Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mount Lowe Railway

Debra and I were recently in Pasadena, California. While there we visited The Old Whistle Stop model train store - 1987 was the last time I was there. 
It’s a great store, and when I finally wandered to the back where there is an extensive selection of railroad related books, the first one I saw was the one shown in the opening photo. It was at eye level, staring me right in the face. There was my family name in bright red letters associated with some mountain. Electric trolleys. Open vistas. I wasn’t leaving the store without this. 

I didn’t, and when I had a chance to read a few pages I found the story to be weirder than I had imagined. Well, at least from a coincidence point-of-view.
Here’s what I know so far. There was a man named Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, born in 1832, who was the imagination and money behind an alpine scenic electric trolley line called - naturally enough - the Mount Lowe Railway that started operations in California’s San Gabriel mountains near Pasadena in July 1893. There was an inclined railway, trolley lines, hotels, observatory, overlooks, incredible views, and a grade changing circular bridge, among other things. It appears to have had both a spectacular and troubled history and eventually completely closed down in 1936. So, cool trolley line, so far so good, but, there’s more. 

Turns out that Thaddeus Lowe made his name long before developing his railway as one of the earliest experimenters in lighter-than-air flight. And for some reason he made a number of experimental flights here in Ottawa in 1858. But, apparently, he is most famous for his work in the Union Army’s Balloon Corps where he flew balloons - around 3,000 flights in all - during the American Civil War making observations, taking photos and performing ariel surveys. It struck me as an odd coincidence that this gentleman with whom I share a last name did work with lighter-than-air flight, as I also dabbled in - albeit in a minor way - early in my working life, and some of that was done in Ottawa, Canada, which is where the airship company I worked for was located and where I now live. So, there seemed like a lot of coincidences: last name, trollies, airships, Ottawa. As William Shatner might say, is that weird or what?
Debra also found a book in the store called Mount Lowe Railway which contains a collection of historical photos of scenes and locations from the railway and compares them to recent photos of the same locations. It’s an excellent collection.

From my cursory look through these two books I can imagine a rather nice little tabletop mini-layout that could be built that extracts some key features of the prototype - possibly the horseshoe curve and circular bridge - along with some mountainous western US scenery. I’ve long admired small Japanese tabletop layouts, and this might give me a chance to try to build something in that style. It would be in HO scale, but because the rolling stock would be 4-wheel trollies, the curves could be tight. I’ll have to think about this some more.
{The trailhead is on the far right to the gates of the Cobb Estate}
The staff at the Original Whistle Stop were quite friendly and one gentleman told us there isn’t anything left of the old railway, and this was confirmed by the books. Apparently all that remains is a hiking trail along the old roadbed.
{This covered bench is to the left of the estate gates. It seemed to me to be very similar to the relic streetcar stops in Ottawa.}
The trailhead is at the end of Lake Street in Altadena at the Cobb Estate. I’m told it’s a steep trail and about a 10km round trip - something I hope to attempt if I’m ever back there.

Post script

Debra, the Chief Editorial Officer here at the 30 Squares media empire, reminded me that I shouldn’t make this post without mentioning three important things. 

First, she bought me the two books mentioned in the post. Many thanks again!

Second, she pointed out that she had told me there was a place called Lowe mountain near Pasadena around a year ago, but all I had to say was a firm meh. Although we didn’t know about the trolley and airship aspect at that time, in retrospect, that was not one of my finest moments. 
Third, what was becoming a difficult trip was made a lot better once we relocated to the Pasadena Inn. It’s clean, cheerful, has nice rooms, a friendly staff, lots of parking, very reasonable rates, and is conveniently located near a Whole Foods, restaurants, a comic book store, and the Del Mar light rail station (more on this in a future post). 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Philly Friday on a Saturday

Spambots rejoice! Philly Friday is back for one final installment.

Of all the posts amongst the first 400, the 3 posts in the short-lived Philly Friday experiment were their favourites. I had more updates for the series planned, but never posted them since the first three made it clear that they attracted spambots who tried their darnedest to get me to take notice of them and go to whatever abyss they came from. I figured since this was an anniversary of sorts, I’d throw caution to the wind and mention Philly Friday one last time in order to note that Philadelphia is the missing link between Toronto and its streetcars. Author Mike Filey states it best  in the opening chapter of his excellent book, Not A One Horse Town: 125 Years of Toronto and Its Streetcars, published by back in 1986,

"...This then was the Toronto in which Alexander Easton found himself, having recently arrived from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Easton was, in fact, an Englishman who moved to the States and began promoting and building electric street railways....Very little is known about Mr. Easton other than while he was living in Philadelphia he had published a small book titled A Practical Treatise on Street or Horse Power Railways and when he moved to Upper Canada, he lived in the Village of Yorkville, just north of the city. Nevertheless, Easton must have been well regarded in Toronto for he was able to convince the City Council of the day... that the time was right for Toronto to get a street railway system of its own. After all, this type of system had more than proved itself in such cities as New York, Philadelphia and Boston. And wasn’t Toronto important?..."

The result was Toronto was running streetcars in September of 1861 just a couple of months after the necessary bylaws were passed in late July 1861. That's right: law in July, running in September.
Mr. Filey’s book has a wonderful wrap-around cover painting by artist Doug Calvert. It’s an interesting example of ‘retro-future’ circa 1986. Just fanciful, and not prototypical? Well, if the what the physicists say that in a multiverse view of things, there is some universe out there were this is an actual depiction of day-to-day life :-)

400 posts. LTA-20-1. Amtronic ranch. Philly Friday. Ah, nostalgia. Speaking of Friday, yesterday, to and from work, I listened to Guru’s old Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 from 1993. No Philadelphia, all New York. I’d completely forgotten how good it is. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Amtronic Ranch is #1

The HO-scale  logging airships post was the second most hit of the original 400; number one was Amtronic Ranch with 588 hits. It was a build of an HO-scale ‘retro-futuristic’ ranch house based on AMT’s AMTronic kit. Blog stats suggest that nearly every week a few viewers drop by to look at the post as a result of searching on some phrase that includes ‘amtronic’ – I suspect the post isn’t what they are looking for. I’d guess they are actually looking for something along the lines of how to build the kit according to its instructions. I made a start on a box-stock build around this time last year, but I set it aside as I was frustrated with its poor mold quality. It seemed that nearly every piece required some sort of special fitting and filing and shaping – too much for me. It’s on the workbench gathering dust. I might resume when I have a bit more patience.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

400 posts; 1 about blimps

Time flies. The latest post in the E. L. Moore series was #400 for this blog. 400 posts – well, 400 and 1 counting this one. I can hardly believe it. I know that for many blogs, 400 isn't that many, but it seems something like a milestone for me. Google’s stats say the blog has had 36,767 hits up until now, so that’s an about an average of 92 hits per post. In fact, though, the hits aren’t sprinkled evenly over all the posts; some have had a lot more than others, some a lot less, and some have been special favourites of roving spam-bots :-)

From the high hit count, and Google stats showing searches for variations on the phrase ‘HO scale airships’ that lead visitors to the blog, the post called HO-scale logging airships? has been the 2nd most hit over the years. In it I talked a little about an airship called the LTA-20-1 that was being developed in the mid ‘80s, and speculated on how an HO-scale radio-controlled flying model might be built. The real-McCoy was being designed to do things like aerial logging, lifting de-railed freight cars, and assisting with pipeline construction. For a while I was a wet-behind-the-ears junior engineer on the project with a minor role doing some flight dynamics analysis. Unfortunately, a full-scale flying prototype was never built, but it did leave me with some interesting memorabilia -now stuffed away in dusty boxes down in the basement. Here’s a scan of the project’s promotional brochure.

These days I look at it as I was participating in a rather unusual art project.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

E. L. Moore’s Legacy in the 21st Century: Sticks and glue may build Cousin Cal’s Cabbage Plant, but sauerkraut juice will never hurt me

I found Cousin Caleb’s Cabbage Plant to be rather poorly edited. Some statements regarding dimensions didn’t seem to agree with the plans, figure numbers mentioned in the text didn’t appear to be attached to any of the accompanying drawings or photos, and there were some dangling statements about boilers and cabbage processing equipment that hinted at more description in the article that didn’t exist. Those later passages left me wondering if the whole ‘sauerkraut juice’ premise was just another Moorian tall-tale. 
The wonders of the internet came to my rescue, and lo and behold, yes sauerkraut juice is an actual product and making it is big business. I downloaded a few pictures of cabbage processing equipment to help me cobble together something for this project, and decided to go look for some juice in local stores. It wasn’t that easy to find, but there was a health food store in the mall that had a few bottles. Long story short, one swig told me this stuff was not to my taste. 

But, with taste testing behind me, I returned to the project and started to work on the perimeter frame.
First, I drew the front and side frames on a sheet of paper: my plan was to layout on the drawing the balsa pieces that make up the frames [1]. I guess I could have photocopied the article's plans from the magazine, but I wasn't confident about their dimensions. 
I pinned the drawing to a piece of cork-board I bought from Michael's, then cut the balsa pieces that make up the frame in accordance to the drawing, dabbed them with white glue and pinned them in place. Even though I laboured over the drawing, I still managed to screw up the size of the diagonals on the left on the front frame, so a little pushing and pulling and adjusting was required when all the sub-assemblies were finally glued together.
After the glue had set, I pulled out the pins holding the balsa in place and carefully dabbed the joints with super-glue using a pin held in a pair of tweezers as the dabbing device. After drying, there were a few little blots of dried glue at each joint sticking the frame to the paper. I slipped a brand new sharp knife blade between each joint and the paper to slice the frame free from the paper. Any little paper still stuck to the frame was cut off with a knife. Once free, I glued a horizontal strip of balsa to the back and top of the frame. This basic procedure to make all three frames.
Here's the left side after it was glued up and before it was sliced free from the drawing.
And here's the right side while the vertical uprights are being pinned down. Well, you can see that building the frame is rather involved. I'd say this isn't a project for beginners given the complexity of construction of the various sub-assemblies.
Once all three frames were built, I moved on to the floor. It's made from a 3/32 inch thick piece of balsa with a 1/32 inch piece glued on top with its grain perpendicular to that of the thicker piece. The thin piece over hangs the edges of the thicker piece on the sides by 1 mm.
I used medium density superglue to bond the two floor pieces. Some big, old and heavy books came in handy to apply pressure to the laminate. I left this overnight and called it quits for the day.
The next day I cut out the slots for the frame uprights, the openings for the circular fermentation tubs, and the rectangular opening at the rear for the boiler room foundation. The tub openings were first outlined with a circle cutter and then finished free-hand with a sharp x-acto knife. Slow and steady is the name of the game when cutting these openings.
Here it is once the nerve-wracking circular holes were done. You can see I forgot to cut the slot for the upright in the back left corner of the floor - I realized it was missing a day or so later :-(
According to Mr. Moore's drawings, the front wall of the cabbage processing building is solid, like the other three walls, with a couple of doors. To open things up I decided to replace it with a wall that has large folding doors on either end and a centre panel that has a solid lower section with a window on top. This arrangement still allows the building to 'be closed up when cabbages are not in season', but might allow 'the boss' to see what's going on inside - well, anyway, that's the idea. So, I made a drawing of the front wall frame and built it up like the perimeter frames.
Once it was done, the front wall frame was glued in place with white glue, and some clamps held it all together while drying.
Here are all the pieces ready for a little staining before gluing them together. I used some very thin mixtures of red and brown acrylic paint. When dry, I dusted on some ground-up light gray chalk pastels and rubbed them into the floor.
I should have known better, the floor is a big slab of raw balsa, and it absorbs any paint like a sponge - and has the stiffness of a sponge too regardless of how sparing I tried to be with the stain. A bit of warping happened. After carefully bending the floor back flat, I added some cross pieces to it's underside to stiffen it. The framework isn't prototypical, but it's not something that will be seen and does the trick. As you can see in the beauty shots, some work will need to be done on the ends of the stiffeners to make them look a little more plausible and blend them into the overall look of the building.
Once the staining was done, and the floor was stiffened, the sub-assemblies were glued into position. The picture above was taken during the action. Everything was glued in place with white glue. Once things were dry, I reinforced a few joints with judicious dabs of superglue. Here are a few pictures of what it looks like after assembly action was done and the glue was dry.
Needs some more uprights in the loading dock area.
The left upright is vertical - my photo taking skills need improving.
Yeap, more uprights needed to hold up the cabbage processing building!
And more uprights here too. Also, that door-like opening is the top half of the door that opens into the boiler room. There's a sunken level that in the original incarnation was home to a boiler that drove the cabbage shredders. In this 21th century version, the cabbage shredders are electric powered and the boiler has been retired. 
The old boiler room is a big opening in the floor, in the new version it will provide lots of storage for cabbages before being shredded. One other thing you can sort of see in this view are the folding doors - glued into their open, folded up configurations. Each unit is made from four pieces of 1/32 inch sheet. I was all engrossed in their construction and forgot to take any pictures while I was building them.

This is the 6th instalment in an ongoing series. The other parts can be found here.


[1] I bought this book last summer at a used bookstore in Sidney, British Columbia. For me, Sidney is a great place in that it has the highest concentration of used bookstores– all within a few blocks of each other - than any other place in Canada. It’s also by the ocean, I can walk everywhere, has many great places to eat or get coffee, and is nearby lots of beach access and wineries. I was roaming through the Haunted Bookshop and saw that they had an entire case of streetcar and rail history books, with lots more placed here-and-there in other cases – quite unusual in my experience, especially all the streetcar related books. Well, I wanted to buy them all of course, but having limited space back home, and wanting to keep peace in the family :-) , I decided cherry-picking just a few of interest was the best course of action. That’s when I stumbled across Junior Model Planes. One look at its good condition and charming illustrations, I knew I had to have it.
It was published in 1945, and from the inscription on the title page, it was a Christmas gift that year. I don’t know either Jackie or Laura, but whoever had possession of this volume over the years took good care of it - or maybe it was just forgotten in an attic - and I plan to do the same. A few pages have some annotation in red ink, but it adds to the charm, as they look like marks or reminders that were entered as someone worked on a project or two. A few knife cuts suggest the book might have been used to back some cutting. Still, the whole package, notes and cuts and all, makes for a very nice artifact.
The introductory projects deal with simple glider-like models built from sheet pieces of balsa. The later projects are more complex and demonstrate the classic method of building up wings and fuselages from a number of small balsa pieces on a flat board, as I’ve done with Caleb’s.
It’s been a long time since I’ve built a balsa airplane according to the methods shown in this book. I got a bit turned off as I’d spend a lot of time building a plane, only to see it get damaged – undoing my work – during the initial test flights to get the thing trimmed and balanced.