Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tributes To Stafford Swain

A scene from Stafford's CNR Whiteshell
Subdivision; other photos on this page are
also from his layout.

The most recent issue of Canadian Railway Modeller carries tributes by various people about Stafford Swain, one of Canada's, and North America's, foremost modellers. Many of the things we take for granted today—things like fidelity to the prototype, walk-around control, hidden staging, lighting effects, highly-detailed scenery, a dispatcher's panel in another room, tracks passing through a single scene—were created and popularized by people like Stafford.

The article features his CNR Whiteshell Subdivision layout, along with comments about his impact on the hobby from people like Tony Koester, Al Lill, Les Kozma, John Morris and others. Due to space restrictions, it was impossible to carry their full remarks. Below find longer versions of their comments about this remarkable individual.

Made His Mark On The Hobby

By Tony Koester, former editor, Railroad Model Craftsman

When I joined the Railroad Model Craftsman staff in 1969, it was apparent that the magazine had a faithful following and a lot of potential, but the talented folks at Model Railroader and their large editorial and art staff meant that RMC had to be more than a one-person "show" to have any chance at succeeding. I therefore needed to find and encourage the finest talent the hobby had to offer. Fortunately, Hal Carstens had already built a fine relationship with Dave Frary and Bob Hayden as well as Allen McClelland, among a few other headliners, but more talent was needed.

I have always seen model railroading as a way to enjoy full-size railroading in a limited space. I therefore looked not only to the creative interpreters of the 12"-scale world, like Frary and Hayden, McClelland, John Olson, and others, but also those who modeled a specific prototype with a depth of knowledge that was obvious in their work. One of the first of the true prototype modelers to attract my attention was Stafford. I have long been an ardent student of geology, so when he described his depiction of the rocks of the ancient, metamorphic Canadian Shield, I knew I had met someone who was on my wavelength.

I featured Stafford's HO railroad on the cover and inside RMC, and reader reaction was as expected—wow! While other talented modelers were showing us how to model specific prototype buildings, locomotives, and rolling stock, Stafford was one of the few who extended that degree of excellence down to the bedrock of the layout. I have always wondered why modelers spend so much time on the structures and equipment yet do not pay equal homage to the much more visible and expansive scenery that surrounds the railroad and puts it in context. Stafford didn't miss a bet in that regard.

When I began to work closely with Kalmbach beginning in 1985—first with Model Railroader and then as founding editor of Model Railroad Planning a decade later—I had hoped to again have the chance to work with Stafford and share additional information about his work and the motivation behind it. That was not to be, as various physical concerns got in our way. No matter; he had already made his mark on the hobby, and I'm honored to have played a small part in sharing his work with the hobby.

A Layout That Looks and Feels Like the Canadian Shield

Frank Gerry, former NMRA Canada President

I had heard of Stafford, and seen his work in the model railroading press, leading up to the National Model Railroad Association national convention in Winnipeg in 1983, so his layout was high on my list of ones that were a must see for me. I was of course not disappointed when I finally got to see it. Up to this convention my experiences with ‘completed’ or near ‘completed’ model railroads had been limited to an older one here in Thunder Bay, so all of the home layout tours were a real eye-opening experience for me. But it was meeting Stafford, and seeing his layout, that helped me most to realize that a layout could look good.

In my attempts at scenery modeling, I have always wanted my layout to be as detailed and realistic as Stafford’s. I am afraid that so far it falls far short of that goal, but it is something to strive and work towards—having seen his layout, I know it can be done. It looks and feels like the Canadian Shield; you have the feeling of having seen those places in real life.

Raising The Bar

By John Morris, friend and CPR modeller

As a man whose profession was accounting, Stafford carried that discipline of accuracy and attention to detail to the hobby. He raised the bar from 'good enough' to 'historically accurate' and shared his findings with both individuals and the hobby industry. His meticulous files and information were always available to all . . . I for one can say I and the hobby of Canadian prototype modelling would not be at the level we are today without his efforts."

Done More For Canadian Modellers Than Anyone

By Al Lill, editor, CN Lines Magazine
I consider Stafford to be one of my closest friends. I visited Stafford and his wife, Karen, last year and helped them organize his files for shipment to our various CN LINES editorial team members. If you had a chance to see his files, I think you would have received an even greater impression of the depth of his contribution to the hobby—especially to those interested in 1950s-era freight cars, and especially CNR modellers.

I would say his contributions could mainly be divided into eras. The first would be up to, and including, the Railway Jamboree in Winnipeg in 1983. That was followed by a lot of very well researched articles in the model press, and encouraging the production of CNR models (which continued through his time as Freight Car Editor for CN LINES SIG).

In summer 1989 he invited me to be Passenger car Editor for the CN Lines SIG. Over the years, when the SIG began to falter, I agreed to be a Editor “for a couple of issues.” I knew I would burn out if I didn’t have a bigger team; Stafford, being the talented organizer/persuader that he is, agreed to be Chair if I would stay on as Editor. That led to a new era for the SIG, with our book project Across the Canadian Shield and real growth of the SIG (with Stafford as Chair and “Designated Dreamer”). More great CNR products came about as a result of the SIG, and many model manufacturers got their products “right” on account of Stafford's efforts.

I may be biased but I think Stafford has done more for Canadian model railroaders than anyone. He has inspired all of us to model more accurately by example. He has put in incredible effort in accumulating information and in advising manufacturers to do products that would be accurate for CNR and preferably good for CPR and other Canadian railways where possible.

His Accomplishments Are Many
By Les Kozma, CN Lines SIG

Stafford made a positive contribution to the history of Canadian prototype railways through his tireless efforts of research and modeling. The latter shows his skill and craftsmanship, but also highlights his meticulous approach and an understanding of context. His focus on detail is legendary (nothing gets by "the auditor"), but it is tempered by his friendliness and a positive demeanor.

Stafford is a genuine human being who is willing to share, whether it is a photograph, an incidental detail or a modeling tidbit. His accomplishments are many and his reputation is well-deserved. Everyone should be grateful that Stafford is part of our wonderful hobby, and I am honoured to call him a friend.

Generous With Time And Knowledge

By Fred Holzapfel, NMRA Thousand Lakes Region

I met Stafford back in the late 1970's at a Thousand Lakes Region meet in Winona, MN. He was judging the model contest. We had a long discussion about the process of accurately judging as well as accurately building models. He gave his time freely and was more than willing to discuss techniques and ideas with this new, young (weren't we all back then) TLR member. I was impressed by his openness and willingness to share.

The best things I've gained from this hobby of model railroading are the long time relationships and very strong friendships with people all over the world. I'd have to say that Stafford is almost like a brother today. My modeling greatly improved from the guidance and conversations with him. I grew to appreciate the need for prototype accuracy when attempting to miniaturize the world around us. He really helped me put my hobby in context.

Stafford has been generous with his knowledge and time. He has helped me learn by pushing the envelope and making learning interesting . . . Stafford was in the forefront of prototype modeling. He used research, photographs and builders plans to get a model correct, and he worked with a small group of others to have a set of prototype colored paints produced. He contributed through clinics and written articles. He raised the bar for all modelers.

When you ask about his contributions, the answer is: Where does it stop? Prototype modeling, accurate paint colors, general awareness of how to build a quality model, master patterns used by commercial companies for prototypical accurate freight cars, more accurate brass models and—once again—those paints. He gave time, dedication, and great organizational skills to the Thousand Lakes Region, the NMRA and other groups.

The “Designated Dreamer”

By Nick Andrusiak, CN Lines SIG and friend
I have worked with Stafford on numerous model railroad oriented enterprises. We have served together on the WMRC, the Thousand Lakes Region of the NMRA, several conventions hosted by Winnipeg model railroaders and, more recently, we have spent over twelve years in the organization of CN Lines Special Interest Group dedicated to the history of Canadian National Railways.

On most committees Stafford becomes the chairman and then invites me to be one of his right hand persons. I have been treasurer and/or public relations person for regional conventions and was one of three vice-chairmen of the NMRA National Convention, Railway Jamboree ’83, headed by Stafford.

Stafford was always able to produce and transmit the vision of the conventions and recently of the activities of CN Lines, so much so that I once described him as the “designated dreamer” of our committees. He replied that this was a complement to my nature which was that of a “designated worrier,” who always wanted to tie down all the loose ends.

I leave to others to describe his expertise in designs of outside braced boxcars and CN cabooses. However, in the organizational end of the hobby, we introduced innovations that resonate even a quarter century later. Our convention guidebook in 1983 was the first to fit in a man’s shirt pocket and we were the first to use daily graphs of simultaneous events. Instead of tickets for individual tours, we used coloured ribbons that attached to your convention badge with the current trip on top. Our convention was the first to have lapel pins to remember the event. It became a milestone to compare later conventions.

Our greatest affliction in most activities was that people wanted to join. The CN SIG had 390 members when Stafford became chair in 1995-96. It has grown to 1,350 members with sales of 1,000 magazines to hobby shops and newsstands.

But Stafford also steered the CN SIG in other directions. As a master model railroader, he was frustrated by the lack of accurate paint colours, brass number boards and decals for CN modeling. In a few years the SIG had developed a catalog of 24 colours of Scalecoat I paint accurate for several Canadian railways, 15 sets of decals for CN cars, and a set of number boards containing every number CNR steam locomotives ever carried as well as raised cab numerals for the steamers.

Stafford and Morgan Turney.
Unparalled "willingness to share"

By Morgan Turney, editor, CRM

Stafford's seemingly tireless efforts to promote our hobby has helped lead it to where it is today in Canada. His knowledge, although mostly concerning Canadian National, extended far beyond that railway and his willingness to share with others has always been aunparalled. Being invited to an operating session on Stafford's layout was always an honour, and something I looked forward to.

Stafford's layout will be on display for a final time at Steam on the Prairies, the May 28-30 NMRA Thousand Lakes Region Convention in Winnipeg. For more information, or to register, go to


  1. Not having met Stafford, I have still been able to appreciate his interest in prototypical detail. And while I don't model the same era, I can say that he definitely inspired me to model rural Manitoba and its small towns so inextricably linked to the railway as a lifeline. Thanks for sharing those tributes, John.


  2. Nice tribute, Stafford's work was an inspiration to me way back when I was a teenager, revealing what rich accomplishments were possible in the hobby.

  3. The hobby has lost a great man since Stafford has "retired" he will be missed by many.

  4. Stafford Swain is an exceptional person who bent over backwards to accomodate a very young but very nervous and scared, aspiring teenaged model railroader, at a Winnipeg Model Railway Club meeting in 1974. He made me feel very much at ease, signed me up to the club and introduced me to a great life long freind.

    He is largely responsible for being the railfan, modeler, writer and photographer that I am today.


    Mark Perry

  5. Jim Little, Treasurer CPHA (CP SIG)March 29, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    I first met Stafford at a regular Thursday night session in The Golden Spike hobby shop in the early 1990's during a Winnipeg Layover. About 1996 Stafford started twisting my arm with an aim to get the CP SIG (now CPHA) back on the rails as it had fallen on hard times, much like the CN SIG. Thus I became the CP focal point for the CN Sig's 1997 Convention in Burlington, ON. Thanks to Stafford, the CPHA is now alive and functioning.

    Seeing and operating Stafford's beautiful layout and like so many others left me suitably impressed. It caused me to 'raise the bar' when it came to modeling the competition railway!

    John Morris's example of how he and Stafford would remove details from each other's models to force going beyond 'good enough' was another moving experience in the hobby.

    Stafford has been a real moving experience on the Canadian Prototype modeling scene. He deserves top spot in the Canadian Modelers Hall of Fame!

    Jim Little
    Tresurer CPHA (CP SIG)

  6. I was ona a bussiness trip to Winnipeg in 1981 and thru a friend orginally from Winterpeg boy it was COLD I visted Stafford wow 29 years ago the layout was fanastic then> I photographed some of the scenes on the layou and Stafford showed me his technique for making fish tank filter look like steam exhaust . Hey this was in the days of film remember that stuff!!! I was running a photograpy class next night doing E6 processing we developed the transparencies what a realistic looking layout and the shot of the j4e with the fish tank steam wow .Well it placed an honourable mention in the Model Railroader photography contest that year. The picture was in the Oct1981 issue I still have my copy. I look back at that issue boy was theat magazine kinga roughly laid out then , Stafford took model railroading to a new level. Not a fantacy but a minatureization of the Canadian National Railroad . It should gomto the museum of Science and Technoligy in Ottawa its such a work of art . a 3dimential picture of Canadian railroading in the golden era. Mind you I think it was the Winterpeg group. Jock Oliphant , Peter Able ,and John Morris and my appoligies for not knowing everybody from those days. all great modelers in one city. The thing I will say about Stafford he was so willing to share his knowledge .David E. HILL A.R.P.S.

  7. I met Stafford back in '97 when he and Al Lill were working on "Across the Canadian Shield". I have had a loose email contact with him since. We spend a day here in the Los Angeles area checking out the local railroad hot spots. The best was lunch at the Sante Fe grill at Fullerton (CA) station, eating on the patio with the BNSF mainline 25 feet away

    Ken Skolyan

  8. I am really happy to find this tribute page has been done. Stafford Swain's work has been like a piece of the foundation in my enjoyment of the history of the CNR and keeps me in awe of improvements I should aspire to in my modelling. I appreciate very much every article of his I have come across, and am really glad to learn more of what he has done, Thanks to all who contributed and put this tribute together, Al Mitchell (Port Moody BC)

  9. Wonder if the same Stafford Swain who invited me to join a group in the late 50s to witness the run of a steam train at Bird's Hill (possibly the last run on that division)
    As all the fan cameras cliked furiously, I merely took in the runpast as a casual observer.

    With railroad blood in my veins from paternal ancestry, I finally became a rail enthusiast in the late 60s and have since taken thousands of rail photos.

    1. And folks, I am the author of the "Anonymous post above (October 16) and you can see the result of my work in several places online.

      All thanks to Stafford who cared to invite a perfect stranger with his group of friends and awakened the railfan in me