Wednesday, April 23, 2014

E. L. Moore's Legacy in the 21st Century: The Elizabeth Valley Railroad

[My guess at a track plan for E. L. Moore's Elizabeth Valley Railroad]

While I have had well over a hundred letters requesting track plans of my 4 x 6-foot railroad as the result of photographs published in MODEL TRAINS, nary a one has queried about anything electrical, but dozens have commented on the fact that scenery was their big bugaboo. [E. L. Moore outlining the reason behind writing his article Let’s build a mountain, in the January 1962 issue of Model Trains]

[This seems to be the best overall photo of the EVRR published. It's from the 2nd edition of HO Primer by Linn Westcott, published in 1964 by Kalmbach. The 1st edition appeared in 1962. This book seems to be staple of resale tables at model train shows, but even though a lot of its content is dated, it's still an interesting compilation of some MODEL TRAINS material. I've added the letters to this picture, and a few others in this post, to identify various buildings and articles they appeared in. The list mapping letters to articles is presented in [1]. ]

[9 October 2016 update: A photo of the EVRR was found that shows a clearer view of the trackplan and will cause some updates to the layout drawing shown in this post.]

[12 March 2017 update: A photo of one of E. L. Moore's postcards with the EVRR trackplan drawing on one side has been found.]

Even though E. L. Moore received all those requests for a track plan to his Elizabeth Valley Railroad, it doesn’t appear that one was ever published. However, there were enough photos released over the years to allow for a little archeological work to suss out what it might have been. That’s my attempt in the opening sketch. 
[This is another shot of the lakeside area, but here the main station is clearly visible and you can get a little better idea of the track along the front edge of the layout. This photo was included in the first appearance of the EVRR in the photo-spread called the Elizabeth Valley RR in the March 1955 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman.]

First, some caveats. My track plan is based on pictures of Mr. Moore’s layout that were published between 1955 and 1962. Even in those photos the layout appears to have developed over the years, and it likely underwent more development after ’62. For example, in his article, 3 in 1 Engine House, in the February 1963 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman, Mr. Moore states that, “I have long wanted an engine house but on my little 4’ x 6’ pike, the Elizabeth Valley Railroad, there simply wasn’t room for one. Recently I managed to acquire some additional acreage so, ...”, which hints that the EVRR underwent an expansion in ’62, or maybe ’61. 
[This appears to be the only published picture of the mountainous region of the EVRR. It was a part of E. L. Moore's Let's build a mountain article in the January 1962 issue of MODEL TRAINS.]

As well, I don’t think the published pictures form a complete record of the layout, so some parts I’ve inferred from the evidence available. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if the stuff along the ‘front’ edge is inaccurate because that’s where I did the most guess-work. If you see places where I’m way off-base, please leave a comment so I can make the necessary corrections.
[The content of Let's build a mountain is dated, but the article does have this inside view of the mountains that shows what the track plan looks like.]

Over his long career Mr. Moore wrote many articles about how to build various types of industries for model railroads, but his own layout seems to have been purely a tourist and passenger line set in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s - it might have had some logging operations in the mountain region, but they weren’t extensive. It first appeared in print in a 2-page photo-spread called the Elizabeth Valley RR in the March 1955 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. There also were likely some photos in Model Trains from that period as Mr. Moore suggests in the opening quote, but I haven't yet found them

The track plan is loop-based and small – the layout is only 4 feet wide by 6 feet long - which is somewhat out-of-fashion today. Some might dismiss it as a beginner’s layout of ‘spaghetti-bowl’ design [2]; however, I’d suggest it’s more sophisticated in its execution than a cursory viewing might suggest.
[This overall shot of the lake area is the 'day' scene from The light fantastic in the Fall 1959 issue of MODEL TRAINS. In it Mr. Moore shows how to build a low cost light fixture that provides both day and night light (via a blue bulb). It also has a clear view of the 'Red Eye Saloon']

In fact, its loop structure strikes me as rather ingenious as it allows many different routes, as well as long continuous runs, through the terrain and helps establish several scenes: a railroad town, a cabin and swimming hole down by a lake, a remote depot, a mountain cabin with a trail up to it, as well as numerous bridges.
[This very grainy scan is the night scene from The light fantastic. The white box I've added at the bottom is one of best shots I've come across of the spur behind the main station. The blue night light prevents the scene from being too dark. Also you can see that as well as the buildings being illuminated, so are the passenger cars on the train at the back that is just starting across the bridge.] 

To get a better understanding of the track plan’s structure I made a couple of sketches where I backed the plan down to its spine. In this first one, shown below, I took the upper most level - which is basically a reversing loop - unfurled it, and stretched it out using some tracing paper over the plan.
[That lobe on the far left is the uppermost level unraveled and extended.]

I then removed a couple of pieces and discovered the basis of the track plan to be a strip of track with reversing loops at either end. The pieces taken out were a short-cut to the reversing loop, a passing track, and a siding.
[In this tracing the passing siding, spur and reversing loop shortcut have been removed to show the basic underlying tack plan.]

With these two tracings it’s a little easier to see how the track plan might have been developed: it started with a length of track with reversing loops at either end; a siding, passing track, and reversing loop shortcut were added; it was finished by twisting and elevating sections to conform with the mountain and valley.

By today’s standards, the EVRR would be considered dated. It’s elements are almost stereotypical of what might be thought of as a small beginner’s layout: a mountain in a corner, a lake in the centre, quaint stations, lots of grades [3]. The difference between the EVRR and the stereotypes is in the level of integration between these elements which turns the entire layout into a coherent whole instead of a collection of unrelated areas: a stream starts in the mountains, crosses a plain, and empties into a lake; a mountain trail leads from the lake, passes a cabin, and climbs up the mountain via a number of switchbacks to a remote cabin; there’s a fancy central station, with a hotel / saloon across the way, for tourists planning to enjoy the lake for a day or two; the lake has boats, fishermen, swimmers, and a lake-side cabin; there’s a remote station up on the far plateau for those venturing into the mountains; there’s a full backdrop, carefully blended in style to the layout, giving the impression of even more distant mountains; there’s trees and vegetation in the lower lands where water collects and little to none in the mountains; and there’s a lighting system to simulate both day and night situations - with illuminated buildings and passenger cars too! And in classic E. L. Moore fashion there’s plenty of people and animals around doing appropriate things. That’s a lot of careful consideration of coherence packed into 24 square feet.

Of course, the scenery construction methods are more-or-less completely obsolete. Mr. Moore wrote an article called Let's build a mountain in the January 1962 issue of Model Trains describing how he made the mountains, but newer methods produce more credible results. Although, that article gives an excellent view into the track plan through the mountains and was a cornerstone in trying to figure out the EVRR track plan. The point is not to get too hung-up on superficial appearances.

One other thing I noticed while perusing the photos with a magnifying glass is that all the buildings have associated outhouses - 'backhouses' in some parts of the world. I’m surprised some magazine didn’t commission a one-pager on those one-holers*** :-)

I think what may have made the layout popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was that it embodied a relatively high degree of completion and overall integration, all within a layout that was achievable for a wide range of readers. The call-out in the ’55 RMC article is the key to its popularity: “E. L. Moore has packed plenty of action and interest into his compact and well executed HO Elizabeth Valley Railroad”.  Lots of action and interest. Today, for a layout to land in the mainstream press, the call-out would need to say something like, “...plenty of operational possibilities and switching problems...”. On the EVRR, the focus wasn’t on the simulation of actual railroad operations, but on interesting scenes, train movement, lighting, and some rudimentary operations. That’s where the ‘action’ was, not in the simulation of railroad operations.

The obvious care that was lavished on this layout makes it clear it’s the embodiment of something Mr. Moore held dear; a nostalgic view of a personal utopia perhaps. Many model railroads are to some extent an expression of a personal utopia. They embody something their builders love. They want to create their dream, play with it [4], share it and communicate with it. That’s what can - can, but doesn’t have to - push these things into the zone of art. It’s a kind of outsider or folk art mainly [5]. That’s not meant to be a derogatory statement. It’s meant to convey that it’s an art undertaken outside the normal institutions and markets that constitute mainstream art. There is some insider art, but that's a relatively small branch in comparison to where the main action is taking place.

I’m ok with proposing that E. L. Moore’s work - layout, buildings and rolling stock - were a form of folk art. I’m basing this on how much was scratchbuilt, organized, photographed, repurposed, presented and storied in accordance with his personal vision. Now, this doesn't mean I'm pigeon-holing him and his work. No. Any individual can embody many things at the same time. Mr. Moore was certainly a type of folk artist, but he was also a straightforward hobbyist, a teller of tall-tales, an accomplished how-to writer, draftsman, photographer, and a master of a model railroading genre, among other things.

Unfortunately, these utopias - whether or not they are some sort of ‘art’ - rarely outlive their builders. Most are eventually destroyed. No doubt the Elizabeth Valley RR was. Preservation of any personal model railroad is unusual. Maybe it’s fitting. Nothing to get upset about. They’re personal. Why should they persist intact when the individuals or groups who were most interested in them no longer exist. On the other hand, the spirit in which they were created, their ideas, their concepts, can live a bit longer in publications, or the online universe.

One final note, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of E. L. Moore articles where he mentions another model railroad of his called the Eagleroost & Koontree. It was apparently an HOn3 layout. I looked and looked and couldn’t find pictures of it - although there were many photos of scenes allegedly shot along the E & K’s right-of-way. I’m not sure if it was a complete layout, a short-line on his EVRR, a dual-gauge portion of the EVRR, a diorama for photo shoots, or just something totally fictional. If any reader has thoughts on this, please leave a comment.

[Update, 21 May 2014: I learn something new every day, especially since I haven’t yet read everything for this series. It turns out that the E&K was indeed a dual tracked portion of the EVRR. Gordon Odegard states it was in his interview with E. L. Moore that appeared under the title, A visit with E. L. Moore, in the Bull Session column of the September ’75 issue of Model Railroader. The missing bit is that it’s still not clear exactly which portions were dual tracked with HOn3. There are clues in the old magazines in which the E&K is mentioned. For example, I recently obtained the September ’61 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman that contains Mr. Moore’s article Slim Gauge Carriage. The introductory photo is quite charming, and also full of clues. It shows the dual track on the main trestle that divides the lake region from the mountains, and later in the article Mr. Moore speculates, “Right now I’m wondering what’s going to happen when that HO engine pushes its little caravan to the end of the double tracked portion of the trestle. The lead carriage is HOn3, the second one HO, the flatcar with canoe and equipment is HOn3 and the engine is HO. Some scramble”. Well, the hunt continues. I’m not sure if there are enough scattered clues to reconstruct the entire E&K route, but I’ll post updates if I find more.]

This is the 9th instalment in the E. L. Moore’s Legacy in the 21th Century series. An index to the series can be found here.


[1] I’ve made an attempt to identify some of the E. L. Moore articles that correspond to the buildings and rolling stock shown in a few of the layout photos. This is what I’ve found so far.

A,  Branch Line Station, Railroad Model Craftsman, April 1964.

B, Easy to Build Cottage or Cabin, Railroad Model Craftsman, December 1963. (This building appears to be the cottage, or a building very similar to the cottage)

C, Down by the depot, Model Railroader, December 1964.

D, Old-Time Log Buggies, Model Trains, March 1960 (I’m not sure if these are the same log buggies, but they look close).

E. The little red caboose, Model Trains, December 1961.

F. This building is very close to the log cabin in Easy to Build Cottage or Cabin in Railroad Model Craftsman, December 1963.

G. ‘The Red Eye Saloon’ presented in the article Civic center for Boomtown in the March 1963 issue of Model Railroader.

H. A close-up of the water tower is in the opening photo of Union Pacific windmill in the September 1962 issue of Model Railroader.

[2] Maybe from the point-of-view of a model railroad that is meant to be viewed instead of accurately simulating railroad business, a loop-based track plan where views are partially obscured is more realistic than one meant for operation where the entire setup is clearly visible. This type of unobscured view is rarely possible in ‘real-life’ other than from some high vantage point. 

The loop, and its variants, is a much maligned form. Maybe one reason is that it cuts too close to the humble roots of model railroading: the child’s train set and the guilty pleasure of simply watching those little trains run. I can’t imagine Gomez Addams having nearly as much fun with a non-loop layout :-)

Or it could be that many people like to see the trains run though complex patterns. Whatever the reason, there is some fundamental fascination with just watching trains run, and sometimes that fascination is taken to extremes with the loopiest of layouts: ‘spaghetti’ track plan.

It looks like the spaghetti track plan has been the butt of jokes for quite a long time. While reading some old Model Trains magazines I came across this example in the July 1956 issue.

[The classic spaghetti track plan joke via the July 1956 issue of MODEL TRAINS. The cartoonist is R.O. Gilbert]

The March 2013 issue of Model Railroader had an updated take on the joke, but in that example the cartoon track plan struck me as an almost viable candidate for an omnivagant streetcar layout. I guess that version of the joke was more elbow macaroni than spaghetti :-) The track follows a large number of densely packed paths, but looks like it was laid out with pieces of elbow macaroni rather than strands of spaghetti. 
[This is a track plan of the Toronto Transit Commission's streetcar network circa 1973. It's far more rectilinear than its cartoon spaghetti counterparts, but it's just as convoluted with its myriad of possible paths. This illustration is sourced from the excellent Toronto Transit].

For an urban North American streetcar setup, this is only natural because the tracks are in the streets of a city, and those streets are usually laid out in a grid. But, in this situation the derided path density of the macaronified spaghetti layout makes a bit of sense. The trick is preventing the track plan from jumping into the ‘Way-out Layout’ zone.
[This excellent slot-car layout - designed by Mr. David Vollrath - is the 1st place winner of the 3rd Wayout Layout contest presented in the November '72 issue of Car Model magazine.]

Back in 1972, Car Model magazine ran a contest whereby its readers were challenged to create ‘Way-out Layouts’ – layouts suitable for ultra exciting slot-car races  - from a collection of pieces of HO Tycopro slot-car track. Looking over some of the winners from the point-of-view of avoiding streetcar macaroni syndrome is quite interesting. All the twists and turns, relieved in places by high speed straight-aways, might make for thrilling racing, but urban streetcar operations are likely more sedate with long straight sections terminated with tight, street conforming turns with little stomach-churning twistiness along the route for the sake of the paying passengers.
[These are but 2 of the many examples of Peano curve generators (on the left) and generated iterations (on the right) shown in Benoit Mandelbrot's The Fractal Geometry of Nature.]

Those elbow macaroni streetcar lines and Way-out Layouts remind me of the mathematical oddity called the Peano Curve that I stumbled across a long time ago in Benoit Mandelbrot’s book The Fractal Geometry of Nature. Dr. Mandelbrot shows all sorts of Peano curve generating algorithms – whose math takes me awhile to work through, but at least there are lots of diagrams to illustrate the processes - for producing what seem like special forms of Way-out Layouts.  I suspect those Peano Curve generators could be enhanced with some sort of ‘streetcar line rules’, in addition to some randomization, to create streetcar track plans that could possibly enter the uncanny valley of actual systems, and might also incorporate some surprising variations. But, on the other hand, the end result might be in the same vein as those bland crossword puzzles that are cranked out by computer algorithms.

So, I think a streetcar layout would be somewhat more spaghetti or macaroni like than a realistically designed train-based layout, but it needs to avoid the Way-out Layout zone if it’s going for some sort of urban realism. On the other hand, if extreme streetcar operations is your thing, maybe the Way-out Layout is just the ticket :-)

[3] These 2 pre-fab layouts from Fleischmann are interesting illustrations of beginner layouts of about the same size as the EVRR.

[The ad for this 3 x 5 ft pre-fab HO scale layout appeared on the back of the January 1962 issue of MODEL TRAINS. That was the same issue that E. L. Moore's Let's build a mountain and Central Pacific snowplow appeared. The looping is simple and doesn't appear to present its owner will anything more difficult wiring-wise than attaching the output leads from a power-pack. No headache inducing reverse-loops.]

[This one is even simpler and appeared on the back cover of the Fall 1961 issue of MODEL TRAINS. E. L. Moore's Open-air excursion coach appeared in that issue. This layout is merely all elevated ridge surrounding a valley - very evocative of part of the EVRR.]

I only present them as illustrations of what was marketed as ready-to-run beginner style layouts of the era. Although E. L. Moore's EVRR has many similar features, its track-plan and structure was far more sophisticated even though it had only a slightly larger footprint.

[4] I’m not using the word ‘play’ as in the common put-down of “playing with trains”, as a regression to juvenile activity, but in its broader free-ranging and restorative sense as in Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephan Nachmanovich. An activity outside the normal imperatives of day-to-day survival and practical activity. I’m using ‘play’ in the sense of freely and fully engaging in an activity of one’s own interest without regard to rules or social strictures. Not the things promoted by the mainstream popular media. The other side. The deep exploration side. Pursuing the trail of one’s interests without a blessing from a tv show or what-not to guide the way. It’s a positive activity that, in bland prosaic terms, furthers the development of an individual in deep ways that are meaningful to them. 

[5] Is it great folk art? I can’t say for certain. I recall reading somewhere that there is no great art without great invention. Great invention in model railroading is whole other subject.

*** [6 May 2014 update] I stand corrected! I finally got a copy of the November 1975 issue of the NMRA Bulletin which contains E. L. Moore's A Mighty Relaxin' Job. It's a complete thesis on how to build a wide variety of outhouses :-)


  1. > Many model railroads are to some extent an expression of a personal utopia.
    Very well said JD, and I agree with all your points. I even went so far as to name my railway Utrainia :-)

    Over here in New Zealand "operating" has yet to catch on as the one and only Holy Grail of model railroading, so it is refreshing to read your comments about the joy of watching a train go around in circles.

    Neat track plan as well, I would love to see a streetcar version.

    1. Thanks Michael!

      Operational based layouts are a fascinating branch of model railroading. In this post I was thinking that just because a layout might be loop-based, with limited conventional operational features, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t necessarily a ‘serious’ layout in its own right. Even so, many of E. L. Moore’s post 1962 writings hint that he expanded the EVRR and introduced more railroad support and maintenance facilities, which may have also included additional features that expanded the operational capabilities of the layout.

      Last year I was hoping to make a start on a ‘loopy’ streetcar layout, but had no such luck. I’m still wrestling with how to squeeze as much motion into as small a space as possible using HO. N-scale seems better suited to the task, but I’m not sure I can find the streetcars I’m looking for in N, and building them myself in N is likely too much of a challenge for me. But, it’s a happy and interesting ‘problem’ to work on.

      When I read your comment to Debra she said to ask if you knew her friends Kosal and Wil in Wellington? I reminded the 30 Squares Chief-Editorial Officer that NZ is a gigantic place, to which your correspondent was reminded that the world can at times be a small place :-)

  2. That Fleischmann over-and-under ad inspired my 2x3 N scale EVRR.

    By the way, after E.L.'s praise of the book "Drug Store Days" by Richard Armour (mentioned in the Nixon Drug Store article), I found it in an old library and really enjoyed it. Clearly Armour had the wit similar to E. L. I recommend Armour's other books of funny poetry and twisted history.

    1. That's an interesting coincidence! I'll have to look for that book.

  3. On a 71 year old whim, I entered E L Moore in the search engine and......Amazing. As a difficult teenager in 1962 and looking for a utopia, I was entranced by the EVRR, tried unsuccessfully to build it, and was one of the hundreds who wrote to E L for electrical info and whose reply I still have. What a surprise it was to know that others remember him too and for the same reasons! One note, if you are seeking a movieland connection for E L 's nostalgic evocations, look no further than John Ford.

    1. I'm glad the search brought you here! That's a fascinating story. There are a number of other posts related to the Elizabeth Valley Railroad here and you can find them by clicking in EVRR in the Labels column on the left. Since this post was made there have been a number of 'discoveries' related to the EVRR trackplan. And as you mention, it was probably difficult to wire because it was a dogbone shape with a couple of short-cut tracks which likely made wiring difficult. I think with a slight simplification to the trackplan, wiring would be easier and it wouldn't affect the overall layout.
      I'd be most interested in seeing the reply ELM sent to you. He mentioned in his Let's build a mountain article in Model Trains that he did - as you note - receive a lot of requests for his plan. If you would like to send me a scan I'm at jamesdloweatgmaildotcom. Thanks!