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Many people use pre-cut cork roadbed, sometimes covered with a thin layer of ballast stone (fine sand, really).
If you're using the Woodland Scenics ballast products, it's actually made from dyed crushed walnut shells, hence its lightness. There are other suppliers that actually offer real crushed rock products for model railroad ballast. You generally wouldn't actually use sand though, it'd be the wrong colour.

However you can use real sand or dirt for scenery base and dirt roads. It just needs to be sifted so you only use the finer particles, and most people recommend actually baking it in the oven before using it to dry and sterilize it.
 

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I think I'd want more passenger cars. I don't know what type of goods were transported in this area then but was it common to mix cars that carry resources such as lumber and passenger cars together? So I'd like to be a little historyically accurate but I realize I can't be entirely. Oh also, I'm assuming I'd want a NYC train, I think in my research some of the lines here around Buffalo, Niagara, Lockport, Lewiston, were run by NYC and bought out later on.
I'm not sure this part of your question got answered. I can't answer for your specific RR or geographical location but the general answer about mixing freight and passenger cars in one train is yes, there were "mixed" trains.

I think learning the history of railroading in the area you want to model is a very fun part of this hobby. Expand your research to include the local industries and agriculture and the trains will be there too.

A lot of folks end up modeling a fictitious but realistic RR based on one or more real rail roads. That way, you can relax about the potential inaccuracies and rewrite history a little bit if need be.
 
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