Research resources - sources of maps, photos, historical sigs

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Rule number one when you go about researching your model railroad is to think outside of the box. Respecting this rule will serve the researcher much better than any comprehensive list of research sources. In any case, no research source list can stay very current for long anyway. New research sources are always appearing anyway. Once you track down most of the relatively well known sources, you must use a great deal of imagination and hard work to track down those unanswered questions about the era, locale, and, railroad you are modeling. A library, web site, book, or other resource need not have "railroad" in its name to be useful to you. Since railroads have impacted almost every aspect of life where they ran, the historical record they left behind can be found in some pretty obscure places.

Museums of almost every sort may have some information about the railroad(s) that interest you. If you live near or ever visit our nation's capital, start at the Gift Shop of the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. It is, in reality, a bookshop of American History with particular emphasis on the built world. While on this subject, check the architecture and transportation sections of new and used book stores. Don't overlook calendars that seek to celebrate transportation history. Often, great old-time street scenes appear in these even if no railroad is in sight. Color photos of such street scenes can be invaluable modeling tools.

Rule number two is patience. Remember this is a hobby and savor the research findings that trickle in. This hobby should keep you engaged for a lifetime. Just think of how little you would appreciate it if all your questions were magically answered immediately.

Rule number three is to read Everything you can on railroads. An often overlooked article is that by Bob Davis and Larry DeYoung, "Freight Car Pooling", RMC April 1983. Photograph your favorite spots - don't rely on others. Don't know enough about the prototype? Then buy or borrow every book you can lay your hands on and subscribe to more than one monthly modeling magazine such as NMRA Bulletin, Model Railroader, N-Scale, Mainline Modeler, Railroad Model Craftsman, Classic Toy Trains RailModel Journal, Trolley Talk, N Scale Railroading, Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette and Model Railroading. For signals, read Clear Block. Don't be shy about submitting letters to the editor or columnists posing the questions you would like answered. Be specific and be patient. Don't forget to scour Trains magazine for active dealers of railroadiania, videos, slides, photographs, and monographs that pertain to your interests. If you can't afford to subscribe to more than one magazine -- swap magazines with a friend.

Annual reports of railroads can be a useful source of information. Even though these reports were written with investors in mind, indexes of financial health can be a useful insight into overall operations. The Department of Transportation Library is a good source of annual reports as are vendors of railroadiania. Of course, any photographs included in the annual report may give insight into questions held by modelers. Kevin Feeney wrote about this in "A Look at the Northern Burlington and its Predecessor Railroads through Their Annual Reports (1940s-1980s)" that appeared in NorthStar 99 The Clinics at St. Paul published by Kalmbach Memorial Library and edited by Gordon Belt. Join the NMRA's Layout Design SIG for information about and access to countless research sources. Then order back issues of their Layout Design Journal and Layout Design News and attend their national and regional meetings.

Research sources will be easier to come by if you have chosen a prototype(s), era and locale you are familiar with. You may have grown up in the era/area and can visit the area confidently with camera in hand. You might reside in the area now. This author identified the function of a largely unknown facility connected by rail to the railroad he was modeling by the fact that his friend's dad had been the shift supervisor there. Without this connection, this author would have had to search long and hard to identify this building's function long after it had been torn down.

Join at least one railroad historical society. Since their addresses can change, and since the list is so long, this author has intentionally declined to try to include an exhaustive list of these societies in this Primer chapter. Model Railroader and most of the other major magazines have at least an annual listing of these societies. One magazine even lists them monthly. The NMRA web site also maintains a thorough list of these societies. Many have illustrated journals--don't be intimidated by the term "journal", its just a magazine that comes out less frequently than other magazines, addresses a more narrowed audience and usually is published on a non-profit basis. Society members are people who are often experts in some phase of the railroads operations or history or former employees who love to share this information with people like ourselves. You can choose later to drop memberships in those societies that do not serve your well, as I did. Submit articles on railroad topics of interest to you that journals did not address. This is an invitation for readers to write in telling you where your research went right or wrong.

Interview old-timers. Interviews need not be face-to-face. Interviews can span hundreds of miles through the mails. Always include self-addressed stamped envelopes if you wish a reply. Don't be surprised to receive some rail veterans' taped reminisces, railroadiania, memoirs or other surprises. Old timers sometimes need to be won over to your sincerity in pursuing the information - so be patient.

Roger H. Ferris, EdD in "Researching the Prototype: A Clinic!" NorthStar 99 The Clinics at St. Paul published by Kalmbach Memorial Library and edited by Gordon Belt does a great job of identifying research sources. What unites many of these are that they are easy to overlook. Ferris identifies sources as follows: [1] personal experience; [2] personal photos (you might have a photo of a public event that was held close to the railroad tracks; a photo of a business near the tracks; or just a relative who is waving goodbye before boarding a train at the local station); [3] newspaper clippings and folders celebrating historical events in the area of interest sent by friends and family who are aware of your interest; [4] local railfans (local to the railroad studies but also local to where you reside); [5] collectors of photographic history; [6] site visits, measurements, note taking; [7] customers of the railroad/local residents; [8] Oral history - leads from public library and local historical society contacts; [9] local library; [10] local historical societies and their journals; [11] National Railway Historical Society; [12] current railroad books in print; [13] old postcard collectors; [14] equipment-related materials (i.e. catalogs from locomotive and rolling stock manufacturers); [15] railroadiania (signs, advertising, etc.); [16] Kalmbach Memorial Library; [17] former employees of the railroad; [18] casual conversations; and [19] the National Archives.

A word about railroad customers: while you might not be able to find detailed information about a particular customer's individual freight siding, information might be available on the internet or elsewhere about what this customer did on a national basis. Web sites focused on antiques might provide you with photos of signs, advertising materials, and packaging materials that show what this industry produced. You might be able to use these photos to make a sign for your modeled industry or to make labels for freight containers carrying the product made or handled at the location you are modeling. Many firms published centennial histories (often hardcover). This author was able to track down a centennial history -- privately published by the firm -- of an industry he sought to model. The history was available at three different used book sellers who were on the internet. This centennial history included some great photographs of the industry he sought to model.

Ferris gives us a few useful addresses:
Kalmbach Memorial Library
4121 Cromwell Road
Chattanooga, TN 37421
423 894-8144

Roberta Niesz
Depot Postcards
1715 B. Avenue
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402

Warren Wing Railroad Photos
11850 42nd S
Seattle Washington 98168

Charles T. Feldstead Photos
6136 S. Maplewood
Chicago Illinois 60629

National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road
David Pfeiffer Archivist
College Park, MD 20740
301 713-7230 ext 276

I would add these sources:

New York Connecting Railroad Photos
Fielding Bowman
289 New Norwalk Road # 5
New Canaan, Connecticut 068

LIRR Photos
David Keller
7256 Hiawassee Oak Drive
Orlando, FL 32818-8360

Steven Crayan
860 388-5010
Rail Marine photos

LIRR, PRR slides
Bill Myers
Apartment 4H
25-76 41st Street
Long Island City, New York

LIRR photos
John Schaub
P.O. Box 2068 H.M.B
New Hyde Park, New York 11040

PRR photos
Harold Smith
Box 3510
Ridgewood, New York 11386

PRR photos
Frank Zahn
78-60 80th Street
Glendale, New York 11385

Rensselaer Model Railroad Society (Note that much of this site requires a small subscription for access)
They publish/sell the
NEB&W Guide III, 356 pages and
NEB&W Guide IV, 224 pages.

Walther's Catalog
HO Scale

Long Island Division
Queens Borough Public Library
89-11 Merrick Boulevard
Jamaica, New York 11432

Operations Special Interest Group
Membership Information
Box 872
Arlington Heights IL 60006
Membership carries with it a subscription to The Dispatcher's Office

Rail Marine Information Group
12107 Mt. Albert Road
Ellicott City, Maryland 21042

I would like to add amateur railroad history archivists and amateur railroad photograph collectors as additional resources for those researching a model railroad. Some of these folks even have web sites these days. Don't forget railroad-related labor unions. Their employees and members can be a great source of railroad history.

Trade associations that are not involved with railroads can be a great resource. They have employees who are eager to help the general public learn more about the industry they represent. Much of the excitement of a railroad derives from the businesses it served. Often much can be learned about a railroad by studying the industries it served. Trade associations can have libraries that can provide you with photos and information about businesses that are long gone. Many trade associations are located in Washington, D.C. and its Northern Virginia suburbs such as Fairfax and Arlington Counties, and the City of Alexandria. To a lesser extent, other trade associations are located in New York City and Chicago.

We can thank the Historic American Buildings Survey for preserving a great deal of architectural history for all to enjoy. To access these photographs and drawings on your own, go to for the American Memory pages of the Library of Congress. Join the NMRA or a special interest group that appeals to you. Join a model railroad club - their activities are often found in the hobby press. Borrow books from the public library on modeling and prototype subjects. Attend a railfan or a model railroad convention. Attend a train show such as Howard Zane's quarterly show at Timonium Fairgrounds in Maryland. Model railroad shows often have vendors who are selling duplicate slides; home made videos; black and white photographs; and other research treasures. Check your local newspapers and railfan magazines for dates and places of railroadiania shows. Don't miss them as they often are scheduled but once a year.

Search the internet. If you lack either a computer or internet service, try your local public library. Here is what you will find. Many hobbyists have set up their own non-commercial web sites. These sites have varied purposes. In some, the hobbyist seeks to share with the world his layout or other modeling activities with text and photos. Often, his modeling results are buttressed with prototype photos of the railroads and scenes and inspired him. Others have web sites that are 100 percent prototype focused with lists and prototype photographs. Other web sites are maintained by government libraries and research facilities. Still other sites have an academic bent. Don't forget the web sites of model railroad manufacturers. They often have photos of the prototypes that inspire their products. Join chat groups that cover your area of prototype and modeling interests. Post your questions with these chat groups and hope for an answer. Be sure to make your questions as specific as possible.

About this content:
Original author: Nicholas Kalis. Last revised on Sep 3, 2004.
This LDSIG article is ©2004 by Nicholas Kalis (email).
Questions/comments may be posted in the discussion tab.

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