John Armstrong (model railroader)

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John H. Armstrong (November 18, 1920 – July 28, 2004) was a mechanical engineer, inventor, editor, prolific author, and model railroader best known for layout design and operations. He was married for 44 years to Ellen Palmer. They had four children.

Early life[edit]

He was born and raised in Canandaigua, New York, and began designing his Canandaigua Southern Railroad model layout when he was 14 years old.

After earning a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University, he settled in Silver Spring, Maryland, in the late 1940s. He was employed at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory of the United States Navy in White Oak, Maryland, for his professional career, and contributed to the design of weapons systems for nuclear submarines. For ten years following retirement from the Navy, he was a contributing editor for Railway Age magazine.

Model railroad construction[edit]

In evenings and on weekends he began building his Canandaigua Southern Railroad O scale layout in the basement of the modest Armstrong family home, carefully cutting the cross-ties from balsa wood, setting them on rail-beds made from scale-sized gravel, and then laying out each length of track and carefully nailing it into place with tiny railroad spikes to scale that were hammered into the cross-ties one at a time.

By the time of his death, according to one account, Armstrong had hand-laid more than three real miles of O-scale track on waist-high platforms that bounded a narrow passageway spiraling outward from the foot of the basement steps. Armstrong's son, John P. Armstrong, has said however that he does not think it came to more than 500 real yards of track, but admits he is not sure.

Armstrong's layout grew to become one of the most influential model railroad layouts in the United States and attracted visitors from all over the world.

Alongside and behind the tracks, Armstrong reconstructed the entire landscape of his childhood in upstate New York. Locomotives and rail cars of the Canandaigua Southern Railroad, all built from scratch, rolled alongside rivers, plains and hillsides — all to scale and covered with hand-made stone, grass and trees—and through complete small towns as they were in a time when the railroad was so exotic that it would fire any child's imagination.

Cattaraugus Yard, the switching yard in the far corner of the basement — with its dozen or more tracks that crisscrossed and forked and merged past station houses, power poles, a water tower, signal lights, and beneath a six-story coaling tower, and then into and out of the turntable at the center of the yard that allowed incoming locomotives to be turned around and sent back the other way — was as enthralling to many young visitors as manned space flight.[citation needed]

To reach the switching yard, visitors had to walk the spiraling passageway through the miniature landscape that expanded the basement to enormous size — a landscape filled with railroad stations; houses; bridges; factories; a cliff-side gravel road that ran under a concrete arch supporting a steel railroad bridge in front of a hydroelectric dam with a generating plant beside it topped with twin round chimneys and, above and behind it on a plateau, a solitary white two-story wood frame house; railroad crossings; shacks; coal companies; a three-story brick "Central Light And Power Company" with a brick smoke stack that dwarfed it, cars loaded with coal from the "Ynys Ybwl Coal Company" waiting out front, and high-tension power lines running up the mountainside behind; small town streets lined with banks and stores; and even a careful and detailed reconstruction of the diner in Edward Hopper's famous painting Nighthawks, complete with customers, nested up against a two-story beige brick building that had beside it an equally tall red brick building, upon the wall of which was mounted a billboard for an "East End Hardware" store with their slogan "Nuts To You!".

Layout design[edit]

Armstrong pioneered and promoted modern layout design, stressing the concept of designing the model railroad as a totality, including its operational scheme, the prototype on which it was based (including its landscape setting), the use of double sided backdrops and other devices to control viewpoints and viewing angles, multiple levels of railroad, staging yards, and the operational plan or schema. Before his synthesis of the ideas of John Allen, Frank Ellison, Whit Towers and others, layouts were often little more than a "spaghetti bowl" of intersecting tracks on which trains ran in no particular order and with little or no sense of purpose.[citation needed]

Among Armstrong's innovations was the development of a sophisticated electronic control system. Decades before the invention of the personal computer and accompanying software, Armstrong used electronic parts from a variety of sources, including pinball machines, to build a walkaround control system that enabled him to operate model trains from control stations at intervals throughout the layout.[citation needed]

Armstrong was extensively published in the U.S. model railroading press. He has over 300 references in the Trains Magazine Index.[1]

Sense of humor[edit]

Armstrong was also noted for his quirky sense of humor that was demonstrated at many locations throughout the layout including an area known as "Gasmeterszag", named for the detour the tracks made around a gas meter, and another named "Warm River" after a nearby water heater.[citation needed]

At one location where the track passed behind a fiber-board partition en route to another part of the layout was a carefully hand-lettered sign that read "Cut Here In Case Of Excruciating Trouble". Alongside a spectacularly modeled gorge was a sign recording dates of significant events in the construction of the bridge over it, including "Last Train Accidentally Backed Into Gorge".

Among several brochures he designed for the Canandaigua Southern is a "Timetable No. 9 Effective at 2:01 A.M." with no date, "For the Government and Harassment of Employees Only".

Other humorous touches included a flatcar that had resting on it a piece of machinery labeled as a "Dolorator", which was ultimately bound for the "Depleted Lugubrium Reprocessing Plant No. 71" of the "Lugubrium Corporation of America — Processors of the World's Saddest Material".

Writing and memberships[edit]

Armstrong wrote many books and articles on the subject of railroading and model railroading. And his own model railroad, the Canandaigua Southern, was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles by other writers.

In the late 1940s, Armstrong submitted a track plan to a contest sponsored by the magazine Model Railroader. His plan was so successful that it led to an invitation to contribute an article to the magazine on the Canandaigua Southern, which appeared in 1946. He remained a regular writer for the magazine, contributing 76 articles, including his last article 'Main line through the mountains', which was published posthumously in the April 2005 issue.

He also served for ten years as an associate editor of Railway Age magazine.

Armstrong's HO scale track plan books served as the introduction for generations of model railroaders to the principles of layout design.[citation needed]

He also held at least four patents.

Armstrong was well known in the model railroad community in part through his memberships in the National Model Railroad Association, the Capital Area O Scalers and the Lexington Group. He was named to the O Scale Hall of Fame in 1998. He was a two-time recipient of the National Model Railroad Association's Distinguished Service Award, in 1968 and 1997, and was named an NMRA Pioneer of Model Railroading in 2001.


Armstrong died in Montgomery Village, Maryland of complications due to pulmonary disease on July 28, 2004, and was widely mourned.[2][3]

Typical of comments made by model railroaders at his death was that of Ray Grant of Burke, Virginia, who recalled that he first saw the Canandaigua Southern when he was eight years old.

His death was also noted in the transportation industry.

Selected books and articles[edit]

  • "All About Signals" (Two-article series). Trains Magazine, June and July 1957.
  • Track Planning for Realistic Operation (Kalmbach Publishing Co, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1963. Second Edition, Kalmbach Books, 1976, ISBN 0-89024-504-5)
  • The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does (Omaha, NE: Simmons-Boardman, 5th ed. 2008, ISBN 978-0-911382-58-7.)
  • Creative Layout Design (Kalmbach Books, 1978, ISBN 0-89024-538-X)
  • 18 Tailor-Made Model Railroad Track Plans (Kalmbach Books, 1983, ISBN 0-89024-040-X)