Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Canadian Layout "à l'anglaise"

The time has come to introduce a new series of article based on a less conventional approach to layout design in North America. Which is the reason for the title: Donnacona: A Canadian Layout "à l'anglaise" because I'll draw a lot of ideas from the UK small layouts tradition and will merge them with North American prototypes in a French Canadian context. It is no secret here, this blog made a name for itself over the year by challenging received ideas and experimenting unusual approaches. Nothing was new, not everything worked as can testify my layout cemetery, but if I can judge by the limited but insightful feedback I got over the years, I know it rang true with many of you. One one my best work has always been the "Thinking Out Loud" series based on my inquiry about an early 20th century layout inspired by Temiscouata Railway. While this project has yet to come to fruitition, it was an excellent way to test my limit and the new project inherits the same state of mind.

I hope this new series, with the going on pandemic, will provide inspiration and start meaningful discussions about our hobby. Instead of retiring myself in the basement and fill empty space with meaningless scenery I'm not sure I care about, I thought it would be much more relevant to explore new techniques, new approaches and a different way to see our hobby. It probably won't be that great, but subjects will be balanced so everyone can find something to think about. This is a global design process, meaning that artistic ambitions will have to take into account realistic train operation and other traditional questions raised by model railroading. It is also a collaborative effort, in the sense that what you see and read is the result of intense discussions with talented modellers and layout designers. You can't create something from nothing and they know that.

To put things in context, a few months ago I tried to build a rural module to be connected with a continuous loop, but it was too big and looked clunky in my hobby room. My fault! It seems I didn't follow my own lessons about the perfect size to be immersed in within a scene... 10 feet is a lot of real estate to fill when it's not your goal. Recall when I said after 7 feet, your eyes could no longer distinguish anything? So, I came back to what I generally do better: plan small scenes. I wanted something as we often see in Europe and UK, well-framed and focussed on a specific aspect of a railway. Looking at the already built module, it was evident a 6 foot lenght was more than enough on my plate!

I made it clear to myself from that point going on that I didn't care to represent all the rail operations, wanting only to work with what made an enjoyable scene and was considered enough to have a decent operation session. I first started with the idea of a small switching layout with a runaround and sidings on both side. On the right would be an industrial plant, maybe a paper mill, and on the left would be a small loco shed and a hidden staging. Overpass, structures and landforms would provide the required elements to hide how the railway would connect with the module ends.

This decision was linked to my oldest design experiments. When I was in high school, I had to practice design with almost nothing. I recall my father gave me a 36" x 14" particle board on which I often laid temporary tracks and used boxes, wood blocks and a few plastic structures to compose scenes. One of them was an urban main line with a station located in a trench with two road overpasses on each sides. Unfortunately, back then, I didn't had the skills to materialize the design into something that would work. I was also unaware of such concepts as fiddle yards, stagings, cassettes and sector plates. I built solely on my intuition and artistic senses to make something that felt real.

Over the year, I came to embrace prototype modelling. After a while, I became convinced replicating as close as possible reality was the single and surest way to achieve realism. While true in some sense, it was a  diminutive approach and slowly, my layout designs started to be stiff and lifeless. The many compromise with Hedley-Junction made me realize you had to reinterpret reality through a narrative lense. Without a story to connect with, the layout was stalled. If too whimsical, it was bound to loose realism and be no longer able to provide a mean of immersion. The answer was somewhere in between... and I started to see layout design as music composition. This wasn't a surprise because since my formative high school days, I always wanted to create a layout like to sketch a drawing or paint on canvas.

But as you know, the bigger a sketch is, the harder is it to keep it focussed. Worst, if you start to bother too much to get every detail orthogonal you end up loosing you create impulsion that connects all the parts together. It means that for a layout to be highly artistic, I had to keep it small. Certainly, this is a rule that applies to me, I'm better at design smaller things than large one. After a certain size, I loose the sense of scale... while some others excel at working with large canvas. Confalone is certainly a good exemple of this second kind of people...

Donnacona Paper Company in the 1950s

Armed with this knowledge, I knew I would do something small, achieveable, that could fit my space in my old house full of windows and doors and implementing a good canvas for scene composition and artistic license. Quickly, this idea evolved from something totally freelanced until I discovered the track plan I was designing was strangely looking like the old Donnacona Paper Co. in Donnacona, QC. That mill formed an industrial canyon. On the north side were the heavy industrial processes associated with pulp making, including a large boiler house, acid tanks, a digester and a wet room, all served by a siding for unloading raw materials. On the south side were the paper making processes from treating pulp to newsprint manufacturing. It was also served by a siding, mainly dedicated to shipping finished products to New York City as Donnacona Paper had lucrative contracts with The New York Time. According to Hunter Hughson, the Donnacona mill was somewhat original in it's vertical integration of the wet processes. Don't ask me the minute details about these since my knowledge of paper making is sufficient to grasp the general processes but not more, but this arrangement made for a geometry perfect for a layout.

Donnacona Paper Company in the late 1910s

Indeed, how often, with three parallel sidings, can you capture without noticeable compression, the entire paper making process? Add to that the office building was also located in this nevralgic spot, meaning averything that matters occuring at that plant was centered on that office, from receiving coal to shipping newsprint or keeping tab on employees punching their work shift at the time office by the warehouse...

Better than these pragmatical observations, it meant that if Donnacona was a layout, the first thing you would notice, your connection to the industrial world, would be the access road leading to the office. This office was also interesting because its proportions were very home-like. A large two-storey brick house, 30' x 36', with a warm enclosed porch welcoming visitors and providing protection from the cold winter winds of St. Lawrence River. Not only this detail was homely but it created an interesting narrative surrounding the harsh canadian climate and how it was dealt with in Quebec. And why I stress this cozy feeling is because as humans, we always search for a connection with railways. Most of the time, grade crossings, rural roads and stations provides such a connection. If you want to realistically be immersed by a model scene, it must start from one of these plausible connections.

The "home" office provides such a connection. Both by its central location on the access road, which if often the only place you can see operations at a paper mill in real life, but because the building offer an experience close to what we feel about a welcoming and friendly residence. For some reasons, from construction until very late in its existence, the board of directors at Donnacona made a point of pride to let their office be covered in lush ivy. Set in the middle of a see of messy industrial stuff, this cute enclosed porch and ivy-covered brick walls were an oasis of humanity and nature which seems, to me and Chris Mears, the perfect place to start your journey exploring the beauties of a mill in action.

Another human connection is the era and rolling stock use. According to documentation, back in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, Donnacona Paper used to acquired old locomotives from Canadian Northern, Grand Trunk and Canadian National for switching duties. Most were 2-6-0 and 4-6-0, and they also had a 0-6-0T. Some photographic evidences also show 4-4-0 were also used from time to time. These small steamers from the late 1890s and early 1900s were also at a human scale. Still large, but not beast, and their old time look was also another connection point. Indeed, for most people, old steam locomotives are generally characterized in popular imagery by what most you call erroneously "Far West". While due to a lack of knowledge, everybody can connect with these while they would hardly connect with a GE 44-ton switcher or a Big Boy.

A cute 0-4-0 at St. Anne Paper Co., Beaupré in 1962 (credit: Bill Grandin Coll.)

On the layout, such a locomotive would wait on a service track by the cliff. Only its smoke stack and domes would protude over the landscape for the casual viewer... creating an interest to walk down the access road up to the grade crossing whre it would be possible to have a better glimse at the steel horse ready to feed the mill. 

An ex-CNoR 4-4-0 switching at Donnacona in 1927

Another interesting aspect is the second hand nature of these locomotives and their provenance. By the early 1920s, CN was in the process of melting together various railway networks of different kind. Canadian Northern provided the original backbone of Canadian National to the point the reused the paint scheme, the classification system and various other practices of this underdog railway gone bankrupt. The line in Donnacona was itself one of these whimsical CNoR rural railways built to link smaller cummunities together and provide new accesses for goods and passengers. For this reason, setting the layout in the late 1910s or early 1920s, let's say 1923, we are able to capture that fascinating era of Canadian history when industry was booming and railways were in mutation, making it more than simply trains rolling on tracks.

Incidently, who says 1923 says old freight cars of small dimensions, which is perfect to amplify the size of the mill in a narrow space, but also to relate to the human scale which is central to this project. It was also an era of experimentation with early all-steel cars, single sheathed designs, old 36ft boxcars and newer 40ft beasts.

So, basically, this layout is an exercice in framing to tell a stronger narrative and offer an immersive experience in a small space. Certainly, it's not all about aesthetics and several considerations must be taken into account such as:

-Must replicate a plausible rendition of a real place

-Must offer a modicum of operation challenge in a realistic fashion

-Locomotives must travel all over the layout

-Scene composition must have a strong focus point which initially draw the eye and connect us with the theme

-Buildings must replicate a convincing industrial process

-Topography must create a natural environment

-Color palette must be consistent and shared by backdrop, structures, scenery and rolling stock

These aspects will be explored in future installments, but they provide another way to look at layout design. I don't pretend all these ideas are new, they aren't. While I don't read that much about layout design (magazines, books, videos, etc.), I draw inspiration from others' work which I try to understand, my training as a professional architect and also from discussions. In that regard, I want to thank Chris Mears which is probably one of the most interesting voices in Canada on small layout design. He is able to merge his historical and technical knowledge with out of the box concepts that you would find in arts circles, while keeping it accessible. He provides a different perspective which, at the end of the day, help to make a project progress while keeping coherence. In that regard, our recent discussion on shapes, composition and color palettes were all grounded in this day to day experience of railways;the human connection.


  1. A long but enjoyable read, amd im looking forward to seeing you develop this plan, and the resulting layout. For me 6ft is beyond the sweet spot, but I suspect that is due the narrow nature of my workshop restricting me from stepping further away from the layout. Your ideas for using the prototype to inform an artistic interpretation of the model should result in a wonderful composition.

    1. Thanks James! I'm starting to believe my sweet spot for a module is 5 feet at best. Perceptions really change a lot when you shift from a large layout to focus on a single specific scene. The amplitude of space can quickly become a hindrance in terms of scene composition. 5 feet is closer to the cinematic experience which is more adapted to our vision field. As I work on this project, I discover playing with proportion in an artistic way involves a lot of iterations. You can no longer approach layout building in a assembly chain fashion.

  2. Very interesting concept. Can't wait to see this one develop!

  3. This sounds fascinating Matt. I hope you share the design process and iterations in detail. It'll be good to see how a concept develops through the various stages.


    1. Hi Mike! That's my goal, I've been collecting pictures and sketches showing each iteration. I think I'll present the content in a not linear fashion.

  4. I'm anxious to see and follow the results! ...and compare with my own Donnacona Paper plant. I really appreciate the color picture. we see details much more than an old black /white photo.