THE BRISTOL S GAUGE RAILROADERS
A short history by Paul Riley
For all our friends and especially for all past and present members, I offer this short history of the club. It was written for our 50th anniversary at the 1998 NASG Convention in Worcester, MA. Many thanks to Gene Fletcher for his invaluable memory and help with information about the early years of the club.
THE EARLY DAYS
In the mid 40’s, model railroading as we know it today was in it’s infancy. There were several scales competing for the relatively small market base. The original O scale market had the largest following but was soon to be outpaced by the rapidly expanding HO scale market segment. The balance of the market consisted of TT, OO, and S scale, all trying to maintain a foothold and develop a following capable of sustaining the few manufacturer’s with enough perseverance to support these very limited markets.
As with all the scales, S had it’s devoted followers and soon there would be enough interest to support some sort of loose knit organization of S modelers who all shared the same needs and problems.
In the late 40’s, Midgage Models in Portsmouth, RI was producing a line of S scale car kits and track products. Gene Fletcher had an opportunity to visit Midgage in 1946 and fell in love with the size of 3/16th scale. He soon liquidated his accumulation of O scale and became an avid S scale modeler. He made an arrangement with Bill Stewart, owner of Midgage, to be their accountant in trade for S products.
Midgage had it’s office in one end of one of two NH box cars that Bill had purchased and had moved to his own property. At the other end of the boxcar, there was a small test loop and yard. In 1946-47, the size of S scale and this small layout were starting to attract more attention and there were soon enough participants to organize a club. The club that evolved out of this association in 1948 was originally called the Mt. Hope Bay Lines (after an area in Bristol County, RI.) but later the name was changed to Bristol S Gauge Railroaders. In these early years the club had up to 16 members but it included O scalers, tinplaters, and HO scalers along with the core of S scale modelers.
The club layout began to expand and soon threatened to take over the office end of the boxcar. Just in time, Midgage acquired another building across town and moved the entire operation to the new site. It was decided to keep the layout in the boxcar due to the novelty (club car!) and the club spent one Saturday loading and off-loading a flat bed trailer hired to haul the car across town. Hauling a 38’ boxcar on a 20 ft trailer can and did produce some hair raising moments and with the help of a crane the boxcar was finally set on a short length of track next to the new office.
In 1950, Gene moved to a farm property in Rehobeth (Bristol County), Mass. On the property there was an old barn in reasonable condition. At this same time, Midgage was going out of business and as part of a wages due settlement, Gene took the layout and its’ associated equipment. The club helped cut up the layout into manageable pieces and transported it to Rehobeth. The club then helped clean out a 50’ long area to become the new home for the Bristol Club.
Gene advertised this new "club layout" in the Providence Journal and in Model Railroader magazine and one of his first responses was from Bill Boucher . Soon Bill and his friend Bill Henry were member’s of the Bristol Club. Ultimately, the club in its’ new home wound up with six active S scale modelers. This small group set about building what may have been the first S scale club layout in North America. Trackwork progressed until there was a long dogbone mainline. At one end of the layout, they built a large mountain almost to the ceiling. Of course the entire mountain was molded out of asbestos plaster (before we knew any better) which was the usual weapon of choice in those uninformed days.
The club continued to meet and work on the layout for several years until Gene again had to move in 1958. He move to the Cape Cod where his new cape style house didn’t afford enough space to set up anything more than a test track. The original club layout had been dismantled and the original yard throat (from the days in the boxcar) was removed intact. The whole layout remained in boxes for the two years that Gene lived on the Cape. Club members still managed to keep in touch by correspondence and an occasional visit and they kept each other up to date on the latest news about S gauge.
ACTIVITIES DURING THE 60's
In 1960, Gene moved to Hudson, NH where he had enough room to start a new basement layout. Bill Boucher and Bill Henry were still very much a part of the club and soon after Gene moved to New Hampshire, he put a notice in the local paper as well as in RMC and MR soliciting new S gaugers to join the Bristol Club. He was rewarded in his efforts by enlisting new members Tom Coughlin, Win Blake, Bob Bloise (Kinsman Models), Leon Walker, and Don Riley. From that point, things started to get more organized. The group began holding regular meetings and officially adopted the name Bristol S Gauge Railroaders in part because the original club started in Bristol, RI and continued in Bristol County, Mass.
In January 1961, the club planned to attend a mini S gauge convention at the home of Frank Titman in Allentown, PA but severe winter weather canceled their plan at the last moment. They were able to attend a later spring meeting at the home of Dave Bulkin in New York.
The first ever S gauge convention held outside a modeler’s home was hosted by the Bristol Club on a Saturday in May of 1962. Leon Walker had received permission from his employer to hold the "convention" in the back room of a linoleum store in Woburn, MA. There were at least 40 S gaugers in attendance from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey as well as the local contingent. The S Gauge Herald had been in circulation for about two years and the group was pleased to meet Wally Colllins (Publisher) and Frank Titman (editor) who were both very instrumental in keeping the S gauge movement alive. Paul Riley, an 18 year old recent convert to S gauge (from HO) gave a clinic on scratch building with paper, cardstock, and wood. The first S gauge "banquet" was held in a small restaurant which was across the street from the Linoleum Store. On Sunday, Al Hall the operator of an S gauge hobby shop in St. Albans, VT., arrived with a car load of S gauge items for sale.
After this first convention, a convention was held every year by rotating the responsibility between S gauge clubs on the east coast. As the group became more organized, it became known as the Northeastern S-Gaugers Association (NESGA).
In 1968 the Bristol Club hosted it’s second "national" convention in Nashua, NH (not far from Hudson, NH). At that time, the NESGA was still the closest thing to a National organization that we had, but work was under way to establish a true national organization of S gaugers which ultimately became known as the NASG. These annual conventions were the only time most S gaugers had a chance to get together. For many who were not comfortable with mail order, it was also the only time to so some serious S gauge shopping. These gatherings took on the feel of a family reunion and many a lifelong friendship has developed from these modest beginnings.
By 1968, the group was much too large for a linoleum store and a medium sized motel with some function space was the typical site for a convention. The Bristol club alone had over 20 active members by this time and these began to include not only the scale and highrail modelers, but also tinplate operators and collectors. Members of our club were active in all aspects of S gauge promotion and manufacturing. Bob Bloise was the largest manufacturer of wood kits (Kinsman Scale Models), Gene Fletcher had been involved in producing the Sylvania line of extruded aluminum passenger car kits, Paul Riley produced a timber trestle kit (PVR Kits),Gene was also active with Ed Shumacher and the group working to establish a true national S gauge association (NASG).
During the next few years the club continued to grow and added new members from all aspects of S gauge as well as all age groups. The club established a standard rotating visit type of meeting schedule with usually eight to ten meetings each year held as an all day event on a Saturday or Sunday to allow travel time for members as far from each other as Maine and Rhode Island. There has never been another attempt to create a permanent club layout since the club has been so spread out, but in recent years, we have built and expanded a modular high-rail layout which we display at several train shows each year.
Our next convention was planned for Auburn, MA in 1974 but this one was almost canceled due to the current concerns about the gas crisis. Calmer heads prevailed since we knew that S gaugers would find a way to attend the annual event. After serious debate, it was decided to continue with plans and as it turned out, by the time of the convention, the fuel crisis was over.
Our 1983 convention in Woburn, MA was one of the last regional conventions as by that time NASG was a reality and future conventions would include mid-America and west coast locations. These were the first really national conventions and in most years the Bristol Club was well represented.
The Bristol Club hosted the NASG Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1998 and we celebrated our 50th Club Anniversary at the same time.
Then again in 2008, the Bristol S Gauge Railroaders hosted the NASG Convention in Lowell, MA and we were happy to celebrate our 60th Anniversary! What a week that was.
CLUB AND MEMBER LAYOUTS
Over the years, there have been several excellent private layouts which became the focal points of club meetings at the homes of the industrious members. The most notable and well known scale layout was the Berkshire Central of Tom Coughlan of Melrose, MA. Due to his failing eyesight, advancing age, and a deal he just couldn’t refuse, Tom eventually sold this layout and all of the rolling stock.
Two highrail layouts were prominent during our "formative years" as an inspiration to newer members (usually AF collectors and/or operators) who were encouraged that they too could advance beyond the limitations of American Flyer’s limited production runs, escalating prices, and fixed radius trackwork. The earlier example was the Union Valley railroad of Win Blake. Although Win has been out of S gauge for several years, He once was one of the most ardent advocates of our scale and his highrail layout offered club members many hours of flawless card order operation with a large mixture of AF, converted AF, and scale equipment operating on tinplate trucks and code 172 rail. Another Win (the late Win Brasor) was a mystery to the club for several years. We knew through Bob Bloise and other S gauge manufacturers that this Brasor gentleman from Fall River, MA was usually buying two of every new item that came out in S gauge. When we finally had the privilege of meeting him (and later adding his name to our club roster), we were all extremely impressed to find a large, 95% complete (including scenery), operating highrail layout in the basement of his home. Those who attended the 1983 convention had an opportunity to visit this layout before Win’s passing and the subsequent dismantling of an empire.
Another early example of a fine highrail layout was the Boston & Worcester of Don Riley in Auburn, MA. This layout was included among the tours of both the Auburn (74) and Woburn (83) conventions. Don’s real specialty was locomotives and power drives. Everything on his railroad ran smooth as glass with his introduction of DC conversions, flywheel shafts, and diode circuitry. Unfortunately, by 1983 Don had become contaminated with an obsession to collect and operate European HO scale models. We had to virtually hold him at gunpoint to prevent dismantling of his S gauge railroad prior to the 83 convention. Needless to say, in a classic example of mid-life crisis (Don at that time was in his 70’s) his basement is now full of strange looking undersized railroad things.
As with any S gauge club, we always had our share of members with tinplate layouts, usually with an AF collection adorning the surrounding walls. One good example was the layout of John Medland in Lynnfield, MA. John is not as active as he used to be but he still maintains his membership and the layout is still in operation.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO S GAUGE
The membership was approaching 30 members and among the newer contingent were several major contributors to the S gauge movement. Doug Peck first found mutual S gauge interest at our 1983 convention and has gone on to become a president of the Bristol club, Eastern Vice President of NASG, Chairman of the NASG sponsored Lionel American Flyer car project, and has now entered the mainstream of S gauge manufacturers with his Crown Models line of plastic rtr cars. Bill Morris produced a line of decals. Paul Riley imported the brass D&RGW wide vision caboose under the name Modern Models. Skip Readio is marketing a powered turntable kit complete with stainless steel pit. Jerry Rivet markets custom RTR freight cars under the RSSVP label, and Wayne Hills sells replacement overlay sides for streamline passenger cars under the name of Marker Light Productions. Other active members have been instrumental in developing some of the many new S gauge products that have arrived in recent years.
In the late 80’s, with past member Dave Bredemier as the driving force, the club collected , reconditioned, and packaged American Flyer used train sets to market at the local shows and hobby shops. During the 3 years that this project was in full swing the club assembled and sold over 30 starter sets to families who would have otherwise purchased HO or Lionel train sets. We not only got some young model railroaders started in the right direction, but we also gained new members from the club info packet we included with each train set.
Speaking of information, the club has almost from the beginning had some form of printed communication. Rollie Mercier expanded on this idea in the 60’s and developed a club newsletter which was and still is circulated under the name Bristoliner. These days, the Bristoliner is issued at least 8 time yearly and Doug Peck (in his spare time!) collects the information, assembles the issue, prints and mails it to all club members, all known S gauge clubs, and many other subscribers around the country who want another good source of up to date S gauge information.
Although the club has changed over the years from a predominantly scale and highrail group to a 35 member mixture more recently favoring the highrail / tinplate persuasions, there has never been anything more than good natured teasing when one religion conflicts with the others. The best example of this is our modular layout which can best be described as scale scenery and structures with highrail (code 148) track, and a mixture of scale, highrail and tinplate motive power and rolling stock. All the members work together to make this layout a show piece of S gauge model railroading and the talents and knowledge that individual club members have to offer.
For several years we hosted our own all scale train show held every Spring in a 40,000 square foot athletic facility in Topsfield, MA. We had over 200 dealer tables and usually 6 or 7 operating layouts (including the Bristol Club modules) of all the different scales. The Show’s proceeds helped defray the expenses of our ever expanding modules and new club trailer. When the facility was being re-modeled a few years ago we decided to stop hosting our own show. We do continue to show our modular layout at 4 to 6 shows a year, as we promote S gauge to the "heathen" public.
Over the years the Bristol Club has been proud to count as members a number of prominent S gaugers.
Bernie Thomas Award Winners: Robert Bloise Thomas Coughlan Rollain Mercier
| Best in Show (NASG National Convention)
||Eugene Fletcher (Eastern VP)
||Rollain Mercier (President)
|Doug Peck (Eastern VP, Lionel / NASG projects)
S GAUGE AUTHORS
Carl Byron (3 books and several articles in S Gaugian)
Wayne Hills ("Tom Coughlan's layout" and "A Diner for the Royal Gorge" in the S/Sn3 Modeling Guide, and "Modeling a Rio Grande Motorways truck", in the NASG Dispatch. )
Robert Wall (Penobscott Central in S Gaugian)