John Allen - A Biographical Reminiscence

A look back at the life and work of a friend and mentor

Gorre and Daphetid logo  The Gorre and Daphetid in 1972 - night shot  John Allen's hands drawing the plans for the G&D;

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"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more than they do, indeed even farther; but not because our sight is better than theirs or because we are taller than they. Our sight is enhanced because they raise us up and increase our stature by their enormous height." Bernard of Chartres

This is the life of one such giant.

John Allen (1913-1973), the "Wizard of Monterey," was a trained artist and professional photographer who gained a worldwide reputation as a model railroad hobbyist. His photographs and articles in the hobby press from the 1940s through the early 1970s presented HO scale model railroading as a challenging and attractive hobby, and more than a quarter century after his death, the many photos he took of his model railroads continue to fascinate.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, John was orphaned when both his parents died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Thereafter, he was raised by relatives in California, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He studied business at UCLA, but transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he concentrated on photography, though the backdrops on his model railroad layouts show that he also had skill as a painter.

He started a photography business in Los Angeles, but when World War II began, he moved to Monterey, where he and a partner prospered making portraits of servicemen. John himself couldn’t serve in the armed forces due to a heart condition, which was the eventual cause of his death, though he tried unsuccessfully to make his services available as an interpreter of aerial photos.

Sometime around the end of the war, he discovered HO scale model railroad equipment for sale in a department store in Oakland. He began building models and photographing them while he lived in an apartment in downtown Monterey. He started sending photos of his work to the model railroad magazines almost immediately. About 1946, he moved to a long, narrow house on Cannery Row in Monterey (since demolished) and began work on what was for that time a large, complex layout. This was the first Gorre and Daphetid.

His photographs and articles were published in the model railroad hobby press in many countries. By 1953, investment income from his parents’ estate and the profits from his photography business allowed him to retire and concentrate on his modeling and hobby photography. (He was also a bachelor well known for a frugal lifestyle.) In December 1952, he bought a larger home on a Monterey hillside. There he excavated a basement that contained his largest and finest layout, which he continued to build and detail until his death.

In addition to the spectacular photos he took of the Gorre and Daphetid on his own behalf, he also made advertising photos for Varney, a well-known model railroad supplier of the period, and for Pacific Fast Mail, an early importer of high-end brass locomotives. The advertising photos, among his best, had an enormous impact in popularizing the hobby.

John was able to combine his formal art and photography training with modeling skill, close observation of the real world, and a knack for caricature to produce a truly imaginative effect in his model layouts. Since his time, some modelers have tried to imitate his style, while others have developed influential styles and approaches to the hobby of their own. Despite changes in the hobby, better products and materials, and the passage of time, his models and photos retain an irresistible appeal.

Two articles from the NMRA Bulletin serve to illustrate the man, his character and his philosophy. The first was John's last submission to the Bulletin. In it, he summarizes his philosophy of modeling, the challenges it presents and the satisfaction it offers. The second, written only one month later, was John's obituary, by his longtime friend, Whit Towers.

A more complete biography of John Allen by Linn Westcott (which was used in compiling this account) was published by Kalmbach Publishing Company in 1983, Model Railroading with John Allen (ISBN 0-89024-559-2). Unfortunately, the book is out of print but may be found on eBay and through used book dealers. This work is nown to all of John's fans as "The Book" and will be referred to as such throughout this site.


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