Southern New England Model Railroad Club A Brief History
The Beginnings In February 1990 the Amherst Railway Society expressed concern over the lack of O scale model railroads at their annual show to John Roberts. John, never one to duck a challenge assured them that he and his friends would build an O scale train layout that would put O scale back in the minds of next year’s show attendees. With this commitment the gauntlet had been laid down, so it was up to this small group of O scalers to prove they could do it.
The first brain storming session was held in April 1990 and included John and Roland Roberts, Tom and Fred McCarthy, Rich Godfrey, Phil Ginkus and Bob Jones. Construction procedures and standards were established by slightly modifying those of the Chicago Area O Scalers. These standards would allow each member to construct his section of the layout and then assemble the completed modules at the show the following year with the knowledge that they would connect into a fully operational model railroad. Helping each other over the year these seven modelers created an oval layout 21' x 45', with over 100 feet of running length on the 2 mainlines. With the show just days away a name was needed to indicate who we were, but who were we? Since the members were all from Massachusetts or Connecticut the name Southern New England O Scalers was chosen. Phil Ginkus lettered two signboards to proudly display on the layout. Reaction of the 10,000 people attending the 1991 show was very positive to the O scale trains that ran flawlessly. Our first official appearance at a train show was a success.
The Early Years Each year the portable layout expanded, first in length and then in complexity as a steam engine terminal, freight yard, industrial park, diesel terminal, and passenger terminal were created as interior peninsulas. Scenery was added to portray the "real world" that railroads run through including mountains and rivers as well as bridges and buildings. The huge bridge module's scenery descended nearly four feet to the floor. Eventually it "topped out" at 33' x 81' with a double tracked mainline over 200 feet long and storage capacity in excess of 350 cars and 100 locomotives (you can never have enough locomotives!). A sophisticated Digital command control system was added that allowed eight trains to operate simultaneously, including freight trains over 100 feet long. Also, a signal system was installed which monitored train movements and turnout positions on the double tracked main line.
The eras modeled included the steam trains of the 1920's up to today's modern Amtrak passenger trains and inter-modal container fast freights. This provided interest to model railroaders, railfans, and the general public regardless of their favorite train era.
Becoming a Formal Club In 1994 the Southern New England O Scalers were given a serious challenge. A church in Gardner, Massachusetts offered to rent us space in their basement. The advantage for us was that our layout could be set up year round, not just at train exhibits, with the "down" side being the need for a formal club complete with officers and by-laws. We joined forces with a group of HO modelers to share the cost. After working out a rental agreement for the 42' x 67' basement space the club was formally organized in October 1994, with the election of officers and the collection of dues. Over the next several months the space was made ready for the portable railroad, an HO layout was designed and by-laws were drafted. At this time our goals were relatively short-sighted - work on the layouts, and talk about trains. We continued to exhibit the modular layout at several train shows each year.
It became apparent that many of our members enjoyed the "talk" part of railroading - we had a wealth of knowledge that was of interest to others, both model railroaders, and those with just a casual interest in railroading. Without realizing it we had been educating both our members and the general public about topics we enjoyed and in which we were becoming "experts". We decided to incorporate as a non-profit educational organization, so in early 1997 we began the cumbersome trip down the red-tape road of government forms. In April we received notification from the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts that we were approved as a non-profit corporation.
Train Shows, Conventions and Exhibits In 1996 we began hosting train shows as a means of generating funds to pay the rent. The first few shows were "all scale", and while reasonably successful were too broad in scope to attract quality dealers to our small venue. Once we started focusing on O scale the word got out that the Southern New England Model Railroad Club had a show worth attending. With our portable layout operating in the basement and the church providing food services attendance continued to increase. Today, our annual fall show features our fully operational permanent railroad, and a "Polar Express" layout for the kids.
When the opportunity to host the O Scale National Convention in 1998 came our way we joined forces with another O scale club to form a partnership - New England ‘98, The O Scale National Convention. Hosting the convention was hard work, but proved to be worthwhile as it provided a fun and educational experience for people from all across the country (and even a few international guests!) Twenty-one O scale model railroads were either running at the convention or visited at people’s homes in the evening. Clinics were held covering all aspects of model railroading, with an emphasis on O scale. Attendees took trips on actual railroads in the region, as well as tours to historically significant museums and Historic Boston.
The chance to host the O scale national convention would come again in 2008, and then again in 2013. Each time we were able to provide access to some of the finest O scale model railroads in New England, a variety of clinics, New England style family fun, and a great train show focused on O scale.
In 2009 the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) held their convention in Hartford CT, close enough for us to participate. We took our modular layout and operated it throughout the show. Many serious modelers were surprised to see the well detailed O scale trains on a fully scenic'd layout, complete with an operating signal system. Our efforts were rewarded with "Best in Show" and "Chairman's Award" plaques.
In 2002 the Gardner Museum asked us if we would be interested in participating in an exhibit "For the Love of Trains". We jumped at the chance. Our display of model trains depicted railroads over the past 75 years and accounted for over half of the exhibit. On short notice we took some of our trains to the general public, this time to a Senior Center in 2007. While the "seniors" enjoyed our display of locomotives and cars we enjoyed hearing some of their "railroad stories". Then in 2014 we exhibited our trains at the Gardner Museum again, including some excellent military models on flat cars.
A Desire for a Permanent Layout In 1997 it became apparent that the space available was just not big enough for two club-sized model railroads. If we were going to attract more members we had better focus the space on a single scale. The HO members decided to form a "round robin" club, meeting at each other's homes, helping each other with their personal layouts - no dues, no rent, no officers, just a group of friends having fun with trains.
While work continued on the portable layout interest in building a permanent O scale layout was growing. The O scalers now had 50% more space, but held off construction in order to plan it well. A long term lease with the church was established, ensuring that we would not have to move on short notice. The focus would be an exhibit that accurately depicted the role railroads have played in support of the American economy, as a major form of transport of both people and goods. This would involve modeling the industries served by the railroad, the passenger stations used by people and the U.S. mail. The railroad industry itself would be modeled in detail, with all of its infra-structure of buildings, equipment, signals, and operating rules. The initial plan was completed in 2002 and construction began.
The Plan We had over 2500 square feet of space to work with, but also 10-1/2 feet of "air rights". With this in mind our planners decided to utilize the "mushroom" concept, promoted by John Armstrong. This concept meant that two levels of layout would be accessed from separate aisles, with the upper level having a raised operating aisle. While the track varied in height from 48 inches to 76 inches above the floor the raised operating aisles kept the operators view from 48 to 56 inches. Several sets of steps allowed the engineers to easily following their trains, and no duck-under is required lower than 60 inches.
No plan is ever built without changes, and we had several, all with an eye to improving operations. The initial section of single track mainline was double tracked to allow a greater number of trains, and more staging tracks were added so those trains had a place to go. Industries need sidings and spurs, and those were added where space was available for buildings or "flats" against the backdrop. Once operations began the need for crossovers became apparent so those were built as needed. We also created a long branch line with additional scenery opportunities. The branch line ended in an industrial park with multiple industries. With so many switching opportunities the "West End Local" has become a favorite.
To be continued...
The Future Looking to the future, there is a lot of enjoyable activity ahead as we continue working on the Southern New England Railroad, improving its operation, hosting O scale events, and promoting O scale modeling and railroading in general. With such a bright future we hope you will be able to visit, and perhaps join us in pursuing your interest in trains and railroads with like minded folks.