(Welcome back to Thebeerchaser. If you are seeing this post through an e-mail, please visit the blog by clicking on the title above to see all of the photos and so the narrative is not clipped or shortened.)
In several previous Beerchaser posts, about my wonderful Dad, I mentioned the Lionel Trains that he used to acquire in the 1950’s from his good friend who managed the Toy Department in Cincinnati’s Shilitos Department Stores.
Dad built large train tables in our basement where we had expansive layouts to display the trains and run them to our hearts’ content. We spent hours in the basement doing that – when it was not flooded with sewage because of a municipal infrastructure flaw.
I chronicled this part of the story in this same post including FDW’s dramatic appearance in front of the City of Madeira City Council. That’s when he testified – walking up front carrying a large bag which he unveiled to reveal a bucket of raw sewage which filled the Council Room with pungent odors for the rest of the meeting.
The family has kept these trains throughout the sixty years since we last had them set up in Ohio. They have been stored and occasionally admired and moved across the country. Thanks to my brother-in-law, Dave Booher, who inventoried them, took photos of many of them and reminded me that he and his wife are paying storage fees for them……
Dave Booher – outstanding brother-in-law who has absorbed storage fees for twenty + years……..
I’ll devote this post to the Lionel trains including photos of those beloved “toys!” I say “toys”, because Dad used to buy them throughout the year and save them for Christmas Day when we would always get at least one new engine and the cars that came with it in addition to accessories such as a coal loader or water tower and infrastructure such as bridges and switches.
Being too young to fully appreciate the craftsmanship in these authentic replicas of the real thing, we were always more interested in presents such as baseball bats, bicycles, etc. As we got older, however, we realized that when we opened these wrapped trains, that FDWs’ eyes would light up like a kid’s on Christmas morning…. As it states on the Lionel Corporation website:
“Soon Dads too were encouraged to join Youngsters in model train enthusiasm, to further father-son bonding. With growing prosperity, Lionel’s layouts cropped up in more living rooms, especially at Christmas.”
A Little History
(Note: External photo attribution is at the end of the post. All of the pictures in this post of actual trains and accessories are from those we still have in storage.)
Over a century of craftsmanship…..*1
Lionel was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen who founded Lionel Manufacturing Company in the heart of New York City in 1900.
“During Lionel’s early days, Americans were captivated by the railroads and awed by electricity, still a rarity in many homes. Lionel’s first trains were powered by wet-cell (acid-filled!) batteries, soon replaced by the 110-volt electric transformer. By 1906, with the introduction of preassembled track and a selection of engines and cars, the Lionel we know today was already taking shape.”
The history of the Lionel Corporation could be a great PBS documentary and it thrived through the early to mid-20th century, but after 1970, is filled with corporate reorganizations, lawsuits for copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation and in 2006, Lionel filed for bankruptcy from which it emerged in 2008.
For example, it became a holding company of General Mills in 1970:
“….due to General Mills’ cost-cutting measures, production of Lionel-branded toy and model trains returned to profitability, but sometimes at the expense of quality. Detail was often sacrificed, and most of the remaining metal parts were replaced with molded plastic….
The year 1982 brought General Mills’ poorly received move of train production from the United States to Mexico. Some Lionel fans were angry simply because the trains had been made in the United States for more than 80 years, while others criticized the quality of the Mexican-produced trains. Lionel production returned to the United States by 1984.”
One wonders if it learned from past errors, however, as it outsourced its manufacturing to China and Korea in 2001 and Viet Nam in 2021.
And our O-gauge trains were not cheap plastic. They were solid and built to last – diecast with a metal alloy that was a combination of recycled aluminum, zinc and magnesium. There was no lead and they didn’t rust. In 1973, Lionel started producing the smaller HO gauge and plastic train products.
Engines and Trolleys
The engines and self-contained units such as trolleys were the highlights. The detail and quality made these 1950’s “toys” into collectors’ items. The engines would whistle and blow their horns and the steam engine shown in the bottom slide below would actually produce smoke.
Accessories and Infrastructure
The accessories were always fun because they gave a sense of realism to the layout that would not be attained by just watching the trains go around the track. A perfect example was the barrel loader:
“The Barrel Loader No. 362 was introduced in 1952 (when Thebeerchaser was four years old….!) and was available until 1957. This was another of those vibrating accessories. In this case, a vibrator placed beneath the metal ramp would, when activated, move the barrels up the ramp where they would be loaded into a car waiting on the track.
Another example was the Culvert Loader which was more sophisticated:
“An optical beam senses when a culvert gondola is present, automatically triggering the hazard lights on top of the conveyor, followed three seconds later by the light in the watch tower!.”
And my final example – the Icing Station. As Lionel stated:
“Keeping perishable freight cool was a tough job before the days of mechanical refrigeration. Watch as the figure pushes the ice cubes from the chute down to the awaiting Ice car (sold separately). Position the Ice car at the platform and load it up.”
The train layout was always enhanced with the authentic neon (cardboard) signs and items such as train stations, oil derricks, water towers and bridges.
Compare the quality and durability of the tracks, switches and infrastructure with what is typically available today.
Box Cars, etc.
We would load up the sturdy engines with box cars, cattle cars and specialty cars that carried everything from logs, cattle and electric transformers to search lights, airplanes and boats.
“….The newest feature on the 3520 Rotating Searchlight Car is a remote-control operated on-off switch. This switch allows the operator to activate Lionel’s ‘Vibro-motor’ which in turn begins rotating the searchlight lens.”
And what better way to end the photos of our partial train inventory than with a caboose!
“The 6417 caboose is a nice caboose with good detail. Standard features include: painted bodies and lettering, illumination, bar-end trucks with a single operating coupler, plastic end railing detail on each end plus plastic brake-wheels and roof ladders.”
Now I suppose we, at one time as many collectors, thought, “We’ll save these trains because they keep getting more valuable and we’ll sell them for thousands of dollars after we no longer want them.”
Well, like many collectables such as Hummels, cameras, Beanie Babies and old records (I used to have a slew of my Dad’s old 78 RPMS from the Great Band Era.…), just because something is old doesn’t mean it keeps appreciating or even retains its value.
For example, the caboose shown above is listed on e-bay from $18.94 to $55. The impressive engine shown at the start of the post, which was only manufactured for two years, (1956-8) would go for around $450. And our family trains got a lot of wear which decreases their value. According to one collectors’ resource:
“Buyers truly want all-original trains that have never been tampered with. Once the originality has been compromised, prices take a steep turn downward from their original counterparts. Pricing is always subjective among buyers and sellers. Today’s train market is increasingly becoming a buyer’s market due to that supply and demand.”
That said, I’m not sure that we could get rid of our trains anyway and maybe we’ll let our kids have that honor…… They made FDW and us happy for many years and now just looking at them, we know that although the company changed hands many times, the name is still identified with quality.
And finally we can take comfort in the fact that according to Wikipedia:
“In 2006, the Lionel electric train was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, along with the Easy-Bake Oven. It was the first time an electric toy had ever been inducted.”
External Photo Attribution
*1 Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lionel-Logo.png) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Author: Lionel, LLC – 17 July 2019.
*2 Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lionel_Corporation_Logo.jpg) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Author: Zachary578 – 17 February 2015.
*3 Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_first_three_versions_of_the_famous_Easy-Bake_oven.jpg) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Author: Bradross63 – 26 February 2015.
As the granddaughter of a Union Pacific chief engineer and also the owner of a little N gauge set up, I thoroughly enjoyed this post…Under separate cover I will forward to you three of my art collages from a show in Utah where the gallery was divided between art and a model railroad setup. Who says you can’t have both?
Trains are magic, no matter how old we are…thanks for bringing some magic on an otherwise tragic weekend…
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Thanks Molly. Every time you make a comment I learn something new about you incredible life and background. And the collages are wonderful.
I’ve still got my American Flyer S gauge train in the original box, 60 years old? The Legos came either the Christmas before or after, and charted my career in Architecture. If it had been the reverse order I might have been an engineer instead. The box is pretty worn, but the engine and cars are still in pretty good shape. And yes, I still have the Legos, as well as dozens of N gauge trains 🤭
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And a great career those Legos launched although it’s not too late to work for the railroads as a second career. I think there are millions of boomers like us who have this stuff in the attic or storage.
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I unfortunately wasn’t exposed to trains as a kid but even I know the Lionel. My nephew here in Germany loves trains and is quite good at setting up the tracks. I’m sure he’d be fascinated with your collection.
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