Feature Stories

Take a Journey on the Cobwebs, Dust, and Ashes Railroad

Take a Journey on the Cobwebs,

Dust, and Ashes Railroad

This article appeared in Leisure Magazine, The Ithaca Journal, Saturday, July 8, 1978 – Page 3


The train rounds the bend and passes by the Agway Feed building and the town church. A bit later, the Cow Bros. Dairy appears on the left, and further down the track, just before the long bridge is an electric substation, Valley Engineering, and the Frye Manufacturing Company.

A trip through the heartlands?


This is just a journey on the Cobwebs, Dust and Ashes Railroad, with conductor Jim Frye at the controls.

Frye is a model railroader and then some. In addition to his massive – it takes up his entire basement – HO scale layout, he is hard at work building a large-scale train in his backyard, and has already laid some 700 feet of track.

When it’s completed, Frye’s backyard toy will have one diesel and one steam engine, three cars that will let up to 12 full-sized riders aboard, and a bright red caboose.

Frye is building the entire train himself, mostly from scrap metal, and pays close attention to detail. He’s finished the caboose and one car, and has started the diesel locomotive. The diesel – with its battery-powered engine – needs some refining, plus a great deal of detail work. But Frye claims that when it’s done, it’ll look just like the real thing.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .

Frye is far from alone in his avocation. Model railroaders are everywhere, and there are even more who would take it up if they had a little more time, or a little more room. Frye is the dean though, and almost every other modeller I spoke to talked about him.

Most modelers are railroad buffs from long ago, and like Frye, have been modeling for years. There are a number of groups in the Ithaca area involved with modeling. The newest, the Cornell Railroad Historical society, founded by Dave Solomon and Tom Trencansky, has discovered a great many young adults who are active modelers.

Frye’s HO scale layout is huge. He says that he has 30 engines and over 200 cars, all of them built by hand. He’s put together trains 110 cars long, and has built a tiny village around his railroad, with the same painstaking attention to detail.

He has a control panel that can activate any piece of track in his layout, and it looks like a real railroad switchboard. In truth, it’s made from discarded telephone equipment that Frye obtained when he worked for the telephone company.

Frye, who also runs a small store that specializes in model trains, is 51 years old, and will tell you quickly that model trains are not just for the young. “HO has been long-established as an adult hobby – it’s been an adult hobby since 1925,” Frye says. “Many professional people – doctors, lawyers and so forth – are HO enthusiasts.”

Most model railroaders got their start in one of two ways. For Rick Nelson, who manages Ithaca Toy Trains and Hobby in Dewitt Mall, his father “bought a train for himself with me as an excuse.”

For Frye, it was his grandfather who got him started in modeling 30 years ago. “He bought me my first model train set,” Frye explains, “and he talked railroads all the time, so by the time I was five years old, the seed had been firmly implanted in me.”

That seed began a lifelong fascination with trains for Frye, and he has spent a good deal of his spare time riding them. Some friends who work for the railroad have helped, and Frye’s eyes shine a bit when he says “I’ve gotten away with some things I shouldn’t have.”

But that leads to the most interesting aspect of his basement layout. “Every engine I’ve built here I’ve ridden on,” says Frye. “Each one has its own story. There’s a lot of Lehigh (Railroad) stuff, because that was so big around here.

“I model things that were present day in their time. That’s why I have a lot of diesel models,” Frye continues, “but I want to get more steam engines built.”

.    .    .    .    .    .    .

It’s the history that seems to appeal most to modelers, and almost all of them enjoy hearing railroad folklore. There are a number of magazines devoted to railroads, both model and real, and there are few modelers who don’t read at least a couple of them from end to end.

Frye has his own theory on the appeal of the railroads, saying, “It (the railroad) has a romance about it, and nothing parallels it. Maybe it’s because it’s the largest moving object on land, and the history that revolves around it.”

That all sounds nice until Frye adds to it by providing an example of the romance. He talks about steam engines, which for the first 100 years of railroading provided the power, and says, “A steam engine was like and animal, it was alive and breathing.

“You had to feed and water it, and house it, just like a horse. Men would spend years caring for and working on one engine, and they would get to know it like a person.”

Whatever the appeal of railroading, it has touched many. And many have turned to modeling as a way to relive some of the past. Frye says that he has “Relived some of my past, and recovered some of that I’d lost” through his modeling, and the story is the same for others.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .

Frye builds all of his own models, and all of his own scenery, from scratch, using paper, file cards and bristleboard, or anything else that’s floating around the house.

He speaks proudly about the 20-inch bridge in the center of his HO layout that is made completely from paper. It’s built just like a real bridge, a lot of little pieces add up to a strong structure.

It’s the making that Frye enjoys the most, and he says there are other benefits as well. “I’ve learned a lot about how things are made by trying to model them. Look at this derrick (used to lift ties and in other railroad construction). It took me a long time to figure out how it was built, but that was the fun. It’s more fun when you improvise.”

That’s a problem he has with his shop, he says. “I’d rather show somebody how to make something themselves than sell it to them. I’m not a very good salesman.”

Frye’s scenery is as realistic as his trains. People, cars, hills and trees abound, with buildings and other objects added in. A roundhouse, with a working turnstile, is the largest HO scale project that Frye has worked on. His next project for his layout will be a model of the Cornell University heating plant.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .

While Frye has built up a collection of HO scale models, HO is not the only scale available. There are many different sizes of model trains available today, although some go for rather high prices. HO is by far the most popular on the market, and, according to Nelson, is usually built to scale, but is not painted in true railroad colors quite often.

The largest model trains available are standard gauge. According to Nelson, standard gauge is not built to scale, and has not been manufactured since 1938. Collectors usually buy the standard gauge trains, and a set that Nelson has on display, consisting of an engine, four or five cars and a few feet of track is worth about $2,000.

Next down the scale is O gauge, which Nelson says most people over 25 years old will remember. This again is not built true to scale, but tends to look more realistic than standard gauge.

The American Flyer S gauge is next, and this has also been discontinued. The last American Flyer was built in 1966 according to Nelson.

Then there’s HO, which we have already talked about, followed on the scale by TT gauge, which Nelson says is very hard to find.

N gauge is next, and Nelson says this is growing rapidly in popularity. It’s about on-half the size of HO scale, and its biggest advantage is that a fairly complicated layout can be set up in a relatively small area.

Finally, there’s Z gauge, first introduced in late 1975. Z gauge is a dream come true for the modeller who has no room. The tracks are spaced one-quarter of an inch apart, and an engine is less than an inch long.

Z gauge is expensive however, about $35 for an engine and $15 for a car, but if space is a problem, this is the answer.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .

Modeling generally isn’t all that expensive, despite some of the prices that are paid for rare pieces. Frye says that his HO layout is worth about $2,000, but adds, “It’s taken me almost 30 years to collect all of this stuff.  So that figures out to less than $100 per year, and when you consider what some people will spend for a vacation, I think it’s a pretty good deal.”

While a lot of inexpensive equipment is available on the market, Nelson says that most of it will fail in a relatively short time. He recommends spending a little money on a reliable power source, $26-30 should do, and buying quality engines. Cutting corners on the cars is OK, they won’t cause you much trouble.

But buying the equipment takes something out of the fun, at least if you talk to the likes of Frye, Nelson and Solomon. And even if you’ve never paid much attention to the railroad before, model railroading can be a fun and challenging way to spend your free time.

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