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Home / News & Reviews / News / Meet the modeler: John Vorhes

Meet the modeler: John Vorhes

By Rene Schweitzer | February 13, 2022

No matter if you’re running trains in a circle or re-creating a historical scene, the hobby is fun!

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Model train next to a station
Model train next to a station
A photographer in the foreground tries to capture the scene. The truck has hay bales the author bought at a hobby show. They got rained on and turned frizzy. The U.P. line through Seneca was serviced by doodlebug passenger “motors” that carried the mail, but trucks took over and service ended in the 60’s. There were no mixed freight trains on the actual line, he just wanted to imagine what it could have been like. Photo by John Vorhes

How did you get started in the hobby?

My love of trains started when I was six years old, watching steam engines on a branch line of the Union Pacific in the late 40’s. I recall being swept away with the sounds and power of the Consolidation (2-8-0) locomotives that stopped in my Dad’s hometown. I enjoyed getting dangerously close to a standing engine to hear the “thunk and clank” sounds and feel the heat of the boiler. I was little and they were so big.

What was your first large scale locomotive?

When I retired and my kids were off to college, my wife surprised me with Bachman GP Diesel (I think) and enough track sections to go around a small tree. I admit, in its box, it had beautiful silver and red Santa Fe warbonnet colors but I had to tell her, it was the wrong paint job. (I was a Union Pacific fan.) It was also the wrong era.  he was disappointed that she didn’t get it perfect.

But a year or two after, I had replaced that first locomotive and was building a roster of Tuscan orange U.P. equipment for a growing outdoor layout. No circle around a tree, I was building the entire “Kansas Division of the Union Pacific” or so I thought.  In the 50s, my favorite railroad train win line was a grass-between-the-rails connecting branch headed up to the mainline in Nebraska. (Today, it’s 25 daily mile-long empty coal trains headed back to Wyoming. No more grass.)

Sepia toned photo of house with people in front of it
This is the family photo the author used to reconfigure the1880 Second Empire house for his model. The photo was taken around 1900. His great-grandfather was the town sheriff, famous for chaining a U.P. locomotive to the tracks because the railroad was behind in paying county taxes.

What’s your favorite part of the hobby?

My favorite part of the hobby is recreating the entire atmosphere that produced that railroad magic in me.  I was a city boy on vacation in rural Kansas visiting my grandma and everything about the little town and the trains was exotic and wonderful.  I have enjoyed recreating the town on my layout, sometimes following old photos, even revisiting the town a few times.  I also learned a lot of my family history.  I especially like my memories of waiting in the creaky old depot for the westbound motor from St. Joe, one of three trains a day that passed through Seneca in those years.

scene in a garden railway
The model of the family home shown above, as modeled by the author. Photo by John Vorhes

What’s your least favorite part?

My least favorite part of the hobby is the steadily increasing technology available.  I converted from track power to battery power after cold weather interrupted track connections in many places, and being a techno-dinosaur, I was never comfortable with the high-tech remote controller or the charging devices. My wife and I would frequently huddle over instruction books.


What was your biggest modeling mistake?

Tree branch damage to garden railway
Trees can cause a multitude of challenges. In addition to leaf drop, falling branches can also cause damage. Photo by John Vorhes

My biggest mistake was not realizing how damaging trees around my yard could be.  Limbs and branches fell during storms but miraculously, only one of my buildings got smashed. A model farmhouse actually exploded on impact by a twenty-foot Tulip Poplar branch. I located all the pieces and put it back together. I was committed to the location of my layout but whenever the summer sky darkened, I got nervous. I finally built rigid foam boxes that I could drop over the buildings quickly. The trains would be run into my shed for protection.

I experimented with plant material for the layout but found that ordinary moss from neighbor’s back yards worked nicely. Of course, I asked for permission before lifting it with a shovel. They must have thought I was nuts. It’s a very tolerant plant and settles in nicely but mice sometimes harvest it for nests, leaving empty patches.

What advice would you give to a new hobbyist?

man with model of depot
The author modeled this small town depot based on a prototype that was torn down decades ago. The model is returning to the town museum, perhaps as a history lesson to two generations of young people who never saw it or understood its importance to the town’s history.

Some people like to “play with trains.” I guess my interest was always different. I was recreating a memory and it had to be as authentic as possible. I got into the architecture and history of the town and researched what U.P. locomotives and rolling stock were accurate to the era. I rarely “played” with my trains, I took photos and was happy when people couldn’t tell that it was a model. My advice to newcomers is to decide early whether you are going for authenticity or whether you just want to run trains around a tree. Both can be fun.

I started another layout a few years ago based on the historic Kansas Central narrow-gauge line that ran just 20 miles south of Seneca in the 1870s. Being a history and authenticity nut, my two layouts could never merge. My old-style line runs through a bamboo grove and over a rocky waterfall, not very Kansas-like, but it’s always a topic of conversation for visitors, especially for lovers of the Wild West.

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