Pete LaGuardia’s New York Central’s Western Illinois Division (WID),
Haymarket, VA

Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad, Gainesville, VA

March 5th, 2016

Pete LaGuardia’s New York Central, by Glenn Downing

Mat Thompson’s Oregon Coast Railroad, also by Glenn Downing

                    ANOTHER TWOFOR

For the second Saturday this year we were able to schedule a double header – two layouts close enough to each other to be able to visit them both in a single afternoon – this time in Prince William County, Virginia. I had previously visited Mat Thompson’s HO scale Oregon Coast Railroad when the division toured it back in 2009 along with my non-model railroading spouse and we both enjoyed it, but this was to be my first opportunity to see Pete LaGuardia’s HO scale Western Illinois Division of the New York Central although I had previous heard many favorable comments about it from those who have attended his operating sessions.

My personal experience with the NYC was pretty much limited to brushes with the Boston and Albany in the 1950’s when I would sometimes arrive in Boston’s South Station and find the New England States (hypothetically the Chicago - Boston version of the 20th Century Limited) pulling in or parked beside us. I was particularly impressed by the matched pairs of E-8’s in their original gray and white lightning stripes with silver trucks paint scheme that hauled it over the Berkshires. They were larger and more impressive looking than anything the New Haven was using by then (mostly Alco RS 2’s and 3’s), and since my only locomotive at the time was a Varney F-3, I decided to do it up in that paint scheme one white stripe at a time. I was aware that the NYC stretched all the way to Chicago and St. Louis (and Pete has stretched it a bit further west than that), but anything beyond the Hudson River valley was out of my comfort zone so I found this mid-western re-creation most enlightening. 

The railroad is housed in a 36’ by 34’ space; the operating sessions run point to point but the design is a giant walk around loop to loop dog bone that weaves back and forth across the room. There are panels between the long sections for scenic separation using both buildings and flats, and there is no need to no duck under anything. The layout itself is on one level and the track work almost completely accessible for maintenance purposes. He runs the trains with NCE radio controlled DCC with sound; it’s a typical mix of steam and diesels you’d expect to find in the 1953 setting. There’s an 18 stall roundhouse with an indexed programmable turntable in one of the end loops, appropriate engine facilities for a model that size, and two accompanying large yards which double as staging areas. An operating session can accommodate crews of 13 to 17 people and communication is by telephone. There are adequate industries to keep them occupied that includes a meat packing plant, a paper mill, even a harbor car float operation. The track work is 99% completed (I wonder what his plans are for the final one percent?); the scenery was started a little over two years ago and about 25% of it is finished. The whole thing is extremely well done with comfortably wide aisles and carpeting on the floor. Even the fascia on the side is painted a medium (NYC?) gray with white graphics to delineate the tracks in front of you. 

On that day a long 30 plus car Santa Fe freight with an A-B-B-A set of yellow and blue F-units on the point moved slowly around the entire layout while various NYC trains were parked on staging tracks; a gray Dreyfus styled Hudson with a string of heavy weight Pullmans, a black and silver Empire State Express Hudson with its train of fluted stainless steel Budd cars, and an A-B-A trio of lightning striped E-7’s pulling the smooth side, two-tone gray, post-war 20th Century Limited, all ready to leave at any time. With a railroad as large as Pete’s, these long freight and passenger trains with their multi-unit diesels look perfectly natural. There were also locomotives from other railroads around the layout and in display cases on the walls.

Mat Thompson’s layout has some similarities to Pete LaGuardia’s; also in a large room (36’ by 32’) and set in the mid-1950’s, it has grown since our last visit to include a 50’ by 2’ “U” shaped addition, They’re both walk around loops where everything is readily accessible (something you especially appreciate when you don’t have it), are fully carpeted for comfort while standing to operate or observe, operate their trains with DCC, and use a card system for switching operations. But from that point on they look like two different worlds, probably because they are. The flat almost treeless expanse of America’s mid-western plains are supplanted by the mountainous and very heavily forested areas of Oregon west of the Cascades (Oregon east of the Cascades, I’m told, looks more like the mid-west). No long tangent tracks or A-B-B-A’s here; sharp curves, mostly short trains (except for those long log trains), pulled by one or two B-B type diesel units mostly painted up for Oregon Coast, with some occasional foreign power present like the NP GP unit being used that day. There are lumber and paper mills, and other appropriate activities in seaside fishing towns, plus the iconic cheese factory to provide activities for the operating crews. And the railroad has undergone a power upgrade since my earlier visit; the large 2-8-8-2’s that were used to haul the logs around have been replaced by those previously mentioned diesels, although the change was more related to operating problems with the steam locomotives rather than modernization of the fleet, a problem I had myself until the BLI and others started producing more reliable steam locomotives.

I have never been to Oregon (or to the Pacific Northwest for that matter), although our daughter and her husband were there several years ago and brought back some Tillamook Cheese for us, made no doubt in the factory that Mat has modeled on his new addition. But one of the things I believe makes a model railroad successful is that you really feel you’re in the area being modeled even if you’ve not actually been there. The weathered seaside buildings, commercial businesses assembled from kits as well as kit-bashed and scratch built depending on the requirements of the site, look typical of structures found in cold, windy coastal areas (think Maine), with freighters and tug boats docked around them, even a small car float operation, and trees; enormous numbers of trees everywhere - mostly spruce trees – so many that you have to look carefully to see the intimate scenic touches that Mat has included in his layout; the colony of seals on the small, rocky beach, or the saw mill and its logs in the adjacent mill pond being rounded up by two mill workers in a small, steam powered boat, the cattle in pens waiting to being shipped to market, and the older wooden box cars parked on a siding nearby. It’s this devotion to the details that enhances any model railroad, regardless of the local being modeled. 

There’s something intriguing about railroads in rooms that have three times the space that you have for your own railroad. They pique your curiosity as to how you would have utilized all that extra space if it had been available to you, especially when your modeling an altogether different location from either of the two that we saw today, albeit set in a similar time period. One thing I’d definitely do would be to adopt the walk around layout design with a scenic divides down the middle; it not only doubles the length of your run but it would have provided much easier access to parts of my railroad that I often need to reach but sometimes can’t get there from here. If you weren’t able to take the tour on Saturday, I would suggest that you take advantage of any future operating sessions for a chance to enjoy the virtues of one or both of these beautifully done model railroads.

                                    Bob Rosenberg