by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
The Squannacook and Nissitissit
LA has had its share of clubs and organizations over the years. A few, like Spectrum, the student newspaper, or the Elm Tree Society for admissions tour guides, have lasted for generations, but most, like [choose whatever corny bloom-and-die simile comes to mind], spring up only to disappear within a few years. How many of you remember the French Club, the Stamp Club, the Russian Club, or the Kemps Club?
Back in 1977, fellow train-lover Dick Jeffers and I sponsored a Winterim called “End of the Line?”. It was a study of urban rail transit—subways and streetcars—featuring trips to MBTA maintenance yards and, on one memorable day, a non-stop ride from Riverside station to Lechmere on one of the (then) brand-new Green Line cars. Noses were glued to the windows at we careened through station after station in the subway.
For the second week of the course, the group drove up to the Seashore Electric Railway museum in Kennebunk, Maine and moved into their small but cozy bunkhouse. It being March, the museum was closed, but several volunteers were busy in the wood and machine shops, working on restoration projects. They were grateful to have some willing, if inexperienced, hands to help with some of the heavy lifting. The weather warmed up toward the end of the week, and the director of the museum, a retired college president, loaded us all onto a restored Boston trolley from the 1920s and gave everyone a driving lesson on the main line. I was the last one to drive. On the return trip to the barn, I applied the air brakes a little too hard. The car stopped, but not before sliding for several yards on locked wheels. I never had the guts to ask if I had given them flat spots (which would have had to be machined out—a huge job). They didn’t say anything, at least within my earshot.
Our display for Winterim night was an HO-scale trolley line, built in a day upon our return. We had recorded the growling traction motors of the old Type 5 streetcar we had ridden, complete with Palen Conway ’77 shouting “All aboard!” in his manliest conductor’s voice. The display was a hit, and an idea was born: LA needed a model railroad club.
That spring, we found an empty space on the second floor of the Loomis House garage. It hadn’t been used for anything in years and needed some serious cleaning. With some financial support from the school, Dick and I and our intrepid group of some half-dozen kids cleaned up the room, installed fiberglass insulation and even some sheetrock, and we wangled a used gas heater from another building. We formed a club, complete with bylaws and dues, and the Squannacook and Nissitissit Railroad was born, in HO scale.
Over the next few months, leading up to Winterim of 1978, the club built a large open-framework table for the layout, complete with raised dais for the control panel. We scoured old issues of Model Railroader magazine for layout ideas, bought books on wiring and scenery making, and invested our modest funds in rolling stock to supplement the members’ donations. By the time the first train was ready to pull out of the station we had a couple of locomotives, one diesel and one steam, probably a dozen freight cars of different types, and one beautiful old-style passenger coach.
The line needed a name, so Dick, ever helpful, suggested the “Squannacook and Nissitissit,” in honor of two local tributaries of the Nashua River. Everyone thought that was great, including yours truly—until it came time to put that name on our beautiful new passenger coach. If you’re much under fifty, you probably don’t remember the pre-Amtrak days, when passenger trains were run by individual railroads. The roads’ names—Boston and Maine, New York Central, etc.—were lettered above the windows of every coach.
Model railroads use decals for lettering rolling stock. They are slippery, delicate and, in HO scale (roughly 1/8” to the foot), tiny. I got the job of lettering “Squannacook and Nissitissit” along both sides of our passenger car. I’ve never been a very good model builder, my hands aren’t the steadiest, and I’m not known for patience with fussy tasks. But no one else would even consider doing it. So, for what seemed like weeks, I wrestled with nanoscale letters, little tweezers and a dish of water used to soften the decals. When it was done (it did look pretty good), I decided unilaterally that the S & N’s passenger service would be limited to one coach.
Our Winterim course for 1978, “All Steamed Up,” was dedicated to intensive work on the S & N. Scenery was built, wiring completed, buildings put in place. By Winterim Night the layout was operating and ready for the world to marvel at. It was pouring rain outside; the path into the Loomis garage was muddy, puddled and only partly covered with wooden walkways. But the crowds came, filling the stuffy little loft, and the Squannacook and Nissitissit was a going concern.
Like so many other student clubs, however, it was all to disappear before long. The original members graduated, few joined; meetings became infrequent, and within a year or two the S and N, like the real-life branch lines around Groton, ran its last train. The steam engine’s mellow whistle hasn’t been heard on campus since.
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