1. Genesis of an Idea
The idea first began in the numerous trips taken by the Burroughs family in the 1970s and 80s throughout the eastern seaboard states, where our station wagon was often found parked at a roadside museum involving history, trains or cars. Roadside America was one in particular that made an impression, Choo-Choo Barn was another. A home layout, usually modest in cost and effort due to the time it took to build a small software business, was always part of our home life. My father had been model railroading since his youth in the 1950s, and had experience with Lionel O-Gauge, TT (“Table-Top”), HO and N scales in the decades since.
My father also had a classic car or two in the garage at any given time in the 1970s and early 80s, preferably Kaiser-Frazer and Studebaker models. I accompanied him to junkyards in woody, out of the way places to find needed parts among the poison ivy and copperheads of Appalachia. The cars later had to go to help pay for school for four children, but I the numerous books about classic cars remained in our family library, and I’m sure the idea of re-acquiring his beloved cars was never far from his mind.
Anyone old enough to remember the HO scale boom of the 1970s can recall the ever-present smell of ozone and the occasional smoke that seemed an inevitable part of the model railroading experience. The coming of home computing seemed to draw off many frustrated model railroaders at the end of the 1970s, with word of money to be made in software by tinkerers in garages and basements. In our home we had both, as my father had a career in computer programming beginning with the ‘big steel’ of the mainframe era thru the minicomputer revolution and on thru PCs and the Internet. He often programmed in front of the TV in the late 1970s with a monochrome monitor and a big umbilical leading back to the Data General minicomputer in his home office. And the trains were always a part of our home life. It was always a modest layout with the more inexpensive HO engines and cars, as other family priorities, like food and shelter, always had a greater a place in our home budget. Old Model Railroaders like to say that you can sleep under your layout, but you certainly can’t eat it!
It was always an HO scale layout until the mid-1990s. The revival in O scale led by Mike’s Train House, a manufacturer based in Columbia, MD, was ongoing and it occurred to the now-grown children in our family to give Dad a real Christmas present: a full set of RailKing from MTH.
“What the hell am I going to do with this?”, said my father to himself; generously, he kept this sentiment to himself and smiled broadly. Soon, however, he found the sound effects and reliability of these new O-Scale giants to be a real treat, and began expanding the layout rapidly.
The limitations placed on the size of my father’s 3-rail ambitions were loosened considerably by the growing success of his company, Visual One Systems, and my parents’ move to a larger, more modern home in Frederick, Maryland from Bethesda. Many of the ideas that viewers see today first began on this basement layout. This layout used older building methods, with a stout wood table topped with mountains made of metal screen covered with plaster. It was about 8 x 20 feet and quite a few of the ceramic buildings made it onto our present display.
The sale of Visual One Systems to Agilysys in 2007 and Dave Sr.’s subsequent retirement set in motion the plan for a permanent, public venue for his miniature world, complemented by a collection of cars from America’s automotive heyday.
2. First Movements
A year before retiring my father had acquired a handsome black and gold ‘Packabaker’: Studebaker’s high-end Packard sedan. Studebaker merged with Packard in the mid 50s and decided to use the Packard name for high end sedans. Packard was the cash-strong partner in the deal. The march of the Big Three flattened the new Studebaker anyway, which left the car business in 1965. This was the first 1950s car my dad had owned since selling his Kaiser Manhattan in the early 1980s. A new collection was being assembled, and these cars would need a home.
Dave Sr. knew he would be starting another business after Visual One, and initially this was to be another software business, as he enjoys programming. However the idea of a public museum was more attractive in the end. He decided to move to another house and move the trains to building of their own. Opening that building to a paying public became a more attractive proposition every time the idea was discussed.
3. Hiring the first builders
My brother John was working in Los Angeles, building sets and special effects for the film and television industry. His skills would be a significant asset for the museum, and soon my father made the offer sweet enough to entice him back to the East Coast.
John taught the rest of us how to carve foam in a professional manner (using curry combs, meant for grooming horses) and how to safely paint the final form to produce a natural effect.
He also brought plastic casting skills to bear on the problems of manufacturing custom parts for our display.
Matthew was in Philadelphia, having completed a degree in Film at Temple. When he returned to the area with his fiance, he brought the artistic sense and organizational skills he acquired working on film projects to the creation of our layout and the business of showing it to the public.
The only non-Burroughs was Regis Shaw, who was a contractor and handyman my father had employed in his previous business. He also did a good bathroom remodel for me so I could move north to Frederick without taking a bath (pun intended) on the sale of my Gaithersburg house.
He brought carpentry and general building skills, and later proved useful in all the flooring our permanent location needed.
I stayed with Agilysys for a year and a half before leaving to start my own consulting firm as an independent programmer and systems analyst. After a year of slow business heading into an economic recession, I was invited to join the effort and bring my project management background and love of wiring to our new family business.
Of course my Dad was there at every opportunity, and my mother began to complain that she saw more of him during his career than during his retirement. He managed to handle this issue with the purchase of a small winter bungalow in Florida and started spending his winters there with my mother. I believe the project has taken years off his age, and that some medical researcher should do a study on the calisthenic benefits of model railroading, given all the crawling, climbing and reaching we do in the course of construction and operation of this layout. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s shortly before leaving the software business, and still built a great number of intricate buildings, as well as overseeing the entire project from conception to public operation.
4. Acquiring Cars, Building the first layout
In the warehouse on Highland Avenue, we began assembling the first layout in the presence of our growing collection of 1950s automotive beauty. The initial layout was only 24 feet square, with only a single set of wires going to a lone transformer. What a contrast with the intricate weave of voltages and power sources that makes up our miniature world today! If we could turn over the layout and show the work that has gone into this tapestry of copper I think our visitors would have, if possible, and even greater appreciation of the effort that went into the display.
Most of our time was spent making buildings and bridges for our beginning layout and the larger one we knew was coming. My baptism of fire as a model builder was the refinery, a kit produced by Plastruct that nobody wanted to touch. This model was created by an engineer who designed real refineries, and unlike the kits I was used to assembling, all that was provided was the raw materials and a blueprint! I hope to this day that nobody sees the million and one mistakes I made building it.
I must have done well enough on the refinery because I was then given the task of copying a trestle my father saw online and wanted for our layout. All I had to work off of was the pictures he provided. I quickly built a jig for the supports and worked out a plan for getting the same effect from economically acquired materials. Each support is made of poplar with hardwood cross supports, all cut and glued by hand. The roadbed the track lays on is made up of HO scale bridges turned upside down. It is the first raised trestle encountered by visitors and crosses over the line that leads to our ‘Amtrak’ station.
Our warehouse workshop had heating but no air-conditioning, so we operated a big fan to keep cool through the summer. We also started going home around 3pm, drenched in sweat, setting a dangerous precedent in regard to our work ethic. It was not until we moved to East St. that we began again, grudgingly, to work full days. It would take 5 years of work before we opened our doors on 4th of July weekend, 2011.
5. The Idea Grows and Changes
In the course of acquiring materials and exhibits for our museum, and hunting for a permanent home, we saw the initial concept take a modified form. My initial suggested design was for an around-the-walls layout, rather than the in-the-round concept that we finally settled on. The first plan would have allowed for a greater amount of track and more control over what the visitor saw. For example, we could have eliminated a lot of detail from the backs of structures, confident that they would never be seen. In the end the need for quick emergency exit and my father’s preference for a simpler structure won out.
We stopped acquiring antique cars after about the 8th car, when we realized that we needed to know how much room we would have in our museum before we could buy any more. This proved wise, as our car building would be slow in coming and smaller than some of our fantasies suggested.
6. The Move to 200 N East St
We searched for locations all over the northern half of Maryland, in Union Bridge and Hagerstown, Mt. Airy and a few locations in Frederick. It took about two years longer than we expected to find a suitable location. We looked at old supermarkets, warehouses, gyms and car dealerships. Understanding that our concept was hardly a license to print money, we wanted something that would generate good memories for our visitors, but still make the business economically viable. Anyone who has searched for a viable commercial property can imagine the kind of places we were shown. Some had too many small rooms where we needed one or two large ones, others had safety issues. Beautiful buildings at low cost were located too far off the beaten path, others centrally located were too costly. It was an education in trade-offs and compromises, and the resulting discussions among us really clarified the aims of our project. A hint I would offer to other searchers: do not look at an old gym unless the price is really low or you plan to demolish. They are disgusting.
In retrospect it would have been best to find a final location first, then begin hiring, building and everything else. Much of the work done in the first 2 years ended up not being used due to changes in concept, room available on the final layout, or damage in transit. Clearer lines drawn between phases (location work, building the layout, acquiring cars) would have resulted from an earlier purchase. In some sense we are not to blame: the real-estate bubble was in full swing as we started the business, and only as owners realized that the go-go days were over for the forseeable future were we able to make progress in negotiations.
One of the locations looked at was the former home of the Frederick News-Post on Patrick St., near the popular restaurants and high-end antique stores that attract so many tourists; perfect for our museum. This building was originally a terminal for a trolley line, where the cars would stay after a long day of service. The big door the trolleys used has since been bricked over, but it still had a historical cachet that would have complemented our focus on old-time transportation. Unfortunately this building had been repurposed too well; full of small offices and hallways, it was too much work for us to restore this building to an open floor plan.
We visited the Patrick St. property in the morning, in the afternoon we walked two blocks over to an old antique mall on East St., next to the popular Shab Row shopping area. This turned out to be the ideal location for our layout: high ceilings, an open layout, plenty of fire exits. One building for the cars and the other for our trains, with parking between. We knew we had found the home of Roads and Rails.
7. Building Work
Once we had signed the papers on our new location at 200 N East St. our focus changed abruptly from crafting model buildings to the real thing: preparing the old 1890 power plant for a new purpose. Away went the model glue and balsa wood and out came the sledgehammer, spackle and paint roller. Our backs and arms were sore and our clothes full of plaster dust. Exhaustion was the rule and most nights ended with an early bed. These months saw the layout in sections under plastic tarps for their protection, the cars continually pushed from one location to another to make way for scaffolding and dropcloths.
Initially the cars were kept in what is now the main train layout room, with the 4 x 8’ sections of scenery and track piled up in the building across the parking lot where we planned to house the cars. The reason for this: we had more refurbishing to do in the car warehouse, and more working garage doors on the larger train building. The cars would have been damaged by the work being done in their future home, and the layout sections were much easier to move around as needed. Eventually the whole front of the car building was re-sided and had new windows put in, along with fire escape doors. The train building had the garage doors removed as soon as the cars were safely out.
We discovered an unreported door in one of the closets that lead to the main layout room, and located our initial train control booth there. It provided a place to control trains but no window to see them, and the position was awful: right at the entrance end of the layout. This found door is now the one that leads from the main layout room to the Thomas layout; we tore out the old closet and the stairway above it.
The controls were thankfully moved later to their central position in the raised control and observation booth, and I’m proud to say that thanks to good wiring practices I was able to move the entire mass of control wiring in one workday!
8. The Layout is Reborn
One of the great challenges of building a permanent display like ours is protecting it from damage while still giving visitors the best possible view. Bill Gardner, our resident architect and webmaster, designed the glass partition that keeps very little from view while keeping little hands from playing with the cars and people. A CAD 3-d drawing was done of the entire layout, thus establishing the amount of metal and glass needed for the final product, and the measurements of each piece. The glass was cut and then delivered to us, then the metal was cut on a special saw and cleaned with mineral spirits and rags. This was one of the more onerous jobs that we had. The result is a crystal-clear partition that allows us to remove most of the glass panels for maintenance of the layout. Each piece averages about 50lbs in weight, and requires 2 persons using suction cups of great strength to slide the pane straight up and out of the metal channels.
Without the involvement of a trained person like Bill I think we would have had a more cumbersome and over-engineered solution. This kind of project requires understanding of design tools and construction materials beyond that of an average model railroader.
Power challenges are some of the greatest we face in running the display. Voltages vary, and our buildings and animations require both AC and DC. Voltage drops a little over long distances, and it is about 30 feet from the transformers to the layout. For example, 10v DC leaves the transformer and arrives at a lighted building at about 8v. 14v is just above 11.5v when it reaches its destination. We have over a mile of wire underneath the layout. Over time I have reduced the dependence on these auxiliary outputs on the transformers by using ‘wall-warts: AC adaptors available in various voltages online. These have to be plugged in at outlets located underneath the platform, which leads to another power challenge.
It is important to turn off everything at night to prevent fires and overconsumption of energy that could cut into our bottom line. To turn off power strips under the layout, I looked for a solution and thought I found it in the X-10 system.
The X-10 system was developed in Scotland in the early 1970s for home automation, and many readers will have experience with it. It can be used to turn on lights and appliances with a control that sends signals through the house wiring from a receiver that receives commands from a remote control. It is all pre-digital, quite leaky in signal and rewards clear, well-organized wiring, which is not the kind of wiring we have here at Roads and Rails!
Old buildings with many different owners tend to have layers of wiring, and an outlet in one room may have more to do electrically with a ceiling fan across the hallway than the next outlet a few feet away. Types of wire have changed over the years, along with insurance standards. The building was previously owned by a Master Electrician, who knew the standards but apparently chose his own path; a Salvador Dali of electrical work. In short, our building is a classic case of where not to use the X-10 system.
It turned out that, perhaps depending on solar flare activity, the ozone layer or the will of the gods I could turn off the layout, or often only part of it, requiring me to crawl underneath and to do it manually. I flipped this coin everyday. Only about one-third of the available outlets would work with X-10 boxes, so that drastically reduced the amount of lights and animations we could use. Eventually we had regular electric switches added to turn the outlets on and off, and removed most of the X-10 boxes. Those that remain are wired to motion detectors and have receivers directly attached, with no signals going through the power lines. In short, my X-10 idea was a flop.
When we began work, I ordered online about 2000 feet of solid, 18-gauge wire in 8 colors, paired light/dark and labeled with nylon ties. This is one decision I never regretted, and it still makes troubleshooting and maintenance easier than it would have been otherwise. I ordered 2000 more feet of wire not long afterwards. The rainbow umbilical cord that carries power under the floor and to the layout is quite thick now. The cord is attached to the underside of the layout with special nylon cable ties attached with screws. Clarity and organization are the key aims of our layout wiring. I often feel like Gary Sinise’s character in Apollo 13, scrambling for every volt and amp to keep the system going.
I’m also glad that I tacked as much of the wire to the structure of the layout before we put the landscape on, when the skeletal structure was still exposed and easy to get to. I have laid a lot of the wire laying on my back, rolling on a dolly, and it is much less arduous to do it standing up when possible.
Early track wiring was governed by the perceived need to transmit digital commands to MTH Digital Command System trains. This mean every 15 feet of the DCS track needed a power feed and to be isolated electrically from other sections. The digital signals would fade even when power was strong, so 12 gauge wire (very thick) was used for the main loop instead of the 18 gauge (thinner) wire used elsewhere. The 18 gauge wire would run the power, but lose the signal. We planned to use MTH’s record/playback feature to stop trains at stations and control other animation sequences.We stopped using the digital system well before opening day, as the conventional Lionel control served our needs better. After all, we run our layout in various loops for hours on end, without the kind of sophisticated operations one might find on a home layout.
The sectioned track did serve one very important purpose later on, when I discovered the need to give our trains a proper rest. During the first month of operation we kept the trains going all day long. Stupid as it seems now, we did not consider wear and tear would be such an immediate problem.
We listened to advice given by an old model train hand who visited us, and began using a lithium-based grease intended for automobiles. It turns out that the grease normally used in model trains vaporizes at a temperature easily reached by the gears after about 20 minutes or so. After that all contact is metal-on-metal and very damaging to the engines. Turning off the trains when we had no visitors helped quite a bit, as we had few visitors in the first three months, but we were still killing trains. We also put in automatic station stops on some loops, which cut power to sections of track, and motion detectors to turn on other loops when visitors came near. Our subway has both. These additions cut power use, mechanical wear, and provide additional visual interest. After all, real trains have to stop somewhere!
I am always on the hunt for cheap ways to achieve entertaining effects on our layout. Our police cars use blinking LEDs salvaged from children’s New Year’s Eve hats. All I had to do was ask for them at the end of the party and our gracious hostess (Hi Sanya!) kindly gave them to me. I had to saw off excess material from the circuit board and solder on connections
for permanent power, then glue them into the vehicles.
The slower flashing lights used in the Fire Department scene have a different history. I found a cheap circuit by buying a ‘blinkengurtel’ surplus from the East German police. This is an item worn by traffic policement which flashes lights on a belt to draw attention. It’s pretty crude electronically, but it works and was quite inexpensive.
I fell through the layout twice during its construction. The first time was at our warehouse location, when I stepped onto a hatch. Fortunately for me it didn’t give way until both legs were on top, ensuring that I slipped through the hatchway cleanly and directly onto the floor, both feet at the same time. Remember that the layout was 4 feet off the floor at this time, so it was quite a drop and my feet ached for a day or two afterwards.
The second time I fell through was less graceful but less blameworthy; A bolt had not been installed at a crucial joint near where the refinery now sits, and the section gave way like a four-legged table deprived of a leg. I could have scraped my neck and even cracked my skull, but the section dipped slowly and I was able to catch myself and get out without injury.
10. Opening Day
Getting ready for our opening was a big shift from our previous work: we went from carpentry to marketing in the space of a week. Naturally, it was time to make some more mistakes and learn some hard lessons.
We had a significant body of email addresses gathered during the previous Christmas period to alert the public to our existence and purpose, and a very enthusiastic response from the local media. The Frederick News-Post, The Gazette, WHAG television, and Frederick Magazine all covered us and gave us needed exposure.
We opened our doors to the public on Fourth Of July weekend 2011. Attendance was good, but without adequate publicity and the beginning of vacation season (late July and most of August here in Maryland) we found it tough going, and even tougher when school started.
Word of mouth was our main form of advertising, and this is a slow method for building an audience. One of the good signs going forward was the number of return visitors and regulars. Clearly we had something people did not tire of after one visit. But getting greater numbers of visitors was going to take a while without a real advertising effort.
It is an interesting phenomenon to open a business to the public, have money coming in, and suddenly becoming aware of every penny spent versus what is coming in. Before we had customers we certainly thought about expenditures and tried to save money, but after we saw the receipts we became even more tight-fisted. This tightening of the belt cut off any chance of a sustained advertising campaign.
11. Changes During Operation
While some things really work well off of motion detectors, when in doubt we go with the button. Buttons give visitors a sense of control and allow interaction with the layout. We bought lighted LED buttons that are generally used for rebuilding old arcade machines. These are truly designed for punishment, and the variety of colors on the black surface of the side panels look great. We have kids (most notably my nephew Marky) who run around pushing the buttons, hardly standing still to see whatever the button activated! We could have started a button museum (or a volcano museum) and made just as much money for a fraction of the price.
Most of these buttons activate timers that control the animation and ensure that they are not working when not being viewed. The Altronix company makes timers and controllers for various industrial purposes and their 6062 model is the one we use. We buy them by the bushel.
One of the most enjoyable parts of working at Roads and Rails is the creation of animations and unique attractions. The best ones use Arduino(tm) , an open-source platform for creating sequences of activity, including LED lights, motor movements, and operating relays. I enjoyed the programming, and the great animation sophistication this little chip made possible. The first thing I used it for was the rebuild of the Mel’s Diner from MTH, which we had broken by constant running. We ran it constantly due to the fact that, like many off-the-shelf animations, it was too slow to be put on a button or motion detector and maintain the attention of the viewer. By rebuilding it with new motors controlled by an Arduino, we made this animation fast enough for our public. Now the waitress comes in out reasonable time, gets the order, and the car moves quickly.
12. Experiences and Looking Forward
Our popular scavenger hunt may seem like an obvious development, but we didn’t think of it. It was suggested to us by two different lady visitors on two different days, and I’m glad to say we didn’t miss the hint. Listening to customers and taking them seriously is important in the retail amusement business.
I was in a retro-toy store in New York City during the 90s and saw a sign: “Anyone who says ‘I had one of those when I was a kid’ will be asked to leave the store. I know it was NYC, but what an attitude! One of the great parts of working at Roads and Rails is hearing the stories of customers about that special train set that came out at Christmas long ago, when they were just children. Persons with a different temperament should find some other career: listening to visitors and taking an interest in them is key in our business.
Birthday parties are a big part of our business, and we seem to be doing a good job, as we have had return business. One of our ‘birthday boys’ was an 88-year old model train enthusiast; his family set it up as a surprise and everyone enjoyed themselves. It’s not just for kids!
We buy and sell used equipment, and when a particular woman came by at the end of one of our maintenance days, I assumed she wanted a bid for her box of train things. I was wrong: she gave us some old transformers and buttons, and told us of her late father, a Lionel train hobbyist of many years. He had to stop railroading, but had visited the museum just before his death and had apparently enjoyed himself greatly. Her family had distributed his engines among themselves, but gave us the remainder as a thank you for her father’s happiness. He was an engineer by trade, and the items we received showed that he was a fellow spirit: a tinkerer! I repaired his tranformer and it now runs trains here at the museum.