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Historical Perspective on HOn30

By Tobias giles and Bob Hayden, 10 Jan 1997

Greetings gang,

The following is an interesting historical perspective of the development of HOn30 written by Bob Hayden. I’m including my original email so that you can understand his letter which is directed at answering some of my question(s). I think this gives us all food for thought and if any one would care to add their two cents to my original question, I would welcome your comments, either in private email or on this list.

Tobias Giles
I’m writing to you as someone who has been in the HOn30, and specifically, the two footer modeling domain for over 25 years. My question is this: what do most two footers do in terms of track gauge? Do they hand lay 7mm track and re-gauge/re-build N/Z gauge equipment or do they fudge over to the 9 mm with the available track, trucks, and locomotive motorframes?

Over the many years that you have been modeled in this gauge, how do most modelers handle the paradigm shift? Do they go back and forth from true 2 ft scratch built equipment to HOe manufactured equipment? Do most of them just not care that much and get on with “modeling” and operating?

I should back up and give you a context. I dabble in TT scale (please, don’t run away ;-) and recently the last major US supplier went under.

I would like to write an article (for a local TT newsletter) about how TT is at a nexus point: whether to buy and modify European equipment or move to HOn3 parts will be the central theme. But I need some historical perspective from the HOn30 / true two footers and how, over time, they resolved their technology problems.

I would appreciate any input or insight you can give. Thanks in advance.

Tobias Giles
Mtn. View, CA
Narrow Gauge Enthusiast

Dear Tobias,
Your question is an interesting one, and it, plus this answer, may well be worth posting to the HOn30 mail car. I’ll leave that decision up to you.

The answer is all about history. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s a few brave souls were modeling in HOn3, and it was just about impossible.

Wheels were hard to come by (early HOn3rs used TT scale wheels, and truck sideframe, too), and perhaps the biggest problem was that even the smallest motors were still huge. Oftentimes, HOn3 engines were literally built around the motor, and just as often the motor of a 2-8-0 or 4-6-0 was housed in (and filled) the tender.

But there are always extremists and heretics, and a few (single numbers, not dozens) HO gaugers figured 2-foot gauge was doable — HOn2. They were seduced by the racy look of the Maine 2-foot roads, and most of them began by adding an HOn2 feeder to an existing HO standard gauge layout.

One of them, though not the first, was Allan Hanson. He lived in my home town, Swampscott, Massachusetts.

The story goes that Allan set out to build an HOn2 line on a dare. He read Linwood Moody’s book, The Maine Two-Footers, and visited Franklin County, Maine, to see where the prototype roads had operated. Swampscott was a couple of hours’ drive from EDAville, and he visited there. Somehow he decided he could build a working HOn2 line, and his buddies expressed doubt. Thus arose the dare.

Well he did it, and the story appeared in the April 1961 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. I met Allan shorty afterward, when he came into the hobby shop where I worked and showed me the smallest model locomotive I’d ever seen (this was three or four years before any of us saw N gauge in this country).

Whatever was problematic for HOn3 was squared or cubed for HOn2, but somehow Allan managed. His locomotives — SR&RL No. 10 and Sandy River 2nd No. 3 — had HO 33″ freight car wheels for drivers, and the motors were indeed shoehorned into the available space — with 2nd No. 3′s engine in the tender. There wasn’t room for both a frame and worm gear between the drivers, so his first three engines had outside frames. They were grossly overscale, too, but they ran, and well.

I caught the bug from Allan, and by the time I was a junior in high school I was building HOn2 models. Or trying to. I was a pretty good scratch modeler — Strathmore board, stripwood, and wire were all we had back then — and I could build carbodies and structures. Allan helped with a borrowed mechanism based on a Lindsay HOn3 Dockside (originally a TT locomotive), and with truck sideframes that he’d had produced in brass. I hand-layed Code 40 rail for a shelf-type switching layout, and experimented with scenery. Nothing ran very well. I began collecting prototype photos, plans, and information on the Maine 2-foot roads.

Now all this was more than 30 years ago, and the next thing I remember was going off to college. I chose Colby College in Waterville, Maine, founded in 1813, so I could explore Maine on the weekends. Modeling pretty much came to a halt except for the summers, but I dug into the prototype side of things as much as I could. Over the summers I built a few models, visited with Allan when time permitted, and chummed around with one of Allan’s model railroad buddies, a young guy named Dave Frary.

While I was at college N gauge appeared. Better yet, Associated Hobby Manufacturers (AHM) introduced HO narrow gauge trains to run on N gauge track, and called them Minitrains, HOn2-1/2. (I wrote up what I’ve learned about the Minitrains lines a couple of months ago for the HOn30 Mail Car; if you didn’t read it then, you should be able to find it on the archives of the mailing list).

To a young modeler struggling with HOn2, HOn2-1/2 looked like the answer. There were wheels — wow! — and a couple of locomotives, and the price was downright cheap. Dave Frary and I bought a few of the AHM sets, fiddled around with them, and before we knew it, built the HOn2-1/2 Elk River Railroad, which was featured in Railroad Model Craftsman in the early 1970s.

Bear with me now, all of this is going to answer your questions, I hope.

In the meantime I’d become an On2 modeler, too. Allan Hanson had switched to building On2 models, and my research into the prototype roads had left me frustrated with the levels of detail and accuracy I could achieve in HO scale. I built several On2 freight cars, and was working on an engine.

Then I built a couple of structures.

One of them was an abbreviated version of the Sandy River RR’s covered station at Strong, Maine, which I built as a college architecture project. (Won first prize and got me an “A” and a cash award, too, which I suppose compromised my amateur status once and for all.) But modelwise, the thing was huge, as were the couple of O scale sheds I built. It dawned on me that that building a layout would call for lots of space. I gave the depot and a couple of cars to Allan, and stored the rest.

It didn’t matter much, because the Vietnam War was on and I went in the Navy. I wasn’t going to be building a layout on a submarine, anyway. Funny thing, though, my second submarine went into the shipyard in San Francisco for almost a year, and I rented a garage and decided to build a layout in it.

The layout was the first Carrabasset & Dead River, and the story of how it was built, moved to the East Coast, and rebuilt appeared in the November 1979 and February 1980 issues of Model Railroader. By the time I started it, in 1972, N gauge was firmly established, and the compromises required to model the 2-footers with a 9mm track gauge looked OK.

Which brings us, at last, to the answers to your questions. First, is HOn2-1/2 narrow enough to model the narrowest of the narrow gauges? Well, it depends. If you want the precise proportions and exact, to-scale dimensions of the Maine 2-foot prototypes, probably not. (For that, try Sn2 or On2, but be prepared for other compromises, particularly in the scope of the scenes you can build and the commercial accessories you can use.)

Can HOn2-1/2 capture the spirit of the Maine 2-footers? Sure it can, and HOn3 modelers will still look at your stuff and exclaim “that sure is narrow!” More important, there’s a thriving (easy there, Bob, how about “significant”?) semi-commercial marketplace producing HOn2-1/2 products. They’re all limited run, and you have to work to keep up with them, but in the past three years we’ve had two significant SR&RL brass steam locomotives imported from Korea, a dozen resin kits introduced (faster than I can build them!), and a whole bunch of structures. None of this stuff is in the Athearn category, but it’s all way ahead of building from scratch.

I thinK that most (200 to 300) of us modeling Maine 2-foot railroading in HO scale are doing so with the 9mm track gauge, HOn2-1/2 or HOn30. To most of us the compromise is minor, and even with the compromise the challenges are major: What do you do for track? Where do you get good wheels? What do you use for couplers? All of these things are items that most mainstream model railroaders never have to deal with at all.

And at the end of the day, compromise is a big part of what model railroading is about. This will ruffle some feathers, but the roots of our hobby are in toy trains. No matter how much we glorify it, toy trains are still what we’ve got — but toy trains with scale-diameter hand grabs, carefully researched paint and lettering, and gonzo realistic weathering. Still, HO scale doesn’t make any sense (3.5 MILLIMETERS equals 1 FOOT?), and O scale standard gauge is (you can look this up) 5 scale FEET, not the correct 4′-8-1/2″. Does it matter, especially when you’re standing around with a cold one and the trains are running? — I think not.

The last kicker is that we only live so long. Simply because HO scale is the most popular, world wide, it becomes a heavy favorite for modeling a whole railroad scene. If you want structures, vehicles, figures, and all the other details that make a convincing miniature world, HO is the place to go, regardless of the gauge you choose. And if you’re going to go down the decidedly hard row to hoe of modeling 2-foot gauge trains, it’s comforting to know that all the period vehicles and figures and detail parts you could ever want will be available, even if you have to build the trains from scratch. That’s why I’ll probably never go back to On2, even though I have to wear my Opti-Visor for even routine work on the C&DR and its trains.

So, Tobias, there’s your answer. I can add that, once you decide on your scale and gauge, you may never have to ponder it again. Just like a real railroad, the task at hand comes down to building and maintaining a railroad of XX gauge — which is as simple as two marks on a piece of wood
– and you quickly forget how far apart those two marks are!

Thanks for asking, and feel free to share this with the HOn30 Mail Car.
It’s a pretty good sequel to my Minitrains history of a couple of months ago.

Sincerely yours, Bob Hayden

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