want a stage to appreciate that. We’re still largely designing layouts using track plans from the silent era but now we need room to appreciate the movement of each train as a single actor with their monologue instead of a big, chaotic cast.

        Thanks for enriching this thread with your thoughts. I appreciate them.


  1. Chris is you lived nearby we’d have a hole wall of projects like this! I love the description,
    I think the opportunity here is to really up the quality of modelling too, as these compact cameo style layouts mixed with operation do offer the chance to spend longer getting the feel right.

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