To Everything, there is a season....
What is a timeline? A timeline is simply a chronological list of events (real or imagined) that had an impact upon your railway. Just like the name of a town anchors the railway in space, a timeline anchors it in time, giving an extra dimension of reality.

Do I need one? No, most model railroads go through their entire existance without a timeline, or have just a vague unwritten one.

So why would I want one? Rather than a monster created by someone with OCD, a timeline is actually a useful tool for any modeler who seeks to give their layout an authentic feel. In the real world every place and everything has had something that came before what is now. A timeline encourages you to think about the  5 'W's - Who? What? Where? When? Why? . As you start to justify things based upon the 'historical' record, it: 1. decreases, or makes you give a reason for the inconsistancies on your line. 2. Decreases the likelyhood of impulse purchases that you don't know what to do with once you get them home. 3. Provides points of reference, which makes telling the story easier than having to make everything up as you go along.

Unlike a real timeline, you can revisit events on your model timeline to tweak them to better suit what you want to do today. Making it sort of a living document.

Real historical events:
While compiling my timeline for the Allegheny Valley,  I made this general list of the major events useful to the average modeler of US railroads. This is by no means a complete list, but since a big part of researching is in knowing what to look for, and when and where it happened, these notes can give you a start on finding relevant information for the specific location of your railroad.

The following years had big national downturns: These would have affected both traffic levels and expansion due to unavailability of credit. There are 3 kinds of downturns: 1. recession - generally mild.Folks just decided to keep their money for a while. 2. Depression - deeper than a recession with a farther reach.  3. Panic or Bank Panic- usually start suddenly by some cataclysmic event like an important firm's failure, creating a 'domino' effect as it takes other firms along with it, either directly or because of the public's lack of faith in general. The more recent 'Savings and Loan Crisis' of the 1980s and 'recession of 2008' would have been historically called a Panic.

Panic of 1857-58
Panic of 1873-79 'The Long Depression'
Panic of 1893-94
Panic of 1896
Panic of 1907
Panic of 1910-11
Depression of 1920-21
Great Depression 1929-33
1937-38 ----  popularly lumped together with the great depression
5 worst panics
bank panics 1873-1933

You can't run a business without workers, and you can't run a transportation business without customers to serve. The relevant labor strikes that would have a temporary effect on traffic were:
1868 (anthracite miners)
1875 (miners)
1877 (great RR)
1884 (Union Pacific RR)
1885 (SW RR)
1886 (great SW RR)
1888 (Burlington RR)
1892 (Steel and Buffalo switchmen)
1894 (Pullman, Great Northern RR, bituminous miners)
1896 (Leadville Colorado miners)
1900 (Anthracite miners, machinists)
1902 (Anthracite Coal, Cripple Creek Colorado miners)
1903-4 (Colorado Labor Wars)
1904 (Santa Fe Shopmen)
1909 (Georgia RR, Pressed Steel Car)
1912-13 (West Virginia mine wars)
1919 (steel plus localized widespread)
1921-22 (West Virginia coal wars)
1922 (miners & RR shopmen, coal miners)
1927 (coal miners)
1943 (bituminous miners)
1945 (oil)
1946 (steel, bituminous coal, RR, many other trades)
1952 (steel)
1956 (E. coast longshoreman, steel)
1959 (steel)
1967 (RR Machinists, copper)
1970 (postal)
1974 (bituminous miners)
1977-78 (bituminous miners)
1979 (trucking)
The unions were busy weren't they? There were also many, many smaller localized strikes
more complete list

Booms: The biggest boom years (increased traffic) were usually wartime (1917-18, 1942-46), those immediately preceeding a big labor strike, or locally where there were big mineral rushes.

-major oil booms
1859-75 (Pa, Ohio, NY - with frequent bust cycles)
1901-31 (East Texas)
1915-30 (Texas, Oklahoma)

-major gold & silver rushes
1848-55 (California gold)
1858-61 (Colorado gold)
1879-93 (Colorado silver)
1897-1905 (Klondike/Yukon gold)
1843 -1945 (Michigan copper)
1854-1945 (Arizona copper)

Major timber booms (logging) - These are general dates, local research is needed to be more exact
1860-1900 Northern Pennsylvania
1850-1910 Central Penna.
1880-1920 West Virginia
1880-1940 Pacific Northwest, Northern California
1850-1930 Southern Pine and Cyprus Forests
1835-1900 Michigan
1885-1925 Kentucky, Tennessee
1900-40 North Carolina

There are also other factors to consider, the govenment, and general historical trends:
Major legislation
1824-38 General Survey Bill  - many unbuilt lines were laid out
1850-72 Federal land grants  -
1862 Pacific Railway Act (transcontinental land grants) -
1887 Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) established - beginning of regulation
1917-20 United States Railway Administration - WWI nationalization, elimination of many redundant lines
1926 Railway Labor Act  - Safety improvements and unions strengthened
1938 Rate change regulations for land grant RRs  - Goverment wanted paid back for it's largess in  the 1850s

general trends:
1870-85 narrow gauge 'fever' - build it fast build it cheap to get more grants
1900-25 consolidations and mondernization -
1929-1939 failure of many marginal lines, beginning of the end of passenger service
1950- Interstate highways built, trucks became serious competition
1950-60 dieselization, also the end of US mail contracts which had subsidized passenger service
1966 Federal Railway Administration (FRA) established
1968-76 mergers and more large failures
more info:

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