My Inexplicable 44-Year Fascination with One Particular Freight Car

Harold put his O scale layout on the tour for an NMRA division meet a few years ago, so of course I went. I didn’t know him very well, but I was familiar with his work. If you’ve ever picked up an issue of Model Railroader, you’ve seen it, too. He’s written how-to articles, and profiles of prototype short lines, but he’s best known for his drawings. He’s had hundreds of them published over the years. He’s been a fixture in the local NMRA scene for a very long time.

The address was in a fairly new subdivision, so I wasn’t sure how large or finished his layout would be. I was delighted to find it filling the largest room of his basement, and in a state of near-completion. Decades ago, two-rail O scale was a mainstay of the hobby, but it’s nearly extinct now. Most of today’s O scalers are playing with high-end Lionel on three-rail track, gleefully blowing smoke in the faces of those who lean toward realism. Harold’s layout was a love poem from a bygone era.

The railroad was beautiful, with well-done scenery and exquisite structures everywhere. What caught my attention, however, was one unremarkable wooden refrigerator car sitting in his yard.

I stared at it for a moment, wondering why it looked so familiar. Of course—it was the car from that article! When I got home that afternoon, I dug out the January 1977 issue of Model Railroader, and turned to page 94.

Yup. That’s the one.

I should state here that, despite what my mother believes, I have not memorized every back issue of Model Railroader in its entirety. The January ’77 issue happens to be a favorite of mine. MR was flourishing in the late Seventies, and this particular issue is chock-full of articles I liked. There are a couple of layout features, including perhaps the first basement-sized N scale layout I’d seen, articles on layout lighting and electronics, and the article that did more than anything else to put me on my “furniture railroad” trajectory: “Bookshelf Railroads part 1” by Robert J. Lutz. There are also two articles by Harold, including “Renovate Your Old Reefers.”

Out of the thousands of freight-car articles I’ve perused in my life, what made this one stick out in my brain? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Harold’s premise, that of upgrading the things you already have, certainly held great appeal for me, and still does. When I first read that article, money was tight, and access to hobby shops was nearly non-existent. Back then, I couldn’t just spend my way to hobby bliss. (These days, I can—up to a point. Beyond that, I still have to get creative.)

Harold took an old car he’d built 30-odd years before, corrected some craftsmanship shortfalls, gave it new paint and lettering, and brought it up to the level of his newer rolling stock. Forty years later, he wasn’t ashamed to park it on his front yard track during an open house. I’d call that a win.

Maybe it really has nothing to do with the car itself. Over the intervening years, I’ve grown to appreciate Harold’s massive contribution to western New York’s railroad history. What did the Lehigh Valley’s Rochester Junction look like? How were the truss bridges of the Wellsville, Addison & Galeton constructed? How would you model the Erie’s X Tower in Olean? Did the global Genesee & Wyoming short-line empire start out as a humble little railroad that hauled rock salt? Harold documented all that, and much, much more. Much of what he drew, photographed, and described has since disappeared. Harold was paying attention when few others were.

Several weeks ago, I got an e-mail announcing that, after a lifetime in the hobby, Harold was taking down the railroad, and selling his collection. Those interested could request a list of items for sale. I didn’t need to see the list. I just sent the photo.

To make a short story shorter…

Harold’s renovated reefer is now a treasured, if unexpected, addition to my collection. I didn’t go looking for it. Maybe it was looking for me.