Model railroading is back on track

Interest in hobby resurges for both operators and collectors

- story and photos by Leigh Elmore

For several generations of young boys in the 20th century Christmas morning often meant that a shiny new Lionel or American Flyer electric train would be chugging around the tree when they awoke to inspect their presents. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s it seemed as if playing with electric trains was as universal among youngsters as playing baseball in the vacant lot down the street. It was just something you did with your friends.

Model train display at Union Station depicts an early 20th century Kansas City.

Virtually every community in America had a connection to a railroad. Thus, the hobby of model railroading grew as a reflection of the country's dependence on railroads to build the economy. Eventually, model railroading grew into one of the most popular hobbies ever.

A little history

The idea of collecting miniature railroads, however, did not start in America. Barry Coulter, a master model railroader from Framingham, IL, noted on his website (O-gauge.com) that German crafters in the 1830s made the very first miniature trains. These could be pushed along a track. They were made by pouring molten brass or tin into a mold, much like the popular tin soldiers were made. Hand-carved wooden fittings were fastened to the metal bases, creating a complete toy train. They were usually very fragile and contained no moving parts. 

A standard gauge toy train rounds the bend at the Union Station Model Railroading Experience in Kansas City. As a hobby, model railroading is on the upswing.

The French, who were master tinsmiths, were responsible for making elaborately decorated toy trains with ornate designs, tall chimneys and spidery spoked wheels, Coulter stated. "They were gay and fanciful, but did not run on rails. 

Instead, they were pushed along the floor. Paint does not stick well to tin, and consequently, these early French beauties are rarely preserved with their original decorations.

"England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and toymakers there took model train making seriously," said Coulter. "Sir Henry Wood is credited with building one of the first steam powered toys." The "Dribblers" and "Piddlers" were nicknamed because of the tell-tail trail of water left behind from the steam cylinders.

But it was the advent of electricity in the home that enabled toymakers to finally create practical self-propelled toy trains for home use.

Lionel, established in the early 1900s by Joshua Lionel Cohen, produced the most legendary trains of all. The company began by making small electric motors to power electric trains, but shortly after World War I, became the biggest name in model train making. "One reason for such success was that Lionel trains were more realistic than all the others, with powerful motors and rugged construction," Coulter said. "They became the American standard of excellence for judging toy train manufacturers. In addition, Lionel painted their trains in bright, exciting colors, which stimulated buyers and collectors of all ages." 

American Flyer burst into the model train market with larger and cheaper trains during the 1920s. Their elaborately decorated passenger trains were a huge success. The aggressive Lionel, however, outshined again by offering the American public more impressive models. American Flyer succumbed to Lionel in 1967.

After World War II, model trains became more detailed and functional. These are highly prized by collectors who actually want to run their trains. Men and boys gather today to set up layouts so elaborate and realistic that viewers are enchanted by these trains in action. 
"Whether we collect trains or not, the words Lionel and American Flyer tug at our hearts as we remember days gone by.  For many, "the love of it all" first began – under the Christmas tree at home," Coulter said.

An O-gauge passenger train barrels by on the straightaway


The hobby today

One such hobbyist is Ted Tschirhart of Kansas City, who today is president of the Union Station Model Railroad Society, and acts as sort of the foreman for the group of volunteers who operate the elaborate model railroad layouts at Kansas City's Union Station.

"I got my first train for Christmas in 1940," Tschirhart said. "It was a wooden train that you pushed. The next year I got my first American Flyer electric set. My mother said that I'd probably grow out of it someday. Well, I'm still waiting for that," he grinned.

Lionel and American Flyer developed marketing strategies aimed at both children and parents. But it was probably the elaborate department store window displays of working model train layouts that sealed the deal for many eventual model railroaders. Seeing the trains in action in realistic layouts can be captivating to young minds.

The roundhouse display at Union Station.

Of course, the kids who received those trains eventually grew up, learned to drive and their childhood train sets were packed away in attics and basements. By the 1970s, many felt that the hobby went into a decline. The rise of computer and video games thereafter simply pushed the hobby into the corner as sort of a curiosity for many.

An online discussion at www.trainboard.com drew this affirmation of model railroading in the context of 21st century interests: "Yes, there are a lot of things competing for the attention of future modelers out there. However, there is a core group of people that simply like trains and want to be involved with them. Lets face it; most of us are simply drawn to trains. It's in our blood and there's no reason to not believe that is still the case for the next people to enter the hobby. For those that truly have that interest there is no video game replacement for a day trackside or time running a layout. Those in that group may need a gentle nudge into the hobby, but I believe that many of them will keep a long-term interest."

As the forum poster alluded, a devoted core kept the hobby alive and a variety of magazines such as Model Railroader, O-Gauge Railroading, Classic Toy Trains and others provided monthly looks at incredible realistic layouts and kept interest in the hobby alive nationally.

And in time, the computer began to work in favor of model railroad hobbyists as websites devoted to railroad history and specific modeling categories began popping up. The major hobbyist magazines have extensive websites and online archives these days. And today social media plays a big role in providing a conduit for hobbyists to communicate with each other easily.

Volunteers at Union Station's Model Railroading Experience. (from left, Bob Ryan, John Losh, Dave Taylor, Ted Tschirhart and Louis Seibel)

John Losh, a recent Union Station volunteer, said members of his family worked for the Burlington Northern Railroad and he picked up his interest in real and model railroads from them. He, in turn passes on his enthusiasm through a blog (legaciesontherails.wordpress.com).
"Today you can learn a lot about model railroading by going to YouTube.com. People relate their personal experiences and actually show what they are doing to a huge audience. That was never possible before the personal computer and it has really helped the hobby gain new enthusiasts," Losh said.

"I see model railroading getting stronger today," said Louis Seibel, a volunteer at Union Station's Model Railroad Experience. Seibel noted that in the Kansas City area alone there are 17 active model railroading clubs. "We saw a dip in the hobby for a while a few years back, but it has come back," he said. "Social media really helps. This is a truly international hobby now and we are communicating with people all over the world."

In last month's issue of Discover Vintage America there were three advertisements for model train shows in the region: Lawrence, KS, Springdale, AR and Kansas City, MO. At the upcoming Mid-America Train and Toy Show, set for March 8 in Kansas City, promoter Sherry Stitch said there would be at least 200 dealer tables. She and her husband, Steve, hold the show three times a year, and each time they draw a large crowd of model railroaders.

Hundreds of dealers will attend the upcoming Mid-America Train and Toy Show, March 8 in Kansas City. A scene from a previous show. (photo courtesy Sherry Stitch)

The Stitches purchased the rights to the Mid-America show in 1996 from long-time promoter Lee Hanson, "a Lionel guy," who operated the show for many years previously at the Jack Reardon Center in Kansas City, KS.

"The various model train shows attract collectors," said Seibel. "Many come to the show looking for parts and specific older engines from the 1940s, '50s and '60s," he said. Train shows are also places to meet fellow hobbyists and compare notes.
Bob Ryan, a Union Station volunteer, offered, "I attend a lot of shows and I can say that kids are still into trains."

That's probably a universal sentiment. And judging from the maturity of the guys who run the model trains at Union Station, the kids who first got their trains 50 and 60 years ago have been drawn back to it again.

A standard guage layout at Union Station

 

The Model Railroad Experience

The Model Railroad Experience at Union Station in Kansas City is an impressive array of every type of toy train available today. It encompasses 8,000 square feet of model trains ranging from a layout of tiny N-scale trains to the large G-gauge or garden scale designed to run indoors and out. There are fully six entire layouts and one central "mega-layout."

Ted Tschirhart, president of the Union Station Model Railroad Society, is proud of the fact that the display offers a look at every gauge available to hobbyists today. "We have six sizes of trains running on the same layout. I don't know of another venue that can say that."

An HO layout portrays an early 20th century town.

Today's Model Railroad Experience grew from more humble beginnings as a modular 40'x70' layout open only over the Christmas holidays in 1999. The volunteer group subsequently inherited several train layouts from the Kanas City Museum and five years ago moved to its permanent location at the far end of the North Waiting Room.

In addition to the layouts that are displayed year-round, the Union Station Kansas City Model Railroad Society also constructs a 60' x 64' G-gauge, 3 Rail O-gauge layout, S-gauge, HO-scale and Standard-gauge layout in the Grand Hall during the winter holiday season. This layout is generally on display for about three months, and includes more than 40 trains running simultaneously.

"The weekend before Christmas, 44,000 people visited Union Station and most of them got a look at our model railroads," Seibel said. "I think we hooked a few kids in the process."

And speaking of kids, the Model Railroad Experience is a good place for kids to come and play on a mother's day out. There is a special play area for children with toys and books relating to railroading, not to mention the magic they find in the model layouts themselves.

The volunteers staff the display seven days a week, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sundays. The society meets at 6 p.m. the third Monday of every month at the station.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com


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