I nostalgia

In yesterday’s post I mentioned about the layout LIRR on The Railwire is building, HO Somewhere in Appalachia. The photo above is a linked image from that thread of two cabooses being worked on for that layout.

Nostalgia is a thing that plays heavily into model railroading. Probably into most parts of our lives. When I think what nostalgia means, in model railroading, I had only really considered how we use model railroading as a tenon connecting our today with a place in our past. A place in real railroading that we experienced and can’t otherwise return to so we recreate it, in miniature in our basement so we can return to and continue on as if that timeline had never been interrupted. While reading LIRR’s thread I thought about nostalgia, since the cat was nearby, we talked about what nostalgia meant. Over first coffees I started to think there was another dimension to nostalgia that I hadn’t considered.

My first train set was in HO scale. It was from Life Like and had one of their CP F7’s pulling a Swift refrigerator car, a CN twin hopper, and one of those Life Like Reading style cabooses painted in yellow and decorated for CP. That’s more than forty years ago now. I still have the caboose and, of course, the memories of everything else. Life Like engines had a certain sound and smell when they operated (like Lionel engines do too) and I swear I can still remember those attributes too. This photo shows my HO scale model railroad from my early teenage years at about the apex of its development.

All things in life are more richer than they seem. More complex and more diverse and worth exploring as part of a contemplation on their alternative meanings. Nostalgia is no different. Reading LIRR’s thread again I pause a little longer when I see the F7’s leading those coal trains; coal trains made up of twin hoppers, and pictures of Reading-style cabooses being built to complete those trains. Nostalgia here isn’t just seeing a connection, via a third party medium like someone else’s model railroad to a place in our past but also to a vision of what could have been.

When I had my twin hoppers and cabooses they were favourites. I’d later buy more of the Life LIke twins and then the Athearn ones too. Discovering Bill Henderson’s Coal Belt was so exciting because his layout looked fantastic but, in it, I recognized things I had. That what he was doing was what I could be doing with the stuff I had. I was richer than I thought I was. That’s pretty exciting.

My imagination is always easily triggered. I love seeing all the places it takes me and how it helps me to see the world as it is and as it could be. In those F7 led, twin hopper filled, Reading-style caboose trailing trains I see a representation that feels familiar because it feels like what I dreamed I might make of the models I had maybe one day if I practiced this hobby and got really good at it. That, it’s like a new kind of nostalgia. Not just nostalgia as a place to remember but a place we haven’t been yet. That nostalgia can drive our work because it reminds us of things we wanted to do when we got older or that missing thing came into our lives. That I don’t need to know anything about coal railroads, that part of the country, or anything about the Southern Railroad at all to feel a real attraction to that model railroad because there’s a coincidence of connection that exists between the cool things being done with models that at least are like the ones I had and the dreams I had for them someday. Maybe it’s a bit too myopic to see nostalgia as an album of places we went and things we did and maybe it’s also a guide leftover from a journey started but not yet finished.

Coy’s run down track is an example, perhaps, of exploring nostalgia as a muse. That kind of track was the kind I’d always wanted to build and then I did. It didn’t need a connection to a real railroad because it was the result of a vision for track that I’d placed on reserve for someday. Maybe I’ve been thinking about ideas for future model railroads all wrong? Maybe they’re not the result of finding the right prototype but considering what other unresolved projects there are left in that back catalogue? Nostalgia is a drug to be managed so it doesn’t become a world on its own but it might be fun to start from a place with no destination beyond a series of wayward things that need a home. A twin hopper that just needs some weathering and maybe air hoses; a caboose that needs a train.

Like discovering the Coal Belt in the pages of RMC, discovering HO Somewhere in Appalachia is the same rush of emotions because of a connection. Once again seeing familiar looking models but cast in stunning roles. The layout looks simply spectacular and its made from things I know.

Categories: How I think

6 replies

  1. I’m curious what opinions the cat shared on nostalgia.

    • What Vanilla thinks on the subject of nostalgia is a lifetime of writing on its own. She’s patient with my rambling so long as I stay still and don’t disturb her “listening” (even though her listening looks a lot like what we might more typically refer to as napping…).

      I talk to the cat when we’re having our Saturday morning coffee and model train video watches. I talk to the car when I’m running errands and driving on my own. It’s a broad group of “listeners”…ha!


  2. F7 – tick
    Swift refrigerator car – tick
    CN twin bay – tick
    Non prototypical Canadian liveried van – tick…

    This is an interesting meander through your reflections and a great muse for our own. Thanks Chris…

    I too share those early models…
    I too get excited by things I see and want to recreate…

    This last week I’ve been in a part of Scotland I’d wanted to visit since I was about 10… reading a copy of Railway Modeller and seeing a Scottish inspired layout…

    I’ve spent the past 48 hours desperately trying to avoid impulsive purchases connected to that nostalgia, reignited by visiting places that connect to a time and place I remember wanting to be…

    I love your blog.

    • Good morning and welcome back! My introduction to Scotland and its railways was thanks to Michael Palin’s Great Railway Journeys and I was, as he opens with, “hooked”. In this whole idea of a nostalgia for the unexplored–a nostalgia for not just what was but was hoped for–is a model Scottish railway adventure here. In penning this post on nostalgia I was reflecting on how we exist in another binary state where “nostalgia” is a fixed place in real time we return to by the medium of model railways and “inspiration” is a place discovered in the present tense in the work of our colleagues and want to go but from this current place. It’s fun to contemplate at least this one extra dimension to nostalgia as a repository of the unexplored and unventured.

      As a blog series it might not be very fun reading but it sure feels like it would be a wonderfully indulgent set of writing: what through we’d do and how we thought we’d do it. For me that would include some very Scottish railway projects like a repowered class 37. When I first got hooked on late 1970’s early 1980’s Scottish railways, like we all did, class 37’s were Lima’s or Hornby’s. Both were riding on power trucks which just didn’t seem to be a design I liked as much as I liked in American designs for mechanisms. I had this dream of hacking an Athearn or Atlas drive (of the time) with new and larger diameter wheels) and fitting those parts inside the class 37 shell to create a model that was as strong as it looked. Time travels and today that project seems silly because Heljan’s model is already doing and better what I’d dreamed of. That leaves behind projects like those that return to Reading-style cabooses and twin hoppers.


      • Did you ever see the ‘dyna-drive’ system? There was a Lima 37 rebuilt with that in Model Railway Journal many years ago, it was a sort of mechanical version of what many DCC decoders produce in an electronic manner these days… the Accurascale 37s look superb, but I keep thinking about the N scals experiment…

        I also keep thinking about the enjoyment I get from breathing new life and detail into older models… the Dapol a class 26 or Bachmann 24 in N scale might be a way forward for me… but perhaps you’re suggesting more of a intellectual hypothetical conversation? It as always sounds fantastic.

      • I’m not sure if I remember “dyna-drive” but your mention of it reminds me of various pre-DCC, pre-“command control” systems that were based on miniature clutches. In my mind, at the time, I really enjoyed rebuilding Athearn drives with different gear ratios and like changes to tease out performance. I had one SW1500 and one GP38-2 that were my big projects testing these theories. Certainly, they were noisy but they were tanks and a joy to operate with. Looking at the power-truck powered class 37’s I couldn’t help but wonder if you could make up a new drive so a model class 37 could work as tractor-like as the real one did?

        Examples like these and the ones you suggest certainly do fit into this conversation. When I read and reread LIRR’s thread I’m reminded of things I wanted to do and I’m infatuated with things that I never considered and now see I underappreciated. In N scale I like code 40 track but know damn full well I’d be perfectly happy using Atlas code 55 track for a layout instead of handlaying. Those rail sizes correspond to codes 83 and 100 in HO. On that layout he’s using Atlas code 83 track. It looks good. All this time I’ve been agonizing over what to do, narrating myself into a corner, and not seeing how there’s an option here that represents meaningful forward progress. Empowered by his evidence I could see how a larger layout in my someday soon space could easily be built with the same track and I’d never, never ever, second guess the wisdom of that way forward.

        Same with those hopper cars and cabooses. I’d also mentioned Bill Henderson’s Coal Belt. Henderson used the Varney and Life Like twin hoppers because they were very close to what he needed for the era the Coal Belt was set in. Seeing those familiar models in such a realistic composition was so exciting. Less a case of nostalgia and more a case of remembering but I wonder what I could be doing if I returned to my own time and a small fleet of those cars?

        I’m certain my fascination is simpler than it feels like it is. It feels like one more place to look for a kind of inspiration. It’s easy to see great ideas in the stories of real railroading then consider how to represent it in miniature. Equally, it’s fun to operate on a friend’s layout and think that something like that, at home, would be as satisfying. I can relate to both. This additional layer of nostalgia is perhaps as simple as looking not at the prototypes or past model railroads that used to fascinate me but the ones that once felt so close to where I was, that I related to then. A return of sorts to pick up a past story and see where it could have gone by taking it to where it could go.


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