The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

December 4, 2012

Model makers re-creating 1915 harbor

Star Beacon

ASHTABULA — In a remote corner of the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum’s basement, flanked by esoteric, obsolete navigation equipment and depth charts, are stacks of plastic, motorized toys still in their boxes.

Imported from China, the toys are awaiting disassembly by C. Langdon “Rudy” Campbell III, the museum’s historian and model maker.

“Each one of these will yield a handful of gears, two electric motors and plastic that I can recycle, heat up and press into a mold to create a new item,” Campbell said.

If Campbell were to purchase the motors from a hobby supply store, he’d pay at least $15 each. Considering that the project he is building for the museum will require at least 80 of the motors, the cost savings is well worth the extra time required for disassembly.

Campbell’s project is a functional model of the No. 10 Pennsylvania Dock at Ashtabula Harbor, circa 1915 (now the Norfolk Southern Coal Dock). A wood prototype of the model is displayed at the museum alongside a metal material handling (ore) bridge, previously suspended from a gallery ceiling. The bridge, donated to the museum by the widow of its builder, will eventually be operational, as well — the scoop that traveled the length of the bridge, which spanned the railroad yard, will be operational, and the entire structure will move forward and backward on railroad tracks.

“Our visitor is going to be able to grab hold of the levers and operate the machinery, just exactly like it was years back,” Campbell said. “They will get a feeling of what it was like to work a certain job back then.”

A retired model maker, Campbell has donated his expertise to the museum for the past three years. He supervises and instructs a group of like-minded volunteers who gather at the museum on weekends to work on projects that will help visitors understand what it was like to labor on the docks or sail on a freighter.

“What we’re trying to do is modernize the museum, to give it a new approach, from ‘hands off,’ to ‘hands on,’” he said.

Campbell’s impressive employment history included stints at Lockheed and NASA. He did design work for military night-vision equipment, cell phones and the MI Abrams tank. “If they gave me enough time and money, I could build them a space shuttle if they wanted me to,” Campbell said.

The museum’s needs are much more modest, butit still requires time and money. Campbell said the Pennsylvania Dock project will require several years to complete. The tasks include building a model of a steel lakes freighter with a cut-away side that will allow the visitor to see the unloading buckets descend into the hatches and remove the ore. A second model will do the same for a freighter of wooden construction. A series of cable-unloaders, which were far more ubiquitous at Great Lakes ports than the Hulett unloaders, will be modeled. Campbell also needs to complete and mechanization the ore bridge.

The river portion of the layout will include a model of the Dorothea Geary,  a service boat built in and operated out of Ashtabula. The Geary was the first steel boat with an entirely welded hull and carried an electrical generator and arc welder that allowed the company to provide welding services to freighters visiting the port.

Concurrent with that modeling project is the ongoing reconstruction of the Lawson Stevenson railroad layout, a model of the dock and railroad operations that were on the east side of the Ashtabula River. Campbell said that work is being done with input from John Sandberg, who worked on the A&B Dock, a feature being added to Stevenson’s original layout.

“He has given us so many tidbits,” Campbell said.

He said the museum’s approach is to keep the layout historically accurate while preserving the essence of Stevenson’s original work. The restoration will include a control center that will allow visitors to operate the model trains and machinery in the layout.

On any given weekend, there are at least four people involved in laying track, building models and talking history. Campbell said the youngest member of this volunteer group of model builders is Tom Leveck, 12. With several different projects in the works, there is room for all skill levels and interests.

“If any person wants to come in and even wants to work on his own model, we’re here,” Campbell said. “The more information and more teaching I can give people, the less likely it is that my skills will evaporate.”

The group meets Saturdays and Sundays at the museum, across from Point Park on Walnut Boulevard. Starting time is noon and “we go until whenever we get tired,” Campbell said. Use the west-side (handicapped) entrance.