Because model railroading is such a diverse hobby, there is lots of room for the level of authenticity allowed. Some folks are content with track laid directly on the train table and running trains around, while others seek to minutely recreate a specific time and place. Most people fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Scale model railroading is generally about creating, or re-creating, a specific time and place in miniature form. Now, there is ample latitude in the form of ‘modeler’s license’, and in the aphorism ‘that there’s a prototype for everything’. But there’s a lot to be said for fixing a model railroad in time and space.
Defining a milieu gives focus to the project. It promotes consistency. And consistency is perhaps the key in creating a believable model. Even those unfamiliar with railroad operations are going to balk at the sight of a steam locomotive hauling hi-cube boxcars or tri-level auto racks. When I decided to take on this project, I had clear ideas on what I wanted to do.
I wanted a railroad set in the Northwest, because that’s where I live. I wanted some sort of interaction between rails and water, because I find that interesting. And I wanted steam power, because anyone whose seen an external combustion engine in action with all of that lovely mechanical action knows that they are mega-cool.
But I only had 10 square feet to accomplish my goals. That’s the space I had for a layout, but I didn’t see that as restrictive. Indeed, this was a space that would allow me to build a railroad in a reasonable amount of time for a reasonable amount of money, and actually get something done.
It appeared my best bet for modeling was the Northern Pacific railroad. The Western terminus was in Tacoma, WA, and there were car ferries. I picked 1940 as the year modeled because the size of the layout dictated a switching situation, and Ten Wheelers were about the largest locomotives I could reasonably run. 1940 is pretty late in the game for Ten Wheelers, but the Northern Pacific did run them in the Tacoma area for quite some time.
So: Tacoma, 1940 is the ostensible time and place for the railroad, although I don’t plan to slavishly model any aspect of Tacoma or track arrangements of the Northern Pacific. Northern Pacific is the home road, but the rest is ‘fake but accurate’.