My three-year-old grandson Mikey has a love affair with trains. The little tyke can never get enough of Thomas the Tank Engine, James, Percy, Gordon, and all their other friends in the railway series. He plays with them not only on his train table but also when he eats, sleeps, and travels in the car. He often takes them to daycare even though they must stay in his “cubby” until dismissal. Thomas has chugged along with Mikey from Houston to San Antonio, Pittsburgh, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Last year when his parents were packing for their Christmas trip, Mikey snuck Thomas and a few other train friends into the suitcase while Mommy and Daddy were otherwise occupied.
Here he is taking a nap with the aforementioned contraband. Notice what gets the prime location on his toddler cot.
Arguably his favorite toy, Thomas the Tank Engine is never far from Mikey’s reach. Stepping into Mikey’s play area is like stepping into a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle except that, in this case, it’s “Where’s Thomas” because no matter how large a swath of toys Mikey has created, Thomas is bound to be there somewhere.
One time in November my daughter Leslie took Mikey shopping at Target. Although he already had a standard Thomas train at the time, he discovered a Thomas with a “thing on the wheels” (coupling rod) in the toy department. He was so fired up that he tore the display Thomas from the box, proudly announcing, “I take Thomas home,” and became unhinged when Leslie made him put it back and leave the store. The same scenario took place a few weeks later. Finally, not wishing to ban herself forever from Target (before the data breach debacle), she bought Mikey a Thomas with coupling rod for his December birthday, allowing him to own both “Little Thomas” and “Big Thomas.”
And what can be more utterly satisfying on a day home from daycare than lounging on the couch watching Mickey Mouse on TV with Curious George on your left and Thomas the Tank Engine on your right?
Mikey is not alone in his passion for the little blue steam engine and his buddies at the station. According to analysts, global retail sales on the Thomas brand total about $1 billion annually: “In 2012, Thomas & Friends was the No. 1 license in the preschool toys category in the U.S., according to the NPD group. The unrivaled popularity of the global brand continues with Thomas ranking as the top toy property in the U.K. and also holds the No.1 preschool toy license in Japan and Australia.”
But, Thomas, before you start puffing out your chest and preparing your speech for the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremonies, let’s give credit where credit is due. We boomers know that you owe your fame and fortune to none other than your great granddaddies—Lionel on your father’s side and American Flyer on your mother’s side.
The first railroad in the U.S.—the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O)—officially opened in 1830 with other railroads soon to follow, culminating in the first transcontinental railroad—linking the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific—in 1869. The speed, convenience, and profitability of railroads ensured their dominance of the transportation industry and contributed to America’s status as a world power by the end of the nineteenth century.
Young boys became enamored with the rails, and one young man in particular, Joshua Lionel Cowen, was the first to build an electric toy train, selling it to a store owner as a window display in 1901. By the 1920’s, the Lionel Company had burgeoned into the leader among three American toy train manufacturers, and for a time in the early 1950’s, was the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Still today, more than 100 years after its inception, Lionel stands as the most recognizable brand in model trains. Read more.
As a family of seven, back in the 1950’s, we siblings did not get every toy on our wish list, but you can be sure that we had an electric train surrounding our Christmas tree. The Christmas season was not official in our house until the Lionel train box was brought down from the attic. It was no simple task. With much anticipation, I watched as my parents emptied half of the clothes hanging in their bedroom closet and placed them onto the bed. That allowed room for the ladder to be leaned against the rectangular opening in the ceiling of the closet, which led into the attic. Once the train and Christmas decorations were removed, the process rewound, with the clothes being methodically rehung in the closet.
My dad built a large platform for the train that went nearly from one wall of the living room to the other, and we enhanced it with billboards, houses, churches, a farm, and more. The farm included rubber chickens, sheep, cows, and ducks and a mirror sprayed with artificial snow that served as a lake.
Our Lionel consisted of seven cars. Since there were seven members in our family, I came up with the idea to name each car after a family member. The engine, of course, was my dad—big and stalwart, the head on the crew. My mother was the coal car, always right behind the engine and instrumental in its optimal functioning. Eddie, the oldest of the five children, was the biggest car, the boxcar. Shirley, always a thin child, was the tanker. Billy was the flat car; I was the hopper car; and Sandy, the baby of the family, was the caboose, naturally.
I don’t have any detailed photo of the train, but here are two that show parts of the platform, including a blurred Lionel on the top right.
I took pleasure in watching the train chug along the tracks, whistle blowing and smoke belching from its stack as it crisscrossed through town and country. My two brothers, however, had more mischievous plans in mind. They preferred the thrill of demolition derby—railroad style—by placing rubber cows and sheep on the tracks and gleefully watching the train cars crash into each other in disarray. And setting the transformer controls to maximum speed to observe the train round a curve and careen out of control. Recently my sister told me that my brother Bill once placed my little doll on the track in front of an oncoming train. I don’t recall the incident, but neither Bill nor I doubt its veracity. But I can assure you that I attempted one of three things: #1 I gave Billy a whack and promptly recovered my doll, #2 I engaged in a winner-take-all tug of war until I retrieved the doll from his cootie-laden hands, or #3 I ran off to tattletale to my mother, a surefire way to resolve the matter.
Ah, I envy the childhood friend of “Old Coot,” who set up his train in the attic! This to wrest control of the train from his father, who was himself a railroad aficionado (Merlin Lessler, Old coot not too old for toy trains, Dec. 25, 2013). Read more. If only I could have savored my own attic sanctuary, where I could view my train without the Snidely Whiplashes of the family subjecting my baby dolls to cruel and unusual punishment.
While I was growing up in one Pittsburgh suburb, my husband Frank was growing up in another. We are the same age and thus experienced the same popular toys of the day. His family had not a Lionel but a 1956 3/16″ scale Gilbert American Flyer. With realistic and finest quality components, Lionel and American Flyer trains shared premium status during their heyday. However, although both were popular, American Flyer was always the second-ranked brand to Lionel in terms of market share with a handful of low end brands a distant third. A rivalry between Lionel and American Flyer hobbyists continues today.
Frank’s American Flyer set included not only the train cars but also a coal loader, trestle bridge, railroad station, gas station, Howard Johnson’s, concession stand, houses, churches, farm, nativity scene, and more. Just like my brother and boys everywhere, Frank was not content to sit and watch, getting much more pleasure in creating havoc—like blocking the tracks with logs, trucks, and army men. He would supply the cars with little green army men and have the Americans battle the Germans. And, of course, when a train ran over tinsel, it sparked, simulating an explosion. Perfect for playing war. I guess the “law of war” superseded the instruction in the manual “Don’t drop tinsel across the tracks, as it causes shorts.”
Unlike my father who, regretfully, gave away our Lionel train, Frank’s father kept their American Flyer, thus allowing us to set it up for our own children in 1979 through the mid-eighties. Here is a recent photo of Frank’s American Flyer with the original coal loader and trestle bridge.
Frank’s original manual with suggested track layout
Frank set up the platform in our game room using an old legless pool table with plywood extensions. Although I no longer had my Lionel, I did have some of the miscellany—houses, churches, rubber farm animals—so they went on the platform along with Frank’s accessories.
By the late eighties, the train had once again taken up permanent residence in the attic. But here comes another generation. This year Mikey and our granddaughter Katie were not quite ready for a high quality vintage train, so I bought a used battery operated train—a 1980’s Western RR Line Western Express with tracks and accessories—from a thrift store for $4.00. My sister Sandy found an even bigger Western RR Line train—a Silver Rail Express with tracks and a talking station—at a thrift store. Mikey and Katie became quite smitten with the two sets. Who says girls aren’t interested in trains? Mikey was so captivated with the big engine (ten times the size of Thomas the Tank Engine) that he carried it all over the house, slept with it next to his cot, and kept it on his lap for the entire twenty minute drive to visit relatives.
Frank and I will have to wait and see whether Mikey and Katie will be responsible enough next Christmas to treat their grandpa’s old American Flyer appropriately. If so, it will come back out and find a home on the old pool table platform for a third generation. What we will do with Mikey’s baby brother Andrew is another story. And who knows? We have no intention of selling it, so I’m thinking we’ll just pass it on to a fourth generation in another 25 years or so.
If you’re ever in the Pittsburgh area, the Carnegie Science Center exhibits an exceptional miniature railroad and village all year long except in September and October, when it closes for renovations. It features not only multiple trains but also hundreds of realistic animated scenes from the 1880’s to the 1930’s, cars, trucks, aircraft, horse-drawn vehicles, the Monongahela Incline, a packed house at the old Forbes Field, and more.
For the past several years, the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh has also displayed a Garden Railroad with three trains running on separate tracks around cities, farmland, and live landscapes. This year’s display features hundreds of fanciful dinosaurs that have descended upon the Phipps Prehistoric Park. It also includes interactive sights where patrons can push a button to make a volcano erupt or a helicopter take off.
Did you have a Lionel or American Flyer train as a child? Any particular fond memories? Were they resonant enough to inspire you to become a model railroad hobbyist in your adulthood?
If I have stirred some nostalgia in you fellow boomers, and you’re looking for more, check out my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles published by eLectio Publishing. It is a fictitious memoir based on my experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in the early sixties.
Step into your virtual time machine and set the controls for 1961. Then sit back, put your feet up, and relax as you join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s.
Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages. The paperback and e-book are available here:
See you later, alligators!