An S Scale Journey

By Edward Loizeaux

My model railroading travels began with a Lionel train around the family Christmas tree in 1945. Some years later, the middle third rail became annoying and a change to HO was made. I still remember those fantastic photos of John Allen's layout in the Varney advertisements. I knew then that was what I wanted when I grew up. Here I am 75+ years later with that childhood dream almost achieved.

In the early 1960s, my HO ran poorly. Brass wheels rolling on brass rail in a dusty basement with a coal-fired furnace was not a wonderful experience. I wanted something better. Not yet knowing about brass oxidation, the obvious solution in my mind was simply going larger. Eventually, a new scale choice had to be made.

O scale was immense and very expensive. Scratch that idea for a young fellow just starting out in life. On3 was very appealing. The perfect size, a reasonable amount of equipment, interesting layouts and so forth. But there were no lightning striped diesels in On3. No Hudsons. Nothing which even resembled the NEW YORK CENTRAL at all. Scratch the On3 idea. One fellow at work invited me to see his OO layout which was a smidgen larger than HO. While OO was interesting, not many products were available. OO got scratched. What was left?

S scale caught my attention by way of a small advertisement in Model Railroader magazine. Some person in Allentown, PA was offering an information package about S scale. So I sent him a few bucks and the information soon arrived. That's when the fun began. One entire evening was spent writing multitudes of miniscule checks to pay for catalogs, newsletters, magazine subscriptions, flyers, club membership, and so forth. If I was going to check something out, I might as well do a thorough job of it. The next day about 30 envelopes addressed to total strangers and unknown (to me) companies were placed in the mailbox.

Somehow, a distant modeler learned I was exploring S scale and invited me to see a club layout in Los Angeles. My good-natured wife and I drove nearly two hours on a dark cold rainy night to see S scale actually operating on a large layout. Can you imagine seeing an entire layout wired with enameled magnet wire? Not knowing about magnet wire back then, I couldn't figure out how short circuits were prevented. It looked like a fire hazard to me. Why in the world would anyone choose to use it on a large layout? The explanation was simple: the club obtained all the wire for free. Some things in life have not changed over the past seven decades. Is everyone frugal? Or just the S scale crowd?

Seems as though the fellow in Pennsylvania told his friend in California about me and the rest is history. It did not take long to figure out that the S scale community was quite small. Was that a problem? I wasn't sure, but was starting to think about it. My S investigation efforts, however, were very enjoyable.

S scale had it all; NYC diesels and NYC steam. So, in 1968, I bit the bullet and plunged into a new and different world. My S scale goal from the outset was a large operating layout reflecting the NEW YORK CENTRAL.I greatly admired John Allen's achievements and wanted something similar. That desired end result has never changed over the past seven decades as I steadily added equipment, track, structures and scenery.

I built some so-called wood stick craftsman kits which were amazingly similar to HO kits produced by Ambroid. Remember Ambroid? That orange-colored glue with an addictive aroma which attached everything to anything? I still use it. Eventually, I met the only other S scale NYC enthusiast on the west coast who was a great inspiration for attempting new things in S scale. Lack of a commercial product never slowed him down one bit and he taught me to be adventurous.

Thanks to the S Gauge Herald magazine, I learned about converting American Flyer equipment to operate on NMRA-compliant scale track. After the AF conversion era ended, along came American Models with injection molded plastic kits. Whoa!! I was in heaven at long last. Could it get better? You bet! Tom Marsh of Overland Models imported brass locomotives in S scale for the first time ever. Hallelujah!!! Then Pacific Rail Shops, S-Helper Service, SouthWind Models, River Raisin Models, and several other new firms sprung up with new and interesting products. Finally, S scale had it all.

Had enough history?

Let's talk about the layout and the major decisions which had to be made. My trusty EAGLE #2 drawing tool and quad rule graph paper were up to the task of sketching out alternative track plans. John Armstrong's book Track Planning For Realistic Operation became my bible and traditional church on Sunday mornings took a back seat. The longest possible mainline soon became my primary goal. This decision lead to an around-the-wall track geometry which circled the room three times for a total mainline run of 305 real feet. Industries and sidings would come later along with a yard of some sort.

Design and construction were well under way long before DCC entered the scene. Once DCC became popular, layout design concepts rapidly changed to facilitate operating sessions which were heralded as the new frontier. I was soon told that my layout was 'old fashioned' and a 'spaghetti bowl' of track, which it was. But I loved it and would not change a thing. I soon added DCC and scratched the idea of building a large control panel full of toggle switches, light bulbs, meters, power packs, track diagrams made from tape, etc. Instead, a small black throttle in my hand did the job quite well and is an amazing technical achievement in a small physical package. NCE has served me very well over the years.

I soon learned that building a model railroad layout was very time consuming. After about eight years, I stood back and assessed where I was compared to where I wanted to be. It was a sobering experience. I then realized there were only two choices: (1) tear it down and build something much smaller, or (2) ask friends for a lot of help. I decided to ask for help and figured that if that didn't work out, I could always tear it down and start over as a last resort. Fortunately, many train buddies were happy to assist and I soon became more of a Project Manager than a model railroad layout builder. Projects and tasks which did not require on-site work would soon be farmed out to helpful friends.

Over time, 55+ people have contributed their skills and time to help this layout become a reality. Folks all over America have assembled kits. Local California fellows have done a lot of kit-bashing and some scratch building. An amazingly skilled craftsman in New Zealand custom built (for a fee) two electric P-2b motors which are among my favorites. The P-2b project was done in NZ after several domestic custom builders told me that a large motor, large flywheel, decoder, engineer, and fireman could not possibly all fit into the body and still navigate a 46' radius curve. They were all wrong.

Interestingly, many of my friends are active in HO, O, or narrow gauge. Helping in S scale did not matter to them because they enjoyed the experience of building in a new scale which they had never tried before.

One unexpected result of this farm-it-out style of layout building were comments from others along the lines of:

"It isn't right if you don't do it all yourself."

"How can you enjoy it if someone else made it for you?"

These comments caused a mild depression at the time and some serious thinking took place. Was I cheating by not doing everything myself? Was this a form of false advertising? Would my reputation become sullied? Should I be concerned?

A good friend put it into a different perspective for me. He said (paraphrased):

"Everyone has stuff made by others. Nothing wrong with that. Every HO guy with an Athearn car has something made by someone else. Every brass import was made by someone else. Every section of flextrack was made by someone else. Every kit was made by someone else. You have created a wonderful layout and there is nothing to feel guilty about. Blow it all off."

So I did exactly that and never looked back.

I have never been a rivet-counter although I admire and respect that level of modeling. I reside at the other end of the spectrum and consider myself a modeler who is satisfied with a realistic plausible effect without the need for precise authentic replication. I doubt that anything on this layout will ever win a contest of any kind. But winning blue ribbons was neither a goal nor a source of enjoyment for me personally. I have a large operating layout with lots of NYC equipment and am having fun.

The photos, along with informative captions, will tell an S scale story. I have not followed the traditional path of building a layout, but it worked for me. My goal was reached although it took about seven decades. As my wise daughter, Sarah, told me:

"Model railroading is not for those who need instant gratification."

At age 81, I now hope I will live long enough to get ten solid years of enjoyment from op sessions with good friends. Even if I have a heart-attack tomorrow, the S scale journey from start to finish has been immensely satisfying. It sure beat watching TV every night.