Vernon River in HO

My friend Calvin has started a blog to chronicle “Modelling the village of Vernon River, PE on the CNR’s Murray Harbour Subdivision c.1958.” This morning he posted the first article in a series, describing the construction of CN wood reefers. As he says, these will absolutely be signature rolling stock for a layout set in Prince Edward Island in the 1950’s. Check out the post here:

To say I’m excited about a friend modelling the west end of the Murray Harbour subdivision is an understatement. Calvin does superb work and I’m very, very excited to watch this project unfold.

In his book on the railway, Allan Graham credits the above photo as Keith Pratt’s and dates it 1940. It’s Vernon River. We’re standing on the main road connecting Georgetown to Charlottetown. The railway continues east to Lake Verde, then onto Charlottetown, and eventually the rest of Canada to the right of the photo and Murray Harbour to the left.

That lone coach at the station, I believe, represents a farmer’s market novelty: the railway ran special passenger trains into Charlottetown for the market. The train originated in Murray Harbour but was so popular that by Vernon River an extra coach was needed. Rather than drag the extra coach all the way to Murray Harbour it was strategically placed here, added to the westbound train, and removed from the eastbound run.

Almost a time machine


You could not have asked for a nicer Saturday. With some of the regular errands out of the way we headed east to the Elmira Railway Museum. In addition to a great community museum, the site includes the a complete wye just west of the site. Where the museum has seen steady change over the years, the wye remains untouched. What a great resource given my interest in pursuing a model railway set during the spring and also to gather some more data for my track files.

DSC01678Standing here and looking across to the other leg of the wye it’s not that hard to imagine a pair of 70 tonners shoving another half dozen reefers into place. Setting aside some pretend nostalgia, it was great to study the railway in this landscape during this time of year.

DSC01688With camera and notebook in hand it was great to really study the details and record them, as I described earlier in my post about a track database:

  • Elmira’s wye was built adjacent to the main track. It was designed for turning trains and not to join branches so there are two turnouts on the main track and the third leg, is a stub.
  • The two main track turnouts have 1:8 frogs. The third turnout is a wye with a 1:6 frog.
  • I measured rail height in at least two dozen random locations within the station proper and then out on the main. On the main the rail ranged in height between 5 and 5-1/2″ tall from base to the running surface. In the station, one of the sidings was laid with rail that ranged in height from 4 to 4-1/2″.
  • Tie spacing seemed to range between 24″ and 28″. Naturally, with thirty years since the last train ran through this station many of the ties are rotten and have shifted. This measurement is based on those where the ties felt like they were still in their correct location.
  • Tie plates were still present on the main track but not on many of the station sidings and the stub-ended tail track on the wye.

PEIR ties, rail, and observations

Recently I posted an idea for start a wiki, or like repository, to collect information on railway track. I wanted a place to collect details like:

  • Rail. Size in terms of weight (e.g. “25 pound rail”) and also dimensions (e.g. 4″ from base to running surface)
  • Ties. Were they rough-sawn logs? What size and how were they spaced?
  • Roadbed. Was it graded with ditches or was the track just laid on graded ground?
  • Ballast. Dirt, local shale, imported gravel?
  • Track hardware. Did they use tie plates?

I thought I’d start at home with a copy of Allan Graham’s book on railroading in Prince Edward Island. I’ll expand this preliminary set of observations deeper by exploring further into my paper and photo collection on the PEIR but thought even this much might help frame out an example of how I see this repository could look.

I leafed through Allan’s book concentrating only on images depicting the Prince Edward Island Railway during the narrow gauge period. From those photographs that showed track details and from this group I’ll note:

  • Page reference from the book to help remind me where the observation came from
  • Location we might be able to corelate these into greater assumptions covering an entire subdivision or branch, during a particular period.
  • List particular observations or dimensions that I can make out from what I can see in the photo
  • On dimensions, knowing that the track gauge is forty-two inches, I will assume dimensions based on a ratio comparing what I can measure in the photo to the gauge (constant)

So, here’s what I found:

Page Location Year Tie Design Tie Length Tie Spacing Rail Height Tie Plates(Yes or No?) Notes
67 Alberton 1905 Rough sawn logs 8′-0” 20” 5” No
67 Georgetown 1907 Rough sawn logs 70” Can’t discern 5” No
68 Georgetown “Turn of the century” Clean sawn logs 9′-0” Can’t discern 4” No
75 Charlottetown 1907 Square 6′-6” Can’t discern 4” No
96 Coleman 1903 Rough sawn logs 7′-0” Appears closer than 20” 5” No 4x bridal rods on stub turnout
107 Cape Traverse Before 1918 Rough sawn logs Between 5 and 6 feet Appears closer than 20” 4” No Graded land no ditches
123 Lake Verde 1905 Rough sawn logs 7′-4” Appears closer than 20” 4” No Graded land no ditches
127 Murray Harbour 1905 Square 7′-0” 20” 4” No Graded land no ditches
128 Montague 1910 Square 7′-0” 20” 4-1/2” No
139 Hunter River After 1907 Square Can’t discern Can’t discern 5” No
151 Charlottetown After 1907 Square 90” 20” 5” No On dual gauge track
150 Colville Undated Rough sawn logs 7′-4” 20” 5” No On dual gauge track

In the notes in the first chapters of the book, the author quotes on the design of the first track built on the PEIR:

  • 40lbs rail, 24′-0″ lengths
  • 2,200 sleepers per mile
  • 8′-0″ ballasted roadbed

If my calculations are correct, that tie spacing is wider than what I’m seeing in the photos though each case (above) several decades after construction started and it equates to a tie spacing of about 28″ which is wider than what I see in the photos. This spacing certainly speaks to a colonial design for the railway and an influence we’d see in those charming, in appearance but not in suitability, tank engines the railway would open operations with.

So what do I like about this approach?

I like that the photos were all taken around a similar period of time, within a few years of each other. This tight frame of reference feels like assumptions from one photo can be related to others in the set.

I like the variety in terms of location on the railway. Even on a railway as small as the PEIR each branch was different in terms of traffic, both in frequency and train weights, and also age. Given the tight time band it’s interesting to note that in locations along the heavily trafficked western road (see Alberton, Coleman) we see the same rough-sawn logs for ties as we see on the short-lived Cape Traverse line and on the relatively new Murray Harbour branch (see Lake Verde and Murray Harbour).

Tie spacing seems consistent but tie lengths varied wildly. My estimated lengths are only that but comparing relative lengths within the same photo shows inconsistency in the tie lengths. In terms of translating this look onto a model railway, I’d worry that it would just look sloppy. Stephen Hatch has posted a really neat article on modelling this style of track on his website and his work looks terrific, compared to mine concerns so I’m really just worrying for nothing here. Here’s a link out to Stephen’s article:

I tried estimating the height of rails compared to a measurement of the track gauge. Each time I estimate a rail height between four and five inches. I’m pleased with the consistency in my outcomes compared to the shaky assumptions built into my methodology.

Though not noted in the above table, I wanted to touch on the roadbed and ballast in broader terms and based on what I saw when I concentrated on this detail and not the trains that were the actual subject of the photo. Ditching was not as consistent as I would have assumed. That said, I’m basing this first assumption on photos taken within stations and not on mainline track. Ballast on the PEIR was locally quaried. Though referred to as stone, there is very little actual rock on the Island and most of this would have been sandstone. It must have been lousy in terms of drainage. The ballast in most of these photos is not graded level with the top of the ties and typically reaches up only about half the depth of the tie leaving a pronounced air gap between the base of the rail and the top of the ballast profile.

So with what was little more than clay and dirt ballast, I expected grass but the more I looked into these photos the more I realised this bed of grass was everywhere. I equate a grassy right of way with the neglect that precedes abandonment but in these photos from what was a very busy railroad, there is grass growing everywhere. In that Cape Traverse photo referenced above the grass is nicely cut. I wonder how the railway kept the grass and weeds in check? Teams of section crews with scythes diligently clearing the line?

Finally on track hardware. Plain track was spiked with four spikes, two per rail, directly to the ties. In none of the photos did I see tie plates. Turnouts were granted more hardware. I realise I don’t have as many clear photos showing detail at the turnouts as I’d like. Lots of photos showing the area around the frog but few at the points. I have a few photos of stub turnouts on the Island. I don’t know the correct technical name for the switch stands but they are of a framed, rectangular design and not the “harp” style we typically see associated with nineteen and early twentieth century railroading. Some time ago I posted a drawing and some notes on these stands (see Switch Stand Design)

So this is my start. What do you think?

As for the backdrop I’m writing this against;

My pantry is filled with various glass jars filled with herbs, spices, teas, and coffees. I’m proud of the vista it provides when I look into it. I don’t tend to label anything in there and rely on a pretty strong palate to guide my time in the kitchen. With this introduction, I am assuming that the particular jar of coffee I grabbed this morning contained beans from The Black Duck in Sackville. Regardless, I brewed some really nice espresso from that and am enjoying the last of it now.

I’m streaming music through Youtube in the background while typing this post. I’m picking a pretty self-indulgent list that includes some excerpts from things I like but haven’t remembered in at least a year. So far, there’s been a lot of Radiohead, Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, and right now, Duran Duran. I’m really enjoying the list but must confess that I’m a bit shocked since I had Danko Jones on my mind when I started. [In the hour it took to write this post, I grew exhausted of Youtube’s constant need to interupt videos with advert’s so I went to real albums and finished this post playing Radiohead’s The Bends and remembered why this album is so very much so a part of a collection of five I’d happily live in seclusion with] Why? Several weeks ago, my brother quietly assembled a fantastic evening with all of us Mears boys. It’s been far too long since we last got together. I love those guys. We really never get together often enough. Over a wild variety of favourite beers we excitedly worked through an eclectic stack of favourite albums and I left the evening, very late the next morning, feeling compelled by a sense of needing to get back into full albums more often and actually listening to music again. Thanks Adrian.I thought I had a longer footer for this post but I don’t. Those last words in the previous sentence are where this ended.Thanks Adrian, I love you.

This is inspiration

Steve Hunter kindly shared this photo he took it in 1981 at Mount Albion, Prince Edward Island. The subject is my favourite railroad operation and in the frame he found a way to capture why. This scene is central to my own layout’s inspiration. I’ll never have the words to properly thank Steve for sharing his passion for the railroad with me or inviting me into his archive.

There’s just so much to drink in from this photograph and it tells so many stories it’s hard to know where to concentrate one’s attention.

The train is sitting on the main line. We’re facing Hazelbrook and ultimately Charlottetown. When the Murray Harbour sub was first built this line actually continued straight into Charlottetown on a bridge across the Hillsborough River. The bridge ultimately proved too light and by the 1950’s was closed. The subdivision was trimmed back, station by station, to Hazelbrook.

The track. This end of the Murray Harbour subdivision is characterized by 70 and 50 pound rail. This kind of rail is as light as it sounds. Despite the light rail, fresh ballast and ties on the main signify an ironic effort at stabilizing the track itself. I intend to develop the passing loop on my layout to match the condition of this scene as accurately as I can.

On the siding is a pair of 70 ton diesels. These engines were such a feature of Island railroading. By the time this photo was taken the mighty fleet was down to a scarce few.

On the main, out train consists of three of CN’s new insulated box cars. These three boxcars represent the entire traffic on this end of the Murray Harbour subdivision for the year and could be considered to be the finest ever produced to carry the Island’s potato crop. It’s almost an insult to the farmers that they entered service so late. As much as we modellers hanker for the time worn leased reefers that CN relied on for the two decades that preceded the arrival of these cars they were just not what the farmers needed for their crops and, in turn, their livelihoods.

There’s just so much contrast in this photograph. Model railroad magazines paint images of railroads “dying out” as if they die a slow, decaying death. Maybe our’s was different since it died fighting back. It’s this middle ground I’m looking for in my own layout. In so many ways, is this the railroad as the craftsman pledging to do the best it can with the tools, materials, and energy it has? I like to think so.

Thanks again Steve.

Diesel-driven engine makes first run here

Pretty exciting headline eh?

I’ve mentioned the excellent online newspaper archive at before and how much great stuff there is waiting to be found inside. Today was another of those days where a trip into the archive returns another great nugget of Prince Edward Island rail history. Most of my searches are part of a greater project researching freight patterns over the railway. While chasing down a lead on coal sales I started wondering what might have made the paper with regard to the first diesels on PEI. After all, our Island Division was the first on the entire Canadian National network to be dieselized. Never one to dissappoint the archive returned this wonderful account of day one:

Click on the image to read the full edition at

Click on the image to read the full edition at

Those two 44 tonners were really part of something big. While not a photo from that first day, one of my favourite photos features one working this same Murray Harbour service. You can see a copy online in the CN Images of Canada website hosted by the National Museum of Science and Technology:

While on the subject of the 44 tonners, check out Trevor Marshall’s video on Youtube featuring an S scale model he made:

DeBlois Brothers, Esher Street 1990

Originally built for the Charlottetown Can Company, I always knew this building as a location for the DeBlois Brothers. It was located on Esher Street in Charlottetown and was rail served – though I never recall seeing any rail cars placed here.
DeBlois Bros Esher Street Charlottetown 1990

I only have these two photos of this building. It was large and of classic shingled industrial design. It would look terrific on just about any model railway and should be a great model to consider building.