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Fish Or Cut Bait

The Boy's Toys
by Bob Ciminel


October 06, 2004

I received my first Lionel model train in 1954, the year my sister was born. The day Mom came home from the hospital, I arrived home from school to find a new baby sister, two diesel engines, several freight cars, and a caboose. I immediately suspected that something was up.

It was unfortunate that I received the train the same day I met my sister for the first time. It forced me to make a decision that choice no seven-year-old should have to make; should I go see my new sister or my new train? The choice was simple; I went over and played with the train.

jpg Union Pacific Railroad Big Boy

Union Pacific Railroad "Big Boy" - The locomotive is manufactured by MTH Electric Trains in Columbia, MD.  It is a commemorative edition (only 100 produced) honoring the 50th anniversary of the Train Collectors Association.  The engine is clad in 18-kt gold.
Photo by Bob Ciminel

I still have that Lionel train. It runs well, although the "MagnaTraction" feature that helped Lionel's locomotives stick to the track is gone, proving once again that there is no such thing as a permanent magnet. In the past 50 years, the train has traveled from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Where it will go in the next 50 years is anybody's guess. I will pass it on to my progeny, who will pass it on to their sons (or daughters, I hope). However, at some point, the train will become something that no one knows what to do with and it probably will end up in a garage sale. That's fine; it has had a good life.

In a way, that train is a lot like some of my elderly relatives. It was new and shiny once, but over the years, it has bounced around a lot. Some of its parts aren't worn out. The horn doesn't blow, and it needs to be oiled more frequently. The engines can't pull as many cars as they used too. The train spends most of its time in the attic, except for the holidays, when we bring it out for a few weeks. Then, it goes back into the attic where it's ignored for another year. The attic has become the equivalent of a really bad nursing home.

When I received my train in 1954, America's railroads were making the switch from steam locomotives to diesels. General Motors, General Electric, and the American Locomotive Company were the major players in what was becoming a high-tech industry. As freight trains became longer and heavier, and passenger trains ran faster, the railroads were using two, and sometimes three steam engines on a single train. Each steam engine had a crew of two. When General Motors introduced its 1,500 horsepower diesel locomotive, four or five units could be operated from a single cab with a crew of two. That put 6,000 horsepower on the rails that didn't need coal or water to keep it going. In one fell swoop, the steam locomotive became obsolete. Soon, the romance of chuffing smokestacks and melodic steam whistles were replaced with the monotonous sounds of diesel engines and monotone air horns. That was the price of progress.

jpg Allegheny

Chesapeake & Ohio Railway class H-8 "Allegheny"
Photo by Bob Ciminel

But the steam locomotive did not go out with its tail tucked between its legs. By the early to mid-Forties, steam engine development had reached its zenith. Automatic stokers shoved coal into the fireboxes; boiler pressures were over 300 psi; superheaters and feedwater heaters extracted as much efficiency as they could out of the water going into the boiler. The wheels rode on almost frictionless roller bearings instead of oiled brass. As it ended its life, the steam locomotive became a machine that Casey Jones and his peers would not recognize except for its spinning wheels and the frenetic movement of its driving rods and valve gear.

To capture that pinnacle in steam locomotive development for my son and grandson, I began collecting 1/4-inch scale models of those final few engines that represented the best of the best. I've included photos of two that I would like to share with you. The first is a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway class H-8 "Allegheny" with six sets of driving wheels and weighing just shy of a million pounds. The second is a Union Pacific Railroad "Big Boy," which weighed in at over a million pounds and had sixteen sets of driving wheels. These engines were designed to move tons of freight over the mountains at passenger train speeds. They were only around for about a decade, but what a piece of work they were.

And so, 50 years later, I am still playing with trains. These big engines can only go around a curve that is eight feet in diameter, and the wife does not smile when I lay track in the living room, but I only run them at Christmas. Besides, the dog and the cats like to play with them. One of these days, I've got to grow up and get serious about life. Yep, one of these days I will do just that.


Bob Ciminel ©2004
All Rights Reserved

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