Eulogy for John Armstrong, Model Railroader Extraordinaire

August 5,  2004

Here is my small tribute to John Armstrong, on his passing from our world.   I'm neither family nor even an acquaintance of John Armstrong,  nevertheless, having visited his home and layout on a layout tour ,  I hope this humble eulogy gives a feeling for what I believe he contributed to the model railroading hobby that so many of us enjoy today.

These photographs were taken in on that layout tour during the October 2002 NMRA Potomac Division regional meet.  I'm not the photographer (Clint Hyde of the local NMRA Potomac Division took the photos, and he/convention mailed a CD-ROM to us) .... Clint gave me the OK to use these photographs.

Here is a shot of John Armstrong himself, astride Cattaraugus Yard on his O scale Canandaigua Southern layout.  

The CS was under continual construction since 1950.  That's all the more remarkable given he starting building this first section of the layout, at a time when for fine scale modeling, there wasn't much more than raw rail, motors, and Lionel shells available.  You can see his concept of the 'cosmetic curve' (to enhance the visual appearance of the track) in the photo above.

A closeup of John:

Further around to the right, behind where John was standing in the two above shots, is the 'Ott Dam Power Co'.  John never completely 'finished' the Canandaigua Southern, nor was he concerned with super-detailing his scenery.  His love (he was a Naval engineer) was research and development.   Look at the picture below from the standpoint of innovation:  how he combined a dam, a river, a road, and two industries (power plant, coal), all in a space of roughly 3' x 4', in *O scale*! :

John was reputed to say, "when I figure out how to make or do something, the challenge is gone", as he would wink and smile.

In the following shot, you can see the O scale outside-third-rail power system, next to the very nice 'Warm River' station on the layout.  I believe Warm River was
so named because it was physically located next to the hot water heater and furnace (layout is in the 24' x 36' basement of his house).  Thanks to the O Scale Convention website for the following photograph:

And John could model very well, I think the prototype for the above photo is Point of Rocks, Maryland station shown below, just on the Maryland - Virginia
border, right off US Highway 15, and a great place to railfan:

Throughout this treatise, the references I make to his O scale layout, the Canandaigua Southern, can be read about in the easily available Kalmbach book, "Classic Layout Designs of John Armstrong", wherein John himself, on pages 46-55, describes the challenges, thought processes, and construction story behind his layout:

Part 2:

Here is a shot looking at the Canandaigua Southern's Essex Junction and Irondale.    John's layout was a walk-around peninsula type layout, with the train passing through a scene only one time;  behind the mountains is a backdrop, which separates the scenery on this side of the layout's penisula from the other side. While following your train, penisulas, and backdrops are standard layout design practice today, remember that John designed and built his layout in the early 1950's, this was a time when even the best club model railroads were usually 'bowls of spaghetti' with 'crawl-under popups' everywhere:

In the above shot, the Canandaigua Southern's famous 'reverted loop' is directly beneath this scenery, out of sight.  

John scratchbuilt big, powerful, smooth locomotives in the 1950's, and introduced the concept of the 'cosmetic curve' to enhance the layout's and locomotive's appearance.  Thanks to the O Scale Convention website for the following photograph:

(This is a closeup shot of the the Irondale plant in the previous photo)

Here is a photo of the Canandaigua Southern layout diagram from the "Classic Layout Designs of John Armstrong" Kalmbach book mentioned earlier:

John had 'thinking man's humor' in liberal quantities all over the Canandaigua Southern.   Look closely at the following diner in this (fuzzy) picture, does it look familiar?  

(photo credit:  the website of "HiRailers Unlimited", a Yahoo Group of O scale
HiRailers (HiRail definition:  three rail O-Gauge trains operating in a realistic environment))

In fact, the above diner is John Armstrong's modeled rendition of the famous 'Nighthawk' painting:

Here is the pull-back view of that diner, along with the 'Nuts To You' hardware store  (this was located just off the left end of Cattaraugus Yard).

John's work had the characteristic that the more you examined it, the more you studied his work, the  more you realized and appreciated what he was really doing.

During the July 2004 O Scale Convention, due to the anticipated very large number of visitors to his layout during the layout tour, the visitors had to get numbered tickets to visit the Canandaigua Southern. His CS was one of the most famous O scale model railroads ever built. 

John Armstrong passed from our world on Wednesday, July 28, 2004.

As the sun sets on his modest home in Silver Springs, Maryland:

May we all be able to remember his presence.

May we all still be able to marvel and respect the remarkable innovation that he brought to our hobby.   Many of John's ideas, such as walking with the train and only allowing a train to pass through a scene in one direction, were first tested in theory and practice on this layout.

John Armstrong contributed a giant legacy to our hobby for more than 60 years, with multiple books and over 100 articles.  It is with appreciation, and yet with great sadness at his passing, that I offer my little eulogy to John Armstrong, one of the greats of our hobby.

Submitted in sincerity,

John Sing
San Mateo, CA


Modeling the Santa Fe's Peavine Line (Ash Fork - Phoenix, Ariz) mid 50s and 60s in N scale