The Fessenden School Train Club
Anything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong.
(Murphy must have been a member of the Train Club.)
During the 12 years that I was associated with the Train Club, there were a number of amusing incidents that I feel should be documented for posterity. Some were more humorous in retrospect than they were at the time they happened. If you have some fond memories of the Train Club that you would like to add to this list, please E-mail me, and I will add your remembrances. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and enjoy these stories.
In little over a week, two hurricanes (Connie and Diane) passed by southern New England in August 1955 producing major flooding over much of the region. Hurricane Connie produced nearly 6 inches of rainfall on August 11 and 12. The result of this was to saturate the ground and bring rivers and reservoirs to above normal levels. Hurricane Diane came a week later and dealt a massive punch to New England. Rainfall totals from Diane ranged up to nearly 20 inches over a two day period.
What does this have to do with the train room, you ask? Well, it just so happens that there was a major train room reconstruction project under way during August 1955. The train room wall was being moved, storage cabinets were being built, etc. Most of the train room's rolling stock and other stuff that wasn't nailed down had been moved to a small storage room located across the hall. Fortunately, the storage room was lined with shelving, so very little was stored on the floor.
On the day that Diane came rolling in, I was working in the train room trying to stay dry and paying little attention to the endless downpour. Suddenly, there was a loud bang followed by the unmistakable roar of a large waterfall. I ran into the hall to see if I could locate the source of the noise and soon realized that it was coming from the room where the train equipment was stored. With a certain amount of apprehension, I opened the storage room door and found myself facing a wall of water cascading through an open window near the ceiling. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The one thing that I did know was that staying dry was no longer an option.
It seems that the storage room was entirely below grade. There was, however, a small window located near the ceiling on the exterior wall. The window looked out into one of those semicircular wells that they dig to accommodate basement windows. Unfortunately, this well was at the bottom of a hill that sloped toward the building. My guess is that the water in the well and surrounding area must have reached a depth of several feet. Eventually, the pressure on the window's latch mechanism reached the critical point, and the whole thing imploded.
I was faced with an immediate decision to make. Should I rescue the equipment in the storage room, or should I try to outflank the rapidly expanding flood that was heading toward the train room. I decided that protecting the train room should be my first priority.
Fortunately, there were a lot of building materials and rags lying around, so I was able to quickly block the train room doorway with a makeshift dam. This forced the flood to make a left turn and head for the locker room. There, the water could decide for itself whether to head for the floor drains or flow into the squash courts. I really didn't care where it went, as long as it stayed out of the train room.
With the train room protected, I turned my attention to the storage room. By that time, the waterfall had reduced itself from a deluge to something more manageable. It made no sense to try to close the window. After all, we were in the middle of a hurricane, and the well would just fill up again. So I let the waterfall continue and settled for making sure that the Train Club equipment was out of the way. Fortunately, most of the shelves were high and dry, so there was little damage to anything.
Before the large drawbridge could be put into service in the Train Club's layout, a new bridge control system had to be designed, assembled, and tested. Fred (Sandy) Sears '46 lead the charge in this effort. Considering the results of our first attempt to make the control system work, I will gladly give Sandy credit for the project.
Designing the control system was not exactly a trivial project. There were many things about the bridge's operation that had to be considered. For example, while the bridge was in the raised position or moving up or moving down, the track power and track switches had to be configured so that a train could not slam into the bridge or approach the open end of the bridge and crash onto the floor. When the bridge was in the lowered position, it had to be locked down so that nobody could manually lift it up. The bridge could not be allowed to start raising if a train was on it or approaching it or if the critical track switches were thrown the wrong way.
Also, there were several subtle design issues such as the need to stop the drive motor instantly when the bridge reached the lowered position. If the motor didn't stop instantly, the gears could jam, and the bridge might not be able to raise itself again until somebody unjammed the gears.
All of these requirements lead to a complex circuit design involving a stepping switch, various relays, capacitors, resistors, interlocks, potentiometers, lots of wiring, and a 12-volt power supply.
After much design work, Sandy and I were ready to build and test the bridge control system. We collected the necessary parts (mostly junk parts that were lying around in the train room) and mounted them on a piece of plywood. Then everything was appropriately wired together and connected to the bridge motor, bridge locking mechanism, track switches, etc. The piece of plywood with the control system was mounted on the back wall under the switching yards table where it would be out of the way. Finally, the 12-volt power source (an automobile battery) was attached to the control system. We were ready to start testing.
My memory is a bit fuzzy about what happened next. I think we managed to get most of the control system working, but a few modifications were still needed to complete the job. I do remember that Sandy was under the table working on the control system when something went terribly wrong. The next thing I saw was Sandy scrambling out into the open, coughing and laughing at the same time. He was being pursued by a large cloud of acrid smoke. When I asked him what happened, Sandy mumbled something about the need for a fuse in the power supply.
As soon as the smoke cleared, it was time to assess the damage. It's amazing how quickly a short circuit and an unfused 12-volt automobile battery can turn a piece of copper wire white hot and vaporize its insulation. In this case, the reaction wasn't limited to just one wire. In a flash (no pun intended), the original hot wire burned through the insulation on other wires. Soon a whole bunch of wires started cooking in a sort of chain reaction. Finally, the whole thing went into a meltdown mode that continued until the short circuit burned itself out. In the end, there was little that was salvageable.
The good news was that, although we incinerated the original control circuitry, we had proven that the system would work. The next step was to build a control system out of high quality parts; and, to put a fuse in the power supply. The resulting bridge control system (see photo) was very reliable, and it operated for many years without going up in smoke.
Anyone who has a model train layout knows that dirty wheels, dirty pick-up rollers, and dirty track are an endless problem. Good electrical contact between engine and track is essential for reliable operation. Cleaning the Train Club's roughly 500 feet of track, 20 engines, and 100 freight and passenger cars was a big job that took several hours to complete, even with a good solvent like acetone.
One problem with acetone (other than the fumes) is that it is extremely flammable. Therefore, one should be careful not to clean the track while the power is turned on. This was a lesson that I learned in retrospect.
One day, while I was cleaning the track with an acetone-soaked rag, I must have wiped up a small metal fragment. Then, as I was cleaning near one of the track switches, the metal fragment bridged the gap between the ground rail and the insulated rail segment that controls the track switch. This caused a momentary electrical spark. Suddenly, I found myself holding a large ball of fire. I can assure you that I didn't hold onto it for long, nor did I let it burn for long after I dropped it. Fessenden has an efficient sprinkler system, and I wasn't about to set it off. Needless to say, all future track cleaning was done with the power turned off!
The train room was certainly a wonderful place for kids to play. It was also a wonderful place for cats to play. One cat in particular used to really enjoy exploring the tunnels and towns while I worked on the layout. As she wandered through the scenery, she would look like some giant catzilla from a Japanese horror movie.
Sometimes when the cat disappeared into one of the tunnel entrances, I would send a train after her to see what would happen. She usually made a hasty exit from some other tunnel entrance. When I worked on the scenery, she was particularly helpful when it came to mixing and applying plaster. Cats are like that, you know.
Eventually, the time comes when it is more important for a cat to sleep than to play. Then she might curl up on the top of a mountain or in the middle of a town or maybe somewhere out of sight. On one occasion, she made the mistake of curling up with her tail in the wet plaster. She almost became a permanent part of the scenery. Fortunately for her tail, we noticed her error in judgment before the plaster set.
I think they were called Doodle Bugs. I discovered them when I walked into the train room one afternoon while the Club was open. It seems that some of the more enterprising Club members had figured out that they could strip down an engine to its bare necessities; i.e., a motor on wheels. This contraption (i.e., a Doodle Bug) could be propelled around the tracks at very high speed. Being intelligent Fessenden boys, these same Club members then figured out that they could strip down two engines (or one big engine that had two motors) to produce two Doodle Bugs. With two Doodle Bugs, you could have a Doodle Bug race.
Lionel's magnetic wheels made the Doodle Bugs even more effective as racing machines. They really gripped the track—most of the time. However, there were those times when magnetic wheels didn't help. Generally that was when a Doodle Bug was in a tunnel, and the operator couldn't tell how fast it was going or where the curves were. All too often, the result would be a loud wham, or maybe several whams, as the Doodle Bug ricocheted off the wall or the floor or both.
Needless to say, I wasn't thrilled about the Doodle Bugs. At the risk of discouraging their inventiveness, I requested that the enterprising Train Club members restore the engines to their original condition.
The Train Club's layout was carefully designed to allow four trains to be run simultaneously on four separate loops of track. The layout also allowed trains to be switched from one loop to another. The innermost loop was the only loop where a train could reverse direction from clockwise to counterclockwise or vice versa.
An interesting challenge that my brother and I used to attempt was to start with four trains going clockwise on the four loops, and then end up with the four trains going counterclockwise on the same loops. All four trains were required to keep moving all of the time—or at least most of the time. To achieve the objective, it was necessary to route each train from its original loop of track to the inner loop where it could be reversed. Then the train had to be routed back to its original loop. Keep in mind that fact that as any train is being routed to or from the inner loop, there are three other moving trains to contend with.
Each of us would handle two of the four loop controls. At any given time, there could be as many as two trains on any loop. (Three trains on a loop would blow the circuit breaker.) We used to make the challenge more interesting by attempting it at night with the overhead lights turned off. The only lighting came from the control panels, trains, and scenery. It was really quite picturesque.
My brother and I tried the challenge a number of times, but I am not sure that we ever succeeded, without at least a little cheating. I do remember the last time we tried it. Everything was going according to plan (actually, there was no plan) when suddenly there was a loud series of crashes followed by absolute silence. All of the green lights on the control panel had turned red and all four trains had stopped. We knew that we were faced with a major railroad catastrophe.
It was indeed a first class train wreck. All four trains were completely derailed. At least one entire train was lying on its side. It turns out that the passenger train that was on the elevated loop had derailed and crashed down on the tracks below. By coincidence, the other three trains were passing directly below the spot where the elevated train derailed. Because all of the tracks were going around a curve in that area, entire trains tipped over as passenger cars rained down on them. It was without a doubt the best train wreck we had ever created.