Saturday, July 16, 2016

Thinking Out Loud - Part 6

I'm not sure how far the Thinking Out Loud series will go, but I'd like to address another reader's question raised in a previous post.

A few days ago, Simon Dunkley kind of challenged me to give a thought about building the Temiscouata as it was in the early days of the line. He makes a good point about it because it was the heyday of railroading and lots happened back then. I must confess I recently entertained myself with the idea of building the Somerset Railroad in Maine as it looked circa 1910 when Maine Central bought the line. While doing so, I discovered many builder photos of MEC engine from Edward J. Ozog collection (he built a very nice website about steam locomotives of northern New England railroads). Their mighty 2-8-0 were once neat and tidy locomotive with pure lines.

Honestly, I’ve always been mesmerized by the sheer lack of late 19th century-early 20th century Canadian layouts. It’s rare in the U.S., it’s even rarer in Canada. It’s as if nothing existed before the 1920s. At some point, you feel modellers just don’t care at all even if historians did a good job drawing a portrait of that era.

Most people like to say it’s the lack of motive power and rolling stock but I’d like to call bullshit on that one. Whatever the era or theme, “mainstream” or not, the same issue occurs to everybody one day or another. If you are following Canadian prototypes, you are bound to use your creativity, whatever the era you fancy. That’s also true for someone modelling the ATSF in the 1970s-1980s.  Also, many steam locomotives prototypes people use on their layout were built in the two first decade of the 20th century. Ten wheelers, Mogul, Consolidation, Mikado, early Pacific and many others were built back then, even the big Mallet and small tank engines. Lots of affordable models exist and Harold Minky made a very interesting listing of what could be done with readily available models. Anyone caring for the early 20thcentury locomotives should browse through his incomplete but eye-opening listing just to understand it’s not a dead end.

There’s a lot of potential and, anyway, Canadian modellers constantly bash steam locomotives. Thus, what’s wrong in back dating and painting them as they looked before Canadian National’s creation? Imagine a brand new Grand Trunk 4-6-0 or 2-6-0 with its polished boiler and bold road numbers. Fantastic!

It is distressing that I’ve virtually never seen someone model the Grand Trunk railway when information is so abundant and decals are available. It’s like if Canadian National was born from empty space between 1919 and 1923. Canadian Northern was great too and there’s no reason to not model that great and varied road, many freight car decals exist. To be honest, I once saw someone in Quebec painting an old Mantua Prairie locomotive as Canadian Northern. I was evidently a foobie, but still caught my attention greatly and I felt the modeller gesture to show he cared about our past.

Another “loser” is Canadian Pacific, a favourite of 50% of Canadian modellers (I’m making up the numbers but I’m probably not far from reality). Why CPR will you wonder? You see a lot of large steamers with Tuscan red trims from the transition era, but seldom are seen the numerous 4-4-0 that graced the transcontinental in the golden era of railroading. Also, you never see tanything painted in the early paint scheme that had nothing to do with the ubiquitous Dulux "Canadian Pacific" spelled in serif font on the tender.

Which such a lack of interest?

The fact these railways, for most of them, thrived on public subsidies then ended in bankruptcy and scandal seems to have driven an involuntary campaign of historic suppression. Most books always treat these companies as political instruments or foolish capitalist ventures bound to fail: a mix of simulated grandeur and blatant scam. Add to that the fact the two big transcontinental railways - CPR and CNR - dominated the landscape for three generations and no wonder nothing's left in folk's memories.

While the reports about these companies being not that great isn't completely false, we must understand they weren’t entirely bad companies. Grand Trunk was a vital link between Quebec, Ontario, New England and the American Midwest and still is the business corridor in Canada to this day. Canadian Northern, among many bad decisions, did good things and not it been for bad timing and the absurd Grand Trunk Pacific, it may have been a major player until this day. Maybe their Mont Royal tunnel spelled the end of the corporate entity, but nobody would think today it was a bad project! While Intercolonial was never a powerful road, it did have impact on Quebec south shore and the Maritimes. It is now part of VIA Rail most important corridor (again). Canadian Atlantic used to run fast trains competing with Canadian Pacific between Ottawa and the United States. Among the fastest locomotives of the time ran there. And let’s not forget the National Transcontinental which prompted the construction of Quebec Bridge, developed mining towns in Abitibi-Temiscamingue and bolstered Northern Ontario economy. For many decades, it was a competitive corridor.

Sure they crumbled like frail houses of cards, but they made a lasting impression plus they were built during the golden years of railroading when locomotive and rolling stock were still glamourous machines bringing progress and prosperity.

To me, forgetting their legacies is similar to forgetting Pennsylvania and New York Central because they failed miserably when the wind turned in the 1960s.

Honestly, I made many searches on online about several famous Canadian fallen flags and only reaped a handful of (very) crappy pictures and generic historic notices. Online CNR steam rosters helped to identify the road number and original owner, but not that much since only their CNR period interested the authors. When we think Canadian National fleet was mostly made up of Grand Trunk, Canadian Northern and Canadian Government Railway locomotives, it is distressing... at best.

Sure, the pictures and history of these locomotives do exist in archives and printed books, it's not a hidden secret, but they have absolutely no echo on the web which is a good indication that nobody care to model that era nowadays. The data is available and nobody model the era... what's going on?

If you are aware of people modelling CNR predecessors, let me know! As you may suspect, I already started to dig the subject with the help of well-known Ontarian steam era modeller Doctorwayne and we believe it’s not the easiest way out there, but it’s certainly feasible without being driven nut! There’s a lot of potential out there well worth a future post if readers are interested in that era and what I found.


  1. Good question, Matthieu. I think people model particular eras for a variety of reasons:
    - they grew up in that era
    - they like a particular type of locomotive
    - they like a particular railway

    I doubt there are very few modellers still alive today who experienced pre-CN railways first hand... and if they did, they may not be the Internet-sharing type.

    For me I don't care much for steam so early railways don't hold any interest. I like diesels and I want to be able to run Alcos, so that rules out the current day.

    1. You've got a good point. There's virtually no more living person in Canada that have memories of these old railways, automatically eliminating everybody how could have modelled them out of nostalgia. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, there should have been some people doing so... Sure the recent disappearance of steam had a profund impact at that time.

      As for Alcos, it's common knowledge they are steam locomotives in disguise! You're just blinding yourself from the glorious truth!

  2. I like your exploration of this Matthieu. I'd add that from an operations perspective, the general rule is that small scale models (HO and N) of steam power is less reliable than diesel power. This is also true of larger scales, with some exceptions: It's easier to get the mechanism right in S or O.
    A person who wants to run trains but likes steam may choose to model the transition era - the most popular era in the hobby - so that they can have steam on the property and for photographs, but use diesels during operating sessions... at least until they can tweak their steam models to run better.
    It's also a situation that has improved somewhat in recent years with the introduction of better steam models.
    - Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64, where I DO run steam...)

    1. Thanks for these addition points Trevor. Indeed, factoring reliability in the equation is a matter of death or life for a concept. No wonder many of the best Civil War era layouts are mostly done in O scale. When you take in account the fact a 1870 4-4-0 in O scale is as big a large HO large steam locomotive, the argument a space becomes irrelevant.

      It's the reason why I see circa 1905 as a cutoff in HO. Beyond that point, better change scale for the sake of reliability and appreciating the details.

  3. Hi Matthieu,

    First, thanks to Simon Dunkley to pointing out your blog. I'm delighted to hear that you're considering modelling the Temiscouata.

    You're right, there aren't many of us modelling the precursors to Canadian National. Richard McQuade and Graham MacDonald are both modelling the GTR, but those are the only two that come to mind! Oh, and me, of course, modelling the Canada Atlantic :-)

    Nowadays, the people who even remember steam in the transition era are starting to thin out. So, the nostalgic reasons for modelling that timeframe are disappearing. It was still an exciting time on the railroads, but I would submit that the time before the Great War is much better for us modellers.

    That was the time when even very modest railroads had a great abundance of traffic because cars and trucks hadn't come along and wrecked everything. So for example, on my own 20 mile branchline, there were six scheduled trains per day! Because the trains were short, there may have been occasional extra freights as well. Yet, the terminus yard consisted of only two tracks; talk about achievable!

    By going earlier, you get high traffic density with shorter trains, and less track to build. In most cases, if you're modelling a period after the Great War, you either have a huge physical plant to build, or you have to make up reasons to run more than one train per week.

    Come on in, the waters....interesting :-)