Running trains with John Armstrong

Two giants of the hobby – Andy Sperandeo and John Armstrong – ponder the day’s work in Cattaragus Yard on John’s Canandaigua Southern model railway. I was fortunate to join an operating session at John’s house while visiting the Washington DC area in 2002.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite activities was drawing track plans. (Yeah, I know – but I was an only child and didn’t have a life.) I went through entire pads of graph paper designing layouts that ranged from the impractical to the impossible.

Most of these were incredibly ill-informed and would have made for terrible model railways. The problem was, I didn’t really understand how railways worked.

That changed when I acquired a copy of Track Planning for Realistic Operation by John Armstrong.

A huge influence on my hobby, I wore out the cover of my second copy of this book.

This book was a huge influence on my hobby. I devoured it – to the point that, after one week of ignoring just about everything else in life, my mother confiscated it from me and threw it out! (She relented: We had a talk about how I still had to do my chores, homework, etc., and she bought me a replacement copy. I still have that one, although the cover disintegrated a long time ago.)

I was therefore delighted – no, thrilled – when I was one of four guests invited to attend an operating session at John’s house while taking part in a convention in the Washington DC area in 2002. One of the other guests was another hobby hero of mine – one-time Model Railroader editor Andy Sperandeo. (Both John and Andy have passed away – John in 2004, and Andy a year later.)

John’s layout had not been run in a while before our visit – so understandably there were a few times when a locomotive needed a little push to get over some dirty track, or the 0-5-0 was needed. But it was wonderful to spend time with him and see – first hand – a layout that had been so important to my hobby early on.

Here are some photos I took that day. (I think I shot them with my first ever digital camera and I apologize for the quality, but I’m so glad I took them.)

The “Big Ore” train, headed by a monster of a locomotive.
John’s layout was full of humorous touches, such as the sign on this under-construction station in the Art Deco style. Even though it was a work in progress the station exhibited beautiful construction and a sophisticated eye.
John built this tribute to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. John wrote about recreating this famous painting in the January 1989 issue of Model Railroader.
“Gazmeiterzag” was the location where the railway scooted past the gas meter.
The train station at Warm River.
Slug Island was the location of what John called a “cosmetic curve” – an extremely broad radius curve used instead of straight trackage, because it looks better.
Another view of Slug Island, looking the other direction. The benefits of the cosmetic curve can be clearly seen. I used this idea when designing the HO scale Peterboro Project – a Free-mo layout built by Pierre Oliver and myself a few years later.
A power plant with in-plant switcher to handle loads of coal. This was the original “loads in / empties out” operation.

A special thanks to my friend Paul Dolkos for making this happen. It’s an experience that I’ll treasure for a lifetime!

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and amateur shepherd, training a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

7 thoughts on “Running trains with John Armstrong

  1. Are you sure we aren’t twins, separated at birth? I was yelled at to go out and play on summer vacation as I sat at my dad’s desk, drawing plan after plan to fit an imaginary space. Imagine my horror when I discovered the Timesaver was not the best thing to include in a plan. I still have my dad’s first printing of John’s book and I bought a second copy to keep the old one from disintegration. The “feel” of the book is different though. Yes, I have emotional attachments to books. LOL And trains. Thanks for this post. Awesome!


  2. Trevor, thank you for sharing a delightful post. I think we have all have benefitted from friends and mentors in the hobby. As I reflect, I recognizes people who have been bad influences, people who taught me how not to be. I could not expand the sign over the station to be able to read it. Could you tell me what it says?


    1. Sure thing, Ken:

      Traditionally, Construction Sites Are A Mess!
      Junk all over, looks like they lost the blueprints…
      This Is A Construction Site
      We Uphold Tradition



  3. What great pictures and memories. Your pictures show how immense O scale is. Thanks so much for posting.
    Cheers, Gord


  4. I, too, have fond memories of these two gentlemen and their imprint on my favorite hobby. Though I never got to operate on this layout I am sure it would have blown me away. Thank you for sharing your memories.


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