by Jan Poff
In almost four decades as a model railroader, NRMRC charter member Dave Koss knows the hobby from both sides of the shop counter. He once owned a hobby store and for four years developed and produced DMK structure kits. But Dave also had enviable Class I railroad connections. Not bad for someone who played with Lionel trains as a child!
The Lionel layout his father set up in the basement of Dave’s boyhood home in Detroit ignited a passion for electric trains. By the time Dave was fifteen, his family moved to upper Westchester County, New York; he discovered HO and formed a train club with five fellow high-schoolers. Then Clemson University beckoned, and active rail modeling went on hiatus. Graduating with a civil engineering degree in 1971, Dave moved to Raleigh the following year to accept employment with Carolina Power and Light Co.
To a train aficionado, CP&L provided gratifying opportunities. Dave spent the first few years investigating potential power plant sites in western North and South Carolina. Scouting the Spruce Pine, N.C., to Johnson City, Tenn., area, he developed a working relationship with the Clinchfield Railroad and learned how its coal-hauling operations meshed with his employer’s needs. Professional contact fostered tremendous respect for the road as "a big-time, well-run operation." That experience, plus taking the CRR’s fall color train trip from Marion, N.C., to Erwin, Tenn., a daylong ride through spectacular scenery and the fabled Loops, "hooked me for life" on the Clinchfield, Dave declared.
CP&L’s Mayo power plant project, in Person County, afforded the chance to work with another railroad: the Norfolk and Western. Dave was principal engineer for site development, and planning the facility’s 11-mile railroad yard was high on his list of duties. N&W needed six to eight tracks to hold coal hoppers bound for Mayo's rotary dumper, plus additional space to store empty cars. Six-axle diesels would drag three, loaded, 100-car unit trains per week down from Danville, Va., and haul the empties back. The railroad dedicated 300 cars to serve the plant.
The power company built its new yard with components salvaged from a Penn Central yard being dismantled in Ohio. Used rail and other hardware—"everything but the ties," recalled Dave—arrived at the Mayo site over a period of weeks. As the flatcar loads rolled in, Dave tagged parts too worn to reuse.
Full-time employment with CP&L enabled Dave to resume model railroading. But his growing family and shrinking Raleigh apartment forced a departure from HO. In 1972, Dave bought his first N-scale equipment: Kadee’s initial run of five boxcars. He has maintained a strong interest in the Micro-Trains line ever since.
Although he mail-ordered the Kadees, Dave frequented Jim Collier’s hobby shop and J.C. Penney’s hobby department, both in North Hills Mall. The mall was something of a Mecca for Raleigh-area rail modelers in the early 1970s. It was also the site of a November 1973 train show, mounted by a very loosely organized group of enthusiasts, featuring three layouts: Lionel, S-gauge, and HO scale. Shortly after Dave joined in, the participants started meeting regularly in each other’s homes. The North Raleigh Model Railroad Club was born.
NRMRC membership originally was divided fairly evenly between HO - and N-scalers, according to Dave. The shift toward 1:160 railroading gathered momentum after Jim Kelly, UNC journalism school graduate student and N-scaler, began attending NRMRC meetings. Jim was a persistent advocate of NTRAK, and Dave remembered that the club’s first discussion of the N-scale modular railroading concept occurred at a summer 1974 meeting.
Ultimately, Jim persuaded the group to try NTRAK. Dave and a handful of others framed up six modules during a couple of evenings at the N.C. State woodworking shop—enough for a 24-foot dogbone layout incorporating two, 4-foot turnarounds. The NTRAK setup made its inaugural appearance at North Hills Mall in November 1974. Incidentally, Model Railroader ran its first NRMRC show advertisement in the October 1976 issue. Kelly went to straight to MR after getting his graduate degree from Carolina, ultimately becoming the magazine's managing editor.
Reflecting on nearly twenty-five years with NRMRC, Dave notes a number of constants. The club still meets in members’ homes, N-scale predominates, and "the kinds of things we discuss now are the same as when we were a small group in North Hills". [Model railroading] technology is different, the equipment is better, but we still discuss the same kinds of things—shows, who’s showing up and who isn't, clinics, new stuff—the original concept of a loosely organized, informal, very friendly group" has not changed.
Modular railroading has rewarded Dave with memorable experiences. He met NTRAK guru Jim FitzGerald at the 1984 NMRA convention in Washington, D.C., the first out-of-state show to which Dave took a module. He described with awe the "monster layout" at the 1996 NTRAK East Convention, in Alexandria, Va., and the joy of "being buried in N scale" in "a model railroader’s paradise." But full-size railroads provide big excitement of their own. Dave happily spent an hour driving the locomotive on the New Hope Valley Railroad, where his younger brother, Roger, is a diesel mechanic. However his favorite railroading experience, model or prototype, was that fall-color trip on the Clinchfield.
Dave continues upgrading his current 12-foot set of NTRAK modules, representing Marion, N.C., and is planning his next set: "Something unconventional, a corner-straight combination with a gorge" that will "get away from the traditional straight module with three tracks". He has built four train layouts. Moving to a new home in Wake Forest gives him the chance to start a fifth. Inspiration for the new layout, to be set in the 1960s to early 1970s, comes from the Clinchfield Loops and railroading in the vicinity of Spruce Pine.
Track laying and custom painting/decaling of rolling stock are two aspects of model railroading that most appeal to Dave. He enjoys delving into the research necessary to produce prototypically decorated equipment. Considering his work experience, the thrill of putting track to roadbed should not come as much of a surprise; in fact, his pet peeve is "people who don’t spend enough time on track work" to ensure trouble-free operation. He wants to hone his scenery-making skills — especially the casting, carving, and staining of plaster rockwork for realistic effect, a useful talent for building those "gorgeous" new modules. Dave also is learning more about Digitrax, and is amassing a large Model Railroader collection. MR introduced him to N-scale. He still has the first issue he ever bought (December 1961), owns all those published subsequently, and has added others from as far back as 1949 to his library.
Constantly on the lookout for N-scale Clinchfield equipment, Dave harbors an interest in the Chessie System as well. Having spent four decades either as a consumer or supplier of modeling equipment, Dave suggests that one way for novices to remain in the hobby is to "Buy quality stuff. Inexpensive stuff doesn’t run well, cars don’t stay on the track, engines break down, and you lose interest. You don’t have to buy the most expensive stuff," but to "get maximum enjoyment out of the hobby, buy quality."
Besides being a model railroader, Dave plays golf, is an avid Detroit Red Wings hockey fan, follows NASCAR and calls driver Jeff Gordon "my hero." He belongs to the Exchange Club, the ACL/SAL Historical Society, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Dave left CP&L after sixteen years and has spent the past decade in private consulting. Currently he is employed by Wilson-based Fenner and Proffitt, engineering assisted-living projects for the elderly, affordable housing, and multi-family housing units for clients in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee.
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