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Trains Are Back!

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, November 3, 2011

The whir of wheels on a track, the call of the trains at the station, and the whistle….all part of the toy train sets that were the pride and joy of kids a half century ago.  

The sight of a toy train chugging around a Christmas tree is very much a part of Americana, and is what you'll first see when you enter the museum. 

Near the tree are a dozen intricate, solid brass model trains ...right next to a very early Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse toy train set.  Museum Director Paul Hammond says the museum is showing off miniatures never displayed before.

HAMMOND: "What we're trying to do is get some of this stuff out, show it off and tell a story at the same time.  In this case we're able to show a distinction as we tell that story."

Toy Trains vs. Model Trains

The distinction is: model trains are intended to be exact replicas of the real thing; toy trains are a little stubbier and more cartoonish.  The museum's Exhibit Director, Kendra Dillard says the toy trains had to fit in a smaller space.

DILLARD: "In order to make the turns around a smaller track in an oval or a circle, they had to shrink them down."

Both toys and models are believed to have been made by hand starting in the 1840's.   

DILLARD: " The first miniature trains were made as models to show people what they could have in their town if they had the railroad come there."

Hammond says early on, there were professionally-produced… and privately produced models.

HAMMOND: "We've got great even 19th century scale models here where someone did it in their home machine shop.

El Gobernador

One of those old machine shop models is the "El Gobernador", a scale model of a real train built right here in Sacramento.  The real train was the biggest locomotive in the world in its day, but it had a very big problem.

HAMMOND:  "What turned out to be its flaw, is it basically couldn't keep up with its fuel needs. The engine required more fuel than anyone could shovel in quickly enough. So,it was sort of ahead of its time. "

Forty years later, mechanical stokers and oil could feed the life-sized El Gobernador.  Around the same time the tiny trains started to come with  grooved wheels… and tracks.  Forty years after that, electricity changed everything.

Lucky Lionel

In the 1920's, Lionel sort of lucked into the electric train market.  Hammond says the company sold trains to shopkeepers for use in storefront displays. 

HAMMOND: "Their intent is they sell them to shopkeepers so that shopkeepers can have motion in their front windows.  That's unusual.  The idea is you're going to put in it whatever it is you sell in your store and have it go around in circles for people to notice.   Except the people notice the thing, not whatever's in it.  So Lionel quickly figures out it's on to something and it markets directly to people to sell. "

Lionel dominated the toy train market until World War II, but then the United States needed metal for airplanes and Lionel turned to cardboard and wood…a model of which can be seen upstairs.

After the war, mass production of brass model trains became part of the new economic engine of Japan.   

HAMMOND: "Japan is rebuilding and retooling and it starts to craft these very exacting models, so they're a post-war phenomenon. 

Toy trains, however, lost much of their popularity as real-life railroading declined.  There were some product lines that managed to soldier on.  The museum features a Plasticville exhibit from that time.

The Comeback

But toy trains are now back and in a big way. Thomas the Tank Engine and Chuggington are immensely popular for boys and girls. 

The Thomas table has a spot in the middle where toddlers can stand up and watch through glass as the trains whiz by. 

For all of the hundreds of trains the museum has, the search for more trains never ends…and right now the prime target is a 1950's Lionel set designed for girls.

DILLARD:"They took the black metal trains and painted them in pastel colors.  The engine was pink, the flat car was yellow and,it was a big marketing flop because the girls wanted the same thing the boys had and so those to find today are very rare."

Maybe that'll be in the next exhibit.  This one chugs along until next September.

Click here for a link to the museum.

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