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Research sources for prototype railroad information

By | January 30, 2020

Where to look for information when designing a prototype-based model railroad

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CNW Crystal Lake 1960s
CNW Crystal Lake 1960s
The shiny new Pullman bi-level coaches and their weary yellow F unit tell us it’s not the 1950s anymore. This typical four-car Chicago & North Western commuter train makes a station stop in Crystal Lake on a summer afternoon. Its new final destination is Harvard, Illinois. David Popp used a variety of research sources to design CNW-based track plans set in the 1950s and 1960s for Model Railroad Planning 2020.
Mark Llanuza photo collection
CNW Crystal Lake MRP2020
To get a better idea as to how the Sanborn map sheets fit together, David placed the scans in Photoshop and then assembled them by matching up street, building, and track connections. He drew rough track lines to show how the pieces fit together.
Digital Sanborn map sheets courtesy of the University of Illinois Digital Archive
CNW Crystal Lake research MRP 2020 2
If you can get them, railroad engineering maps are an amazing resource. This photo shows as section of a Metra commuter railroad map for Crystal Lake from 1986. Even though the turntable and servicing tracks were removed long before, the map clearly shows where they had been.
Bill Zuback photo, map used by permission from Metra

Not everyone has a fabulous railroad library to work from, but the library at the Model Railroader Offices at Kalmbach Media didn’t get me as far as you’d think. Following is a short list of places I’ve found amazing stuff when looking for research:

• Most railroads have a historical society, so it’s good to have an up-to-date membership. I found great photos and articles using the Chicago & North Western Historical Society’s website.

• Some communities have historical societies, complete with offices or reading rooms that you can visit. Many groups have at least part of their collection digitized. I discovered after I’d finished the project that the Crystal Lake society has a complete set of 1955 Sanborn maps!

• Railroad museums almost always have extensive photo and paper collections. Access may be reserved for museum members, but the price of membership is usually low.

• Local libraries often have collections of photographs, maps, and other memorabilia about their community that can be useful for layout planning.

• Asking friends has come in handy more times than I can count. Somewhere someone knows a guy who used to work that line. First-hand information is always the best.

Keep in mind that you almost never find everything you want from one source. Also, be careful not to ask for the moon or wear out your welcome. People are usually happy to help you once or twice, but don’t become a pest.

Learn more about how David designed HO and N scale model train layouts based on the Chicago & North Western commuter operations around Crystal Lake, Ill., in Model Railroad Planning 2020. You also don’t want to miss the video series about planning the railroad, or the 3D track plan!

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