The appeal of Ferguson Avenue

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the past couple of months contemplating what comes next in my model railway life. And I’ve drawn several sketches using a smaller scale room template to figure out what I can fit in my new layout space.

I have several good contenders, but the one that most excites me right now is the other end of the line from Port Rowan – in Hamilton, Ontario.

As I’ve noted previously, my Port Rowan layout represented the final three miles of a network that connected Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. This involved a journey of more than 60 miles, over the Grimsby, Hagersville, Cayuga, and Simcoe Subdivisions. There was an incredible variety of trains, equipment, and operations to be encountered on this journey – yet almost all of this variety happened “off stage” on my last layout.

However, all of this activity was very much “on stage” in Hamilton, and it all started with a trip down the middle of Ferguson Avenue:

Some trips were more successful than others:
On May 27, 1953, the tender on CNR 88 – one of the ubiquitous 2-6-0s that worked the line – picked a set of switch points as this train headed south on Ferguson Avenue approaching Rebecca Street.
The helper locomotive – CNR 3506, a much larger 2-8-2 that was doing most of the work at this point – kept on shoving.
Fortunately, nobody was killed.

Other than the accident itself, the above photo says a lot about the appeal of Ferguson as a modelling subject.

For starters, the CNR’s main freight yard in Hamilton is along the north edge of the city, on the shore of Lake Ontario’s Burlington Bay. In order to head south, the railway needed to pass through the city itself – and as the photo shows, Ferguson Avenue became its path. Trains travelled nine blocks down Ferguson, from Barton Street to Hunter Street. This is classic street running: or street-crawling, as trains were limited to 10 mph – with bell ringing and flagging of unprotected intersections. This would be an unusual subject for a model railway – and I’ve always been attracted to the unusual in this hobby.

The two locomotives and long string of freight cars in this photo provide another clue to Ferguson Avenue’s appeal. At the south end of the avenue, the CNR encountered the Niagara Escarpment – a 90-metre (295-foot) tall obstacle to surmount. Given that restrictions elsewhere on the Hagersville Subdivision limited steam power to small locomotives, the 2-6-0s that served the line were not up to the task. The mixed train (M233 to Port Rowan) hauled only a couple of passenger cars at this point and could make the grade, but all freight trains headed south from Hamilton received a helper engine to provide extra muscle. These helpers would be cut out at Rymal, Glanford, or sometimes Caledonia, and return tender-first to the north end of Hamilton to await their next assignment. So Ferguson is not only a busy artery – it’s also a helper district.

Then there’s the switch that caused the accident. It’s one of a half-dozen spurs that branched off Ferguson to serve railway customers. These included several examples of the customers you would typically expect in a 1950s-era Canadian city: coal dealers, lumber yards, warehouses, wholesalers, packing plants, and light manufacturing. These were taken care of by switch jobs out of the Stuart Street yard.

But the busiest switching on Ferguson took place a couple of blocks north of this accident, at the CNR’s Hamilton freight shed. This shed – the sixth-largest on the system at the time – handled hundreds of tons of LCL and merchandise each day. The shed tracks and adjacent team yard stretched a full city block along the west side of Ferguson, between Barton and Cannon, and was worked by two shifts per day. In addition to lining up cars against the shed doors, the switch crews would also block cars by destination before they were transferred to Stuart Street to be put on forwarding trains. Ferguson Avenue doubled as the lead for the freight shed tracks, making the street a busy place around the clock.

It will come as no surprise that this accident added fuel to mounting calls for the city to evict the CNR from Ferguson Avenue. The city eventually achieved that goal, but it would take another couple of decades.

The very things that made Ferguson Avenue a problem for the city of Hamilton also make it a terrific opportunity to create in miniature.

For me, it would be a chance to reuse my locomotives and rolling stock from Port Rowan, while also making use of other equipment that I’ve collected over the years that was not appropriate for that final couple of miles of branch line.

For example, I have larger steam locomotives that I could employ as helper engines.

I also have freight car types and non-revenue equipment that would never have appeared in Port Rowan, but that would be right at home on a train heading elsewhere along the way.

Perhaps this equipment is headed to an online customer in Caledonia, Hagersville, Jarvis, or Simcoe. Or maybe it’s going to be forwarded on the CNR Dunnville or Cayuga Subs… or will be interchanged with the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo in south Hamilton, the Canada Southern/NYC at Hagersville, or the Wabash at Jarvis.

I also enjoy structure and scene modelling, and there are a lot of opportunities to indulge that along Ferguson. (Maybe too many? There are a lot of buildings. I do have a large stash of suitable structure kits to get me started but that’s one of the things I will have to look at, seriously. At this point, that’s probably the biggest issue to resolve.)

Finally, Ferguson Avenue appeals to me from a layout operations perspective because it offers a bit of everything. There’s yard switching. There’s local industry switching. There are through train operations. There’s a helper district. Between those options, there’s plenty of flexibility to tailor an operating session to suit the mood and the number of people available – from solo operations to small groups.

I will not say that I have chosen this as my next modelling subject – not yet. But it sure has a lot of potential. Will it fit in my space? In a future post, I’ll share some ideas about how I might do that in 1:64…

Published by Trevor

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

9 thoughts on “The appeal of Ferguson Avenue

  1. Trevor, You continue to have excellent thoughts regarding your next layout. I find your thoughts about Ferguson Avenue and the possibilities it presents to be wonderful.


  2. Hi Trevor,

    For me, the biggest appeal of the original Port Rowan layout was how poetically you portrayed the pastoral sleepiness of the countryside in this era. It took me back to reading kids adventure stories from my Grandparent’s library like The Trolleycar Family and Lassie stories. Of course, your Calvin and Hobbes treehouse really contributed to that.

    That said, the urban streetscene pictured above is very cool, and I think it might be a great way to bridge your last layout and a more modern urban world.

    Really looking forward to following the journey.



  3. Trevor, Sadly we can only do justice to one idea at a time. Your idea of Ferguson Avenue is very interesting. I did not grow up knowing street running but how fun. Keep us posted, it will be fun to enjoy this trip (if it is the one you choose) with you.


  4. You make a compelling argument in favour of Ferguson Avenue; the challenge may be graduating from the minimalist approach of the Port Rowan end to the hustle and bustle of a busy terminal in the middle of Canada’s industrial heartland. One sees the possible opportunity here for some form of multi-deck layout, allowing you to emulate the rigours of the climb up the Niagara escarpment. Similarly, the motive power that you have on your shelf could be pressed into service on a variety of freight extras and local jobs. Maybe you could consider showcasing the operation in a series of shadow boxes as done by Richard Chrysler and highlighted by you in your recent blog. Structure wise, the actual avenue would provide an opportunity for flat to wall buildings, allowing you to avoid having to worry about a lot of extra work for side and away from view walls. It would be interesting to see how things made out given your space and scale.


    1. Hi Philip:
      Great to hear from you. I have some ideas about the layout which I’ll share in a future post. But I will say thanks but no thanks to double-decking. It works for many but it’s never been my thing. If I pursue this, I’ll have plenty to build on a single deck as it is!
      Stay safe…


  5. Hi Trevor,

    I have missed your posts for a while now. It is good seeing them back again. I have been very lucky and have not had to move to another home for 44 years now.

    Your new layout ideas sure sound interesting. Lots of different types of cars. I’m gathering that the trains did local switching, but still had cars bound for another destination further down the line. And helpers are always good for operations on a layout.

    I’ll be watching for your new layout plans.

    Mike Schwab


    1. Hi Mike:
      Thanks for the kind words. The through trains did not work on Ferguson Avenue – they just headed through. A local crew (two shifts worth, actually) covered all the needs along the avenue.
      Stay safe!


  6. You have given this whole idea a tremendous amount of thought. I would hate to see all that great inspiration go to waste if this is not what you end up with. My vote is Ferguson!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Here in the states we have Sanborn Fire Insurance maps that go back 100 years and show how things looked in the past. Does Canada have the same type of historical documentation?


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