I was reading Realistic Model Railroad Building Blocks the other day and the author, Tony Koester, suggests using Sanborn fire insurance maps and U.S. Geological Survey maps as a point of reference when researching track alignments and the layout of rail yards. The purpose of this is to make you aware of real world designs of tracks, junctions, spurs, sidings, and yards so that you can be sure your model railroad designs also have a realistic look.

I decided to go to www.usgs.gov and see what maps I could find. I was quite surprised. Not only can you order specific maps, but you can E-mail them asking for a specific location, year, and features you are interested in (I was not surprised that “railroads” made it into the list of examples for features. Think a lot of railroad enthusiasts use this site?). They will then E-mail you back with a list of maps that may suit your needs. I haven’t done that yet, I’ve been too busy looking at what is already available for download from the site, this next part is pretty cool too.

On most sites, to find a map (I’m not talking about online maps, but digital reproductions of historical printed maps) you need to sift through various names of counties, states, and cities. Not true here. Using a Google Maps interface you can find your location, put pin points on the map, and it will tell you what maps are available for download for that location.

So you download your map in a PDF, and these files are HUGE, but full of detail. The ones I’ve looked at around Fremont are from the 1970s with updates in the 1980s, perfect for seeing what was there in the era I plan on modeling. The Twin City maps I have found were created in the late 60s with updates in the 90s. Some things I found out about: the Fremont KHUB radio tower used to be by the corner of Clarmar and 16th Street. The sand pits to the west of town had more track than Google currently shows, and it maps out the old CNW line to Lincoln as a dotted line labeled “old railroad bed grade.” I also found out Hugo had double track going through it and I was able to map out the line that went from White Bear Lake to Stillwater.

Pretty cool huh? Well… it gets better.

There is an option to download GeoPDFTool, WHICH I STRONGLY RECOMMEND! That allows you to draw lines on the map and get distances from point to point AND if you wonder where a certain location is, just right click and choose Google Mapit. It takes you to Google Maps and puts a pin point on that exact location! It is great for locating things that no longer exist especially in rural areas where there are few roads to get your bearings. I used that to find out where the passing track in Hugo started and ended.

The Fremont map does show the roundhouse, but the original was too new for the Clarmar Ave track. After I am done exploring what is available online, I should be able to contact USGS and see if they have any historical maps on my locations of interest.

For more online resources I recommend, visit RRWIKI. Let me know if you have any you’d recommend.

About Chad Leigh Kluck

Chad Leigh Kluck
Originally from Nebraska, I am a history and railroad enthusiast currently living near Saint Paul, Minnesota. I enjoy trains, photography, and nostalgic memories, as well as the history of transportation, agriculture, eateries, breweries, and railroad towns. More...

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