I see…

This Bruce Nelson photo is one of my favourites. It’s March 1970 on the Branford Steam Rail Road. That track, their internal fleet of twin hoppers; this railroad has held my imagination since first discovering this railroad in an article in Railfan & Railroad magazine. It’s this I have in mind when I’m putting my two On30 hoppers on my little piece of track.


“I can do this” feels so good compared to the same intentioned but sometimes easily overwhelming “I should model this”. An unhealthy part of my experience is the space between those two simple phrases. The power of emotional attraction to a moment harnessed to our hobby’s one great and unique superpower is the ability to go there and live precisely in it.

“I started as a model railroader.”

The Carrabasset & Dead River was probably the first railway I feel in love with. When I first saw it and first read its story it was the way Frary and Hayden composed their scenes, the way they built up the colour palettes of their scenes, and I still believe this, no one weathered like Frary and Hayden to communicate that look of machinery of work, at work. A C&DR engine or train was worn but worn like any preferred tool of work from our collection. Worn like work. Worn by hands.

For years the C&DR was my single source for narrow gauge railroading. As my exposure increased it would be joined by the passionate writing of Moody and his Maine Two Footers. I discovered a love of the Prince Edward Island Railway but even this is informed by “first love”. When our interests are forged in passion and emotional aesthetics those become the important dimensions describing the real world and their completeness makes trivia all the silliness of build dates, track gauges, or “how the prototype did it”. An importance born in why something feels right and feels important over one inherited from pragmatic evidence alone. Laying in a hammock on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Cape Breton I thought about my favourite references in our hobby and how they are almost always “proto freelancers”; those modellers who model the real places but in their own voice using the medium of model trains to tell the story of their experience, modulating the way they present their model railroad increment by increment and through part or whole iterations as they refine their relationship with the story they need to tell those they share it with. Among the things made clear from my blanket cocoon inside in a cozy hammock by the ocean, in Cape Breton, a couple weeks ago was that sense that I had found clarity and moved on.

At home I’m spiking down probably my most stripped down layout project. Same space as Coy and its relations but even more simple. I apologize because I have no want to project a message of exclusive ambiguity like some crazed provocative artist but a calm that washes over you when you realise your work is to tell your story in your words. No one knows your prototype like you do so starting from language that is an inventory of the physical plant of the railroad might just be a distraction overpowering your voice. No one was there with you. Even if you visited together with your best friend the uniqueness of that journey is yours alone: you were with them, they were there with you; you both saw it and the decision to see it was enriched by being tempered by the influence of your friend yet coloured by why you decided to be present that time so same but different. Once you’ve let go of those points it clears your vision as powerfully as cleaning your workspace to prepare it for your next session.

Practice your craft and in that practice your voice so you can breathe your voice into your work to animate it with why and welcome. Ted Chiang’s beautiful quote above changed me. Of course that to speak we are modulating breath and without breath we are without life…giving and receiving life. We don’t need one universal way to do anything and waste our energy insisting on one rule for all. It’s just that it’s not so far-fetched to move toward practicing this in a way closer to our claim. Because this hobby could be art we can reference outside the hobby. Songs and stories; poetry, painting, and sculpture. All detail the sound of someone’s relationship with an event.

At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”.

The captain wired in he had water comin’ in and the good ship and crew was in peril.

You don’t need to know anything about the Edmund Fitzgerald beyond the story Gordon Lightfoot told. Colour of the hull? How many portholes were there on the cabin? How was it fueled? There is no one way to be a model railroader and never has or ever will be a right way. There is only your way. Use this hobby to say what you need to say in your own words.


Categories: How I think

6 replies

  1. Beautifully written, wonderfully composed, probably ‘almost’ the perfect blog entry.
    I wish I had your turn of phrase, your patience with the written word… to often the rest of us are lazy writers, occasionally stumbling upon some brilliance, but the rest of the time just describing what we do… your blog ALWAYS delivers on more than just that, there is an emotional intelligence that is conveyed from screen to brain when I absorb myself here. I love that.

    • You’re entirely too kind. I look back on these posts and ones like what we’re collaborating on in the Hilton & Mears series and see evidence of a craft I can see myself in expressed in terminology that looks like a hobby I would promote. I feel like I’m going through a period of realisation and the evidence of that appears in my outputs in places like what I’m writing here on the blog as well as that little bit of traditional modelmaking I actually get done on or near the layout.

      I think we can practice language so we can interact with our lives within the hobby as we would our chosen communities outside the hobby and adopt references like we would. Maybe this is how we make the hobby relevant beyond its fascia? If it’s art or like experiential expression why not empower it with the same tools for interaction? I know I have been killing myself by starting from the “start with a prototype you want to model” point and working backward to creating a model. For me, personally, that process doesn’t work and results in a pattern that isn’t healthy (too much time browsing obscure websites looking for long out of production models only to serve the needs of an arbitrary point and then getting frustrated when all that investment of time doesn’t make that dream come true). So much introspection helped me see what was in common with what I was attracted to and helped me see what I needed to–what made diverse prototypes or inspirations equal in my eyes and how I could present those instruments as one composition.


  2. Hello Chris,

    I have followed your informative posts for sometime. You have a facility for creating narratives for your layouts. The question I have is: would you be willing to share your process for producing these narratives. I have a freelanced layout and I am not sure how to produce a narrative as I am not much of a story teller.

    Thanks, have a good day,

    Richard Miller

    • Hello Richard, wonderful to hear from you and thank you for the kind words.

      I’m ready to help if I can. Thinking about your question I think important pieces of advice for developing that sense of story are things like:

      Outside the hobby we’re familiar with terminology like “a life’s story” and there’s something in that. It’s the story of a life but it’s also a story of a life to date and, finally, a story that takes time (a life “time”) to assemble. We don’t need to have the whole thing written out–we can just remain focussed on the part that we know and can tell right now.

      The more I think about railroading the more I realise that I like the idea that there’s an ecosystem-like existence where there’s a railroad that is bigger than us and it extends beyond what we can be near so there’s a story of that we could learn from reading about the bigger railroad or there’s that closer story, the one we observe by watching what we see in front of us when we visit the railroad.

      On your model railroad maybe don’t worry so much about telling the full story just yet. Just as you keep working on your model railroad and changing it, its story is evolving too. What’s something happening on your layout that you really connect with? Maybe it’s a particular industry or train. Is there one part of your model railroad you particularly gravitate toward? Why?

      When we sit down to write, as I do at work or here on the blog, I often start writing from the place where the story first surfaces. It might not be at the beginning. Once the writing starts the rest starts to fill in around it. A great story is one you believe. What would you like to tell me about your model railroad? What have you learned to do while building it? What’s working out really well?



  1. Branford favourites – Prince Street

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