John Whitby Allen

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John Whitby Allen (July 2, 1913 – January 6, 1973) was an American model railroader who created the HO scale Gorre & Daphetid model railroad in Monterey, California, and wrote numerous magazine articles on model railroading starting in the 1940s. Allen was renowned for his skill at scratch building and creating scenery. He also pioneered the technique of weathering his models for a more realistic appearance. In addition to his superdetailing of locomotives, rolling stock, structures, and scenery, Allen was known for populating his model world with scale figures in humorous scenes. Other techniques Allen promoted were realistic train operation and the use of forced perspective to create the illusion of a model railroad layout larger than it really was.

Early life[edit]

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Allen lost his father to typhoid fever when he was three; his mother died during the flu epidemic about nine years later. Allen lived with relatives in Missouri until attending school in Minnesota. While there, he developed rheumatic fever, and on the advice of a doctor, moved to California to live with an aunt and uncle. His health improved, but the rheumatic fever weakened his heart.

After completing high school, Allen attended UCLA, and joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He became comfortable around military people, and later recruited servicemen to help run the Gorre & Daphetid.

In 1934, Allen and his brother went to the World's Fair in Chicago, and saw scale model trains in operation, and he was impressed. He was attending UCLA studying economics, but switched to art school, which he attended for three years, specializing in photography. There he acquired the skills that set his layout and model photography apart.

In 1935, John's paternal grandparents died, leaving him about US$1,900 (then the equivalent of a year's salary for a middle-class man). John invested the money with the help of his brother, and in about 11 years, the value was such that he did not have to work. His investments, combined with a frugal lifestyle, resulted in a sum of over US$500,000 at the time of his death.

After completing school, John partnered with another student and opened a photography business in the Westlake Park area of Los Angeles.

World War II[edit]

Before World War II, Allen and his brother visited an uncle living near Oakland who had a model railroad. He became interested in working on it. When the US entered the war, Allen's brother Andrew joined the military, and Allen offered his services as a photo analyst. Visiting his brother, Allen saw Monterey, he partnered with Weston Booth, opening a shop on the main street doing a brisk business photographing servicemen.

In 1946, John sold his business, invested the money and retired.

He said that he got into model railroading just before the end of the war. Due to a limited supply of hobby materials, he began building things from scratch. He spent a lot of time studying and observing railroads in operation, and how the prototype is built. During this time Allen built models, then meticulously arranged and photographed them. In July 1946 the first of many photographs by Allen appeared in Model Railroader magazine.

Gorre & Daphetid early version[edit]

He moved into a house in 1946 and began construction of the first version of the Gorre & Daphetid (G&D) model railroad in HO scale. In 1953 he needed more space, and decided to move. He offered a railroad for sale, with free house. When no one was interested in buying the house with the railroad, he dismantled it. The original 3.5 ft (1.1 m) by 6.5 ft (2.0 m) G&D was saved and incorporated into the final version, while other parts were given to friends.

Gorre & Daphetid final version[edit]

John Allen moved to his final house, chosen for its unfinished basement. He dug out the basement, placed a concrete floor, and prepared it for construction of the final layout. He allocated about half the 1,200 sq ft (110 m2) to the layout, the remainder for a workshop and storage.

Allen built a scale model of the house to aid in planning, in addition to models of the layout he planned to build. His planning was very thorough. Early plans included the use of real water in scale rivers and lakes. Construction began in January 1954. One feature of the layout was Devil's Gulch, a part of the basement not excavated, but shaped and then concrete was poured over it. Allen constructed the layout almost completely by himself. He devoted the next 20 years to this project.

During this period Allen revolutionized model railroading with realistic operations, lighting (including night lighting), and weathering of models. He used forced perspective to enhance the illusion of realism, and only allowed photography under his conditions.

Death and aftermath[edit]

John Allen suffered a fatal heart attack on the evening of January 6, 1973. He had previously suffered at least one heart attack during the 1960s. Although he was not feeling well, he worked at completing the Gorre & Daphetid. In a telephone conversation with Linn Westcott, he suggested that he would drive the last spike in the spring of 1973, and that Linn should come for a visit then. In 1972, he was already suggesting that things might not be going well, and wondering "what to do with the railroad" in letters to a friend.

Ten days after Allen died, some of Allen's friends gathered for an operating session and discussion on the preservation of the railroad in accordance with Allen's wishes. When they left, someone set a furnace in the train room to 65 °F. Allen never used the furnace and had covered it with tar paper. This caused a fire, which was quickly reported and extinguished fast enough to save the house, but it destroyed the final, still-unfinished incarnation of Allen's railroad. The damage was mainly contained to the layout room, and the house was rehabilitated and sold. A few model railroad items attributed to Allen survive and have been authenticated.

According to Linn Westcott's book Model Railroading with John Allen ("The Book"), the fire was determined by an investigator have been started from a small gas furnace. John rarely used the furnace, because he liked to keep the house cool, or possibly because it was not vented correctly.

Linn Westcott was asked by Andrew Allen (John's brother) to investigate if the layout could be salvaged. The fire caused extensive damage. They tried to save the "French Gulch" section, but it collapsed as they moved it after two hours of work.

Retrospective[edit]

Allen's death was covered in the April 1973 issue of Model Railroader magazine. It contained an obituary and Allen was featured on the front cover. There was also a retrospective on John Allen in the January 2003 issue of Model Railroader in remembrance of him 30 years after his death.

Former Model Railroader editor Linn Westcott's final book, entitled Model Railroading with John Allen, was published posthumously in 1981. Westcott died in 1980 while writing the book. It contained various quotes and photographs from Allen demonstrating his techniques.

There is a video about John Allen's railroad by Sunday River Productions called The Gorre & Daphetid[1] with footage shot by Richard Reynolds with a small intro by Glenn Beier who also operated on the G&D. Glenn Beier says "it is the only motion picture ever made of the world's most famous model railroad". Until February 2007, only a VHS copy of the video was for sale. Now both VHS and DVD versions are available.

John Allen is also famous for devising the Timesaver model railway shunting puzzle.

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