Introducing the live-steam hobby

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Don’t know Steve Baker; didn’t suggest to him to present an agenda. The cupola view Nonetheless, when his review of the International Small Scale Steamup appeared in my email in January (“A biased view of 2011’s 18th Annual International Small Scale Steamup,” January/February 2011), I was heartened by a question he posed in the text:

“What will you do this year to introduce someone to the live-steam hobby?”

This is a question I think everyone in this hobby needs to ask themselves, if not on a daily basis, at least each time you take out a loco and run it on a track.

We are a small, insular group that needs to get bigger — as quickly as possible. The eco-system of hobbyists, locomotive-makers, dealers and parts-makers (and, yes, magazine publishers) needs to get more commerce if it is to survive. And that commerce is going to come about through more hobbyists rather than from increased spending by the existing hobbyist community.

Totally unrelated to my thoughts on expanding the hobby, the Bay Area Garden Railway Society (BAGRS) nonetheless took up that challenge last month.

This San Francisco-area club has been in existence since 1988 and has had a live-steam contingent almost from the start. Center to that contingent has been a portable track that was originally built for a hobby shop in the area, which the shop eventually sold to the club. Officials estimate that the club has almost 60 members in the live-steam special interest group, just less than a quarter of its total membership.

The BAGRS annual meeting was held Feb. 26 at the Hiller Aviation Museum, which is just off Highway 101 in San Carlos, Calif. The museum has a 40-foot high electronic message sign outside that displays its upcoming events for the tens of thousands of drivers who use that main artery daily between San Francisco and San Jose. Apparently all the previous week the sign flashed the message, “Garden Railroads Saturday.”

Richard Murray is the BAGRS live-steam coordinator and directly negotiated with the museum’s management to get the live-steam track placed inside the museum’s main display area for the event; it had been forecast to be cold (from a Bay Area perspective) and perhaps even snow and neither the club nor the museum wanted a cancellation because of weather. So Murray provided the museum with dimensions for the portable track and workers there cleared a space by moving around some fighter planes and such.

Thus, the steam oval was literally in the middle of the museum’s exhibits — there was an ancient helicopter to the right, a retired military jet to the left and a big hunk of a prototype Boeing SST fuselage was along one end. To go anywhere in the museum, you had to walk by the track.

If you arrived at the BAGRS steam oval at 11 a.m., you would have found pretty much the entire 20-foot by 40-foot track was surrounded by civilians — mostly youngish moms and dads with really small kids.

While the crowd waxed and waned, it was pretty steady until 3 o’clock, with dozens and dozens of people standing one- or two-deep around the track. Museum docents unofficially said the crowd was six times larger than a normal Saturday crowd and BAGRS members not only ran trains, but answered the normal civilian questions (“Butane, alcohol and some people actually use coal.” “Some are kits, some are scratch built, but most buy them ready-to-run.” “Anywhere from $500 to $5000.” “Yes, it’s real steam.”).

The rough estimate is that there were around 600 people at the museum that day; it isn’t clear whether that was 100 BAGRS and 500 civilians, or just 600 civilians.

Probably the most interested child seemed to be a seven- or eight-year-old girl, who while she was shy and soft-spoken, asked the best questions (sometimes she whispered the question to her mom’s ear and then mom gave volume to the query).

BAGRS members Peter Lenicheck and his dad double-headed their Accucraft C-16s and later Rob ran his scratch-built RGS. Steve Heselton ran his C-17 coal conversion. Joel Taylor ran some Asters. Two BAGRS ran fresh-out-of-the-box Accucrafts: Dwight Ennis the Mason Bogie and Gary Whaley the Climax. Bill Allen ran the Garratt detailed in this very issue.

Murray ran his German single-cylinder “micro” locomotive with a one-quarter-inch piston. It didn’t move fast, but it did move.

The BAGRS folks introduced hundreds of people to the hobby last February; what did you do?

A quick update on the activities of Steam in the Garden LLC: we continue to get our sea legs in the field of magazine publishing, learning about arcane issues like postal regulations and accounting procedures.

Obviously, you hold in your hands our second issue of the print magazine, which gets us back on schedule to deliver copies to your mailbox the first of every even-numbered month.

We continue to work on the web site (albeit out of public view) and hope to have a wide swath of new webified features available shortly.

And we launch our new “Take the pledge,” campaign, which exhorts readers to become subscribers, subscribers to renew and to give the magazine as gifts to their friends, tell advertisers they saw their ads in Steam in the Garden and to visit the web site (www.steamup.com).

That next-to-last request bears repeating: As we have ventured out into the hobby’s commercial community, we frequently hear that ads in Steam in the Garden don’t work, because buyers rarely (if ever) say they saw an ad. While we can tell those in commerce that readers merely forget to say an ad drove them to make a purchase, it would help our cause greatly if you volunteered the information.

“I saw your ad in Steam in the Garden.” See, it’s not hard to say.