New York Rome’ance…

New York, New York, there is just something special about classic shortline railroading in the region. Smoking Alco’s and infrastructure that has seen better days, ex-mainline low slung GP9s crawling along uneven grass infested trackage. Whilst sharing video on the Mohawk Adirondack and Northern’s Boonville switch with James he commented on the model-ability of both this and other scenes in the centre of the state, specifically the Rome area…

Still Getting It Done
Mohawk, Adirondack and Northern Railroad GE 80-tonner 1670 switching at the Sovena plant, Griffis, Rome. Photo: Dave Blazejewski, Image embedded from Flickr

I love choreographing a prototype into a workable scheme and my pen had initially focused on the Boonville mill in my usual cameo style but as our conversation developed, thoughts turned to a larger layout. In Chris’s ‘My Favourite Prince Street’ you will find a wonderfully evocative description of rail-fanning a New England layout and I know that Chris considers this the best layout he has never built. Once you’ve taken a look at where this started, come join us as we railfan the Mohawk Adirondack and Northern…

James Hilton, May 2022

Their operation in Rome just begs to be a fantastic small layout project. Scenes like this remind us of the Claremont & Concord or Springfield Terminal, but perhaps where they forgot about the light rail and just started running the bigger engines anyway… now that we’re talking about it, this scene is both a real one from a real place you can visit to railfan a real railroad. The true definition of prototype railroading with no need to wander beyond that frame but at the same time this same place easily reminds every one of us of similar scenarios from our own railfan experience that it’s as much a stimulus as much as focal point. Seems we all have that friend who makes everyone feel at home no matter how new the relationship is. Does it need to be exact to be correct? Maybe this is where our summer Rome-ance starts?

Crossing the Mohawk
Mohawk Adirondack & Northern’s Rome turn heads back to Utica with three. The C425 was built in October 1964 (50 years ago this month!) for Erie Lackawanna; it served BC Rail before coming back east. Photo: Mike Yuhas. Image embedded from Flickr

I do have a bit of thing for Alcos. When I was a child I always wished for an Atlas Century in BC Rail to arrive under the tree at Christmas after I saw similar locomotives, aged 9, north of Vancouver. I’ve been aware that many of them, upon retirement from BCR/CN have found a second home in New England but it wasn’t until Chris pointed our how many ‘model able’ scenes present themselves in this part of the world that I considered it a layout project. New York and ‘New’ England. I guess I’ve always had a blind spot to this part of the world, passing over to the Prairies of Canada or Rocky Mountains in both Alberta and Colorado… That said, thinking back we’ve been in this neck of the woods before, as another favourite of mine, the Susquehanna, has the street running in Utica on Schuyler Street. Things began innocently with Chris suggesting a different take on the feed mill…

James Hilton, May 2022
My sketch for the mill, left, and James’s sketch for the mill, and what came next, in front of the fire with the dog beside him.

Rather than a pure cameo, I had in mind an around the room layout that also featured the wonderful road/rail bridge in Rome. The operating sessions are more about rail fanning with just a spur at the mill and the only other trackage on layout being a single double-ended siding just after the bridge to act as a kind of yard. James McNab had one like this on his Grimes Line and I loved how well it worked…

And for the cast? I’d set this in the early 1990’s and typical power is Lamoille Valley stuff. Last year the hobby shop here had one of those Atlas RS32’s with the chop noses in LV “paint” and I second-guessed myself and someone else bought it. I was not my best Mears in that moment.

I love the things Chris describes in this composition, especially the round the room nature – I do miss letting trains just run and sitting back to rail fan. I’d considered a similar scheme (see my doodle above, in front of the fire) when I’d sketched out the Boonville cameo. For added interest and because I love it I added one extra scene – the street running in Utica and the Matt FX brewery. 

James Hilton, May 2022
The railway room – sketch by James

I imagine my work bench and library, along with my stereo, underneath the layout. This is a windowless room, a luxurious library with deep warm carpet and the railway brightly lit by hidden pelmet lighting. A nice comfy sofa and reading light, to finish it off. The sort of place we all dream of escaping too after a day at work, where minutes become hours with a good book and a train running, or sharing a cup of tea or beer with a good friend.

James Hilton, May 2022

This aesthetic exactly as you describe down to the couch and meandering style of operating session. Absolutely engaging but still passively railfanning. I originally thought of this as an operating session high on intimacy and that’s still not wrong but also an operating session that acts like a good host inviting in a variety of operators regardless of the path that brought them here. We tend to think of the operating session as one having a defined start state followed by a linear progression of codependent events that terminate when all the requirements requested have been satisfied. But James was talking about all those different Alco’s and there’s no reason you couldn’t just as easily use this beautiful room-sized layout to host a series of part-operating sessions while a friend visits some Sunday afternoon. Instead of dedicating to one script in an operating session you could explore various in a kind of freeform version. Maybe once through with one on the ground and the other in the cab? Maybe on the third time we swap out the motive power? Maybe we run one for the railfans so replay spotting that one car until the right frame is exposed?

This conversation has been a self indulgent dive into what sort of layout we’d love to co-create and I hope you’ve enjoyed following along. For a look at our other shared writing the ‘Hiltonandmears‘ label collects all the blog content in one place. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this style of layout, and what would drive your own version? What is behind your chosen location, period and railway or railroad?

As always, head on over to the The modelling workbench of James Hilton… to see what James is up to or see the latest updates on the tramway in his garden like I do most days:

Categories: hilton & mears duo

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3 replies

  1. I would rather look at James’s drawings (and now yours) than most people’s finished layouts. Your works are at that dreamy evocative stage where all is possible and nothing has been limited by the need to force screws into recalcitrant timber.

    • I remember a William Kentridge comment where he describes what it’s like to draw using charcoal. How it’s so soft that it disintegrates during use and inevitably smudges the page. How those smudges are the evidence of the motion of creation and the proof of the process used to create the work. In building our models our stress is to accurately miniaturize the components of the real thing but that process only captures a likeness of their form. In beautiful design works like we see from James or people like him is a drawing that feels alive in a way more realistic than the models will express.

      I’m not sure why that is but suspect it’s part because the sketches and drawings are from pens held in our hands, communicating an idea from us inside to a paper in front of us. I suspect it’s part that in model form we deal in an opacity of finish that is complete yet in sketches textures and colours are rendered in varying shades that communicate form as much as emotion.

      I have a Rye & Camber sketch from James that embodies just how good the sketch is and how I could never build a layout as powerful or emotionally complete as the drawing that inspires the work. I think this is where I get so excited about the idea of a publication dedicated to the art of layout design. A publication that doesn’t need to convert the page to a form beyond a drawing so the design remains as this beautiful thing inviting our imaginations to visit the one expressed onto the page by that designer.


    • Thank you Marshall, that is both kind and artfully and emotionally described. I love it.

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