Meet Steven Otte, Q&A with the Editors

Meet Steven Otte, Model Railroader Senior Associate Editor in this Q&A with the Editors. Unlimited Members can see the video in the Video section.

Man being interviewed.
Steven Otte, Model Railroader Senior Associate Editor

Steve Sweeney: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to another episode of Q&A with the Editors. Today, we are so pleased to welcome Steven Otte from Model Railroader. Steven, welcome.

Steven Otte: Thank you. I had nothing better to do.

SS: For those of our audience who do not know who you are, would you kindly introduce yourself and tell us about how you came to be at Kalmbach?

SO: Well, I’ve been here about 15 years. Also been in the Milwaukee area for about 15 years because I came up here for the job. Before that, I was working at various small-town newspapers in various towns around Florida for about 20 years. So, the weather was quite a surprise for me when I came up here. I have lived in the North before, so I knew what winter weather was and what it was like. Nonetheless, the instincts on how to survive it had gone out of me. The first year I was up here, I slipped on the ice in a driveway and shattered my shoulder.

SS: Oh no.

SO: Yeah. Luckily that did lead indirectly to my wife marrying me.

SS: Oh, that’s good.

SO: She tells everyone that she had to because it was her driveway and she felt obligated.

SS: Well, Steve, we have five questions that we typically ask everyone. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to start.

SO: Okay.

SS: So, the first question is, what is your favorite railroad, present or past, and why?

SO: That would be the Pennsylvania Railroad. I’m not really even sure why. How I came to get to like them in the first place, I got interested in the railroad that I model, the Cincinnati, Lebanon and Northern Railway. When I was living in Chillicothe, Ohio, I found the one book ever written about that tiny, narrow-gauge railroad in the library there in Chillicothe. The book just fascinated me with all the history in that thing, even though it’s a 26-mile-long railroad and it’s like that thick of a book of the history. But a lot of detail there, so it was just fascinating. And, CL&N was later purchased by the Pennsy, so that might have been part of it. Or maybe I just like Belpaire fireboxes. I don’t know.

SS: It’s a good reason.

SO: It could be.

SS: Steven, what is the best part about what you do?

SO: Well, I have a two-part answer for that.

The first part is probably going to be the same as everybody else here is that I get to model and get paid for it. The company buys me structure kits and I get to build them. That was what I was doing just before coming in here. In fact, I was in the workshop working on structures for the 2024 Project Railroad. I probably still have some paint under my fingernails here. That’s part of it, obviously, and to get to work on kits and have that actually be work still amazes me.

But the second part might surprise people, I suppose, and that’s the actual editing of the text. For me, I really like working with words, and turning a raw product into a polished, finished article is kind of almost like modeling, only with words.

SS: I didn’t think of it that way. Do you have an article or piece of text that you’ve enjoyed that it is become a favorite for you?

SO: Those, I think, would be the ones that I actually wrote and not just the ones that I edited. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for recently. I’ve got a recurring, monthly column on there called “Sketching with Steve.” Almost said sketches, I always have to look up whether it’s “Sketches” or “Sketching” whenever I write it. They’re very similar. But anyway, it’s Sketching with Steve, and I just did two: One for March, and one for April that I really liked.

They’re both designing single-industry small layouts. So, the March one was a paper mill, again based on my time in Chillicothe, Ohio, which was where I rediscovered trains as an adult. And the April one is an ethanol plant. So, I get to design the track plans, and I always like drawing track plans. I guess that would be part three of my answer for the previous question, wouldn’t it? The things that I like the most would be track planning. But anyways, I liked how both of those track plans came out, and I just loved crafting the words around it.

SS: Very nice. Please tell us about something you’ve been working on lately that you’re excited about.

SO: Well, the big thing I’ve been working on recently is that Project Railroad that I mentioned. The Free-Mo module that we’re working on. It’s the first project railroad that I designed the track plan for, and I’m taking the lead on designing it and guiding the choice of the structures, the placement, the track, and all that stuff. So, it’s the most involved that I’ve ever been on a project railroad, and I’m just really excited to see the final product when it comes together, how it’s going to look, and how it’s going to operate. I’ve worked on a lot of project railroads since I’ve been here, but there’s more of a sense of ownership with this one because it was my track plan and my idea to do a Free-Mo module in the first place. Just seeing something that I originally drew for one of my sketching columns turn into a physical object that you can actually run trains on is just kind of mind blowing even.

SS: Just watching you talk about it; you seem very pleased about it.

SO: Yeah, I’m really proud of the way it came out. I’ve gotta credit David Popp, who designed a lot of our project railroads before, for pointing out things that weren’t quite going to work that I had drawn. I drew like three or four drafts before I came up with the final track plan that we used, and even after that ended up making a fairly substantial change on the fly. While we were putting track down, I realized that I had put two turnouts, point-to-point, which ended up creating an S-curve depending on how you were going through it. But I realized that if I swapped them, it was smooth in all four directions.

So, I did that, and luckily, they were opposite – the one’s a left and the other’s a right. I swapped the right and the left ones, then the routes through all four legs turned out smooth. I was pleased that not only that I thought of that, but that I had the turnouts available to do that without having to order new ones.

So, things were a little fluid, but working within the structure of the Free-Mo rules. Also, it’s a little different from what we’ve done on previous project railroads. They specify not only things like curve radius and height, but even what kind of ballast that you use.

SS: Really.

SO: Yeah, because when you’re hooking up everybody’s Free-Mo modules, like in a club or a train show, you don’t want to have a patchwork sort of a thing. They say we’ve got to have at least the main lines having the same kind of ballast and scenery on both sides. The scenery must come down to flat at the end points so that you don’t have like a mountain ending here and flatland after that. There’s a lot of things to be aware of when we’re doing this. Didn’t really matter when we’re doing the Virginian, because it only has to work in its own little oval. But with this one, when we’re done, we may end up taking it to something like Trainfest and hooking it up with one of the clubs there instead of just having it in our booth. Like I said, there’s a lot to do to think about that. If I had really thought about it, maybe my first project layout wouldn’t have been something that had this many requirements. Maybe it would have been standalone if I thought about it, but it’s going to work out.

SS: Can’t wait to see it when it’s complete. Steve, this is this is a fun question for us, at least for Diane and I. If you were working for the railroad, what railroad craft or position do you think best describes you?

SO: As you can tell, I am not a laborer, so I would not be a track worker or anything like that, even though I would think that would be fun. I would last about 5 minutes, honestly, before I would have to say, “Okay, I’m off for the bunk car.”

Like I said, that would be fun, but I would not be good at it. I suppose something like the engineers or draftsmen that designs bridges or new station buildings, things like that. That would be a creative thing I did. I was pretty good at drafting when I was in college drafting class, so that would be fun. Either that I thought, or maybe a conductor on a passenger train so I could wear the fancy uniform with the hat and the shiny buttons, and get to yell, “All aboard!”

SS: That’s great. Steve, it’s been great having you spend some time with us today. I want to thank you for that. But before you leave, is there anything that you thought I should have asked you that I did not? Is there anything that you’d like to reiterate or is there anything you’d like to add to our conversation?

SO: One of the more amusing tidbits, I think, is the old question that gets asked a lot for our articles, is “How did you first get into model trains?” And I think what’s interesting about my story is it’s rather different from all the other ones that I’ve ever heard. Everyone says, “Oh, I got a Lionel set when I was 5,” or something like that. My parents got me an HO scale train set when I was in 4th grade. But honestly, it didn’t interest me very much back then, because all it did was go around in a circle, and there wasn’t really much to do. Once I had assembled a few plastic buildings and put them on there — that was the part I liked, was the assembly of the buildings — well, being a 4th grader, I couldn’t buy a whole lot of other buildings to assemble. I kind of lost interest in it, especially when we moved and had to leave it behind.

But when I rediscovered it as an adult, the hobby actually came back from a computer game. I bought my first computer when I was living in Ohio. It was a Macintosh, and I bought a game for it based solely on the fact of — not knowing I would like it or not — but just based solely on the fact that it got really good reviews. It was called Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon.

SS: I love that game.

SO: The first edition is what I had there on the little black-and-white Mac SE screen. I would play that and start a new railroad, build my railroad across the random map, build my stations, and move cargo back and forth. Up until the point where the computer-controlled railroads would start encroaching on my territory, it would become too much competition, then I would quit the game, and start a new one. That means I never played the game for long enough to get pass the Moguls and Pacifics. I would basically play from the beginning of steam – where we had the Grasshoppers, the Norris, and the 4-4-0 Americans – up until about where I developed the Pacifics, Atlantics, and Consolidations.

So, when I got into model trains, that was the era that I became interested in, was the old steamers. I never got into diesels because I never played the game for that long. I wanted to model what I had done in the game. I wanted to model the old, little steam engines – the 4-4-0s,
the Moguls and Consolidations – and that’s what I do on my home layout. I model 1906. Love having those little steam engines puff their way around.

SS: You know, this is a completely different direction than I thought. So, when you’re modeling 1906, it seems like that would be a very difficult era to buy commercially available models and equipment for. Is that true?

SO: It is. Most of the models that you can get for steam engines are either really old, like 1870s-1880s, with all the filigrees and red-painted boilers and stuff like that, or it’s USRA stuff, which is too modern for me. So, I just have to sort of hold my nose and run stuff that’s not exactly the right era. I run the more modern stuff and pretend that it’s 1906-appropriate. It’s only about 10 or 12 years off, really. But as long as I do 4-4-0, it’s still pretty close. I’ve got some 4-4-0s, some Consolidations, and I think I’ve got one Mogul.

As for the rolling stock, a lot of — basically, my cars are all stuff that I bought back when I first got into the hobby. All the old Model Die Casting, and the Roundhouse stuff with the truss rods that you had to string yourself. So they’re appropriate for the era – 36-foot billboard boxcars, reefers, and such. It’s appropriate for the era; the locomotives are the hard part.

SS: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

SO: Thanks.