©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
As some of you already know, I had been conditioned from birth with respect to railroads, and trains, full-size and otherwise. My father had scale model trains before he had kids. He had started with Lionel—still the brand that more people know than any other—and traded that larger O Gauge size for HO Scale trains. There was a small layout in the third-floor walkup apartment in Jersey City, in a room off to the side of the main rooms. I don't remember too much about it then.
During 1969, we had moved to the suburbs. I missed the city and I really missed being across the street from trackage of the Pennsylvania Railroad, already merged into the ill-fated Penn Central Railroad. Trains pulled in and out of the Harismus Cove yard along the Hudson River at all times of the day and night. My father's small train layout didn't have that level of activity: it was basically two loops of track on which two trains could be run, plus some small town scenery and a few spurs for switching freight cars. That layout came with us and was installed in the basement. At some point it had been expanded from four by six feet to the "standard" four by eight feet in size.
My brother and I couldn't keep our hands off it. That didn't mean simply running the trains, which was easy. There were Matchbox cars on the layout, which nominally matched the size of the trains and buildings. With a bit of effort I could take them off the layout and we could have drag races and play other games, mostly on the floor of the living room. It wasn't long before the model people and animals were moved from to, let us say, unusual positions around the "town." We put a couple of farm animals on line for the picture show at the Paramount Theatre, for example.
My father was not terribly pleased with this turn of events. I think the last straw was when we inadvertently decapitated a "passenger" which had been innocently waiting at the station for the next train. (He just got a little too close. Remember, kids, railroad tracks are dangerous.) The layout was officially placed off limits to us, which, since we were kids, meant that we just had to make sure that we weren't caught. I know I certainly continued to run trains, remembering to stop them precisely where they were before I started.
And being told not to play with them only increased my passion for trains. Even the Sears Wish Book still had three pages of trains listed, mostly sets but some accessories too. There were trips to department stores and five-and-tens: Two Guys, Korvettes, Woolworth's, Grants, all had some amount of model trains. All this did was make me more frustrated—which was the point of retail marketing, of course. When at these stores, my father almost always bought something for the train collection—his collection, that is. When I asked about it, I was given a standard answer: "Christmas is coming."
When you're a small child, the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas can be an eternity... never mind from the end of the summer. The trips to department stores for "Back to School" sales were agonizing—not only did I end up with Toughskins pants from Sears, in plaid patterns that should not have been allowed to exist, but we didn't even stop to look at the toys and trains on those shopping trips. Christmas was coming. Well, at least in 1969 it didn't start coming before Halloween.
And then... the day arrived. My parents were reasonable but generous with their holiday gifts. Although they always included socks and underwear. Fortunately, I tended to find those gifts first, or at least my parents made sure that they were in my sight. There were toys, often from the Sears Wish Book. (Mail order saved time, then as now.) Most of them have been lost to the Sea of Faded Memories. But my brother and I received a Sears Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops—I don't recall who got which. The plastic dinosaur models moved backward and forward, jaws snapping, eyes flashing red. (Batteries not included.)
Then there was the big surprise, somehow saved for the end of the gift giving.
A train set for my brother.
And a train set for me.
Mine was from the Atlas Tool Company of Hillside, New Jersey, not far from where we lived. It was enclosed in a cardboard box which had on the front a painted depiction of what the train set might have looked like in real life. Inside was a hard plastic insert which held small set of track, a modest power pack that made the train run, enough wire to connect the power pack to the track, and of course the train itself.
It was not, however, in the size my father had. Instead of his HO Scale 1:87 proportion, it was in N Scale, 1:160 proportion, or about half as large in all dimensions, height, weight and length. The track, representing American prototype 4 feet 8 ½ inches wide, was only nine millimeters across, instead of the sixteen and a half millimeters used for HO. It was an interesting choice considering my age, never mind that my brother was younger. Anyone who still had a single digit age was much more likely to get a Lionel O Gauge train set which was twice the size of HO and easier for young children to handle.
N Scale it was, however.
I processed all of this in about a millisecond and then focused on the train. It was a four piece set, starting from the back with a caboose that had only a number on it, not a railroad name. There was a gondola which was lettered for the Norfolk Southern that existed at the time (later there would be a far larger Norfolk Southern Railway, but no one knew this yet). There was a boxcar painted "Therm Ice / Dry Ice" in silver with blue and red lettering.
And then there was the engine. It was a little thing, even for N Scale, a model of a small steam locomotive. By the nomenclature assigned to steam locomotives, it was an 0-6-0, meaning zero pilot wheels, six driving wheels, and zero trailing wheels. It was also a "tank engine" which meant that the fuel and water needed to make it run were carried with the locomotive and not in a tender behind the engine.
All in black with metal wheels, it only had a number painted on it: 147.
I couldn't wait to run it.
But I had to.
N Scale, like its bigger brother HO Scale, was not just something you could set up on a carpet, like the all plastic Child Guidance Railroad I had when I was an even younger child in Jersey City. That toy had a set of sectional track on which the train was just pushed around. "Real" model railroad equipment had motors and gears that would attract dirt, dust, pet hair, or carpet fibers. Any of these would quickly render a locomotive useless. So without someplace off the floor to assemble the nickel-silver track, the set had to sit in the box.
Patience, again? Yes.
I knew about model railroad magazines and my father started bringing them home. The two largest were, in that order, Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. The December 1969 issue of the latter had a story about how to work with an N Scale layout base made by a company called Life-Like and constructed of Styrofoam, making it "more realistic". How realistic a 28 inch by 35 inch layout with a twice-around loop of minimum radius curves was not yet a question I had. Why I couldn't find the astronomical fifteen dollars (plus tax) for this "MiNibase" as it was called was a more immediate question. Well, I didn't have enough track anyway. Besides, despite the photos accompanying the article, you could not run more than one train at a time on this layout, which would sideline my brother's train set.
I haven't mentioned that other train set yet; it was marketed by Associated Hobby Manufacturers of Philadelphia but was made by a company called Lima in Italy. It consisted of a Santa Fe diesel locomotive, an Illinois Central orange boxcar, a Southern Railway silver gondola, a flat car with two automobiles permanently attached to it, another flat car with two early shipping containers attached to it, and a brown Santa Fe caboose. My brother was never into trains as much as I was; years later I would not be into Dungeons and Dragons as he was so it all evened out.
The track from both of these sets, plus a little extra, were used to construct our first N Scale layout. It was set up on a thin piece of plywood about three by four feet in dimension or so, mounted on one by three inch legs that were no more than eighteen inches high. Life-Like, the same company that made the "MiNibase" also had a line of scenery products, one of which was a "grass mat." This was simply a roll of thick green paper which had sawdust, dyed golf course green, glued to one side. My father attached the grass mat to the entire top of the piece of plywood, and there was the "scenery." This actually was a bit of an advance from what had come before, though there was little doubt that Mother Nature used more than a single green in her color palette. It certainly made setting up a layout easier.
The finished plan was simple enough: the oval of track from my brother's train set was on the inside and the oval of track from my train set, plus a few extra pieces of straight track, was on the outside. Small "track nails" went through holes pre-drilled into the track sections and were tapped into the plywood. Wires went from the "terminal tracks" to the two power packs and we were in business. All of this was put in the back corner of my father's "office," the long, narrow spare room which was itself tucked into the back corner of the house behind the garage.
There would be more and more added to this layout over time. The first purchase I recall making with my own money was a pair of boxcars painted for "National Dairy Despatch" and "Blatz Old Heidelberg Beer" at the famous Model Railroad Equipment Corporation in Midtown Manhattan. (Years later, in a later incarnation of a train store in that same location, I would meet a rather famous model railroader named Rod Stewart, who I understand also worked in the music business.) Model structures, again from Life-Like and also from Bachmann and Aurora, were placed on the layout to portray a town. There were scenic accessories like N Scale automobiles, utility poles, street signs, railroad crossing signals and gates, and even 1/160th actual size "people."
N Scale was in a rapid growth phase during this time, having simmered for a while in the mid-1960s and then exploding in popularity and variety in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As it grew, it matured. The 147, like nearly all model locomotives in the scale at the time, ran at what my father's best friend described as "Two speeds: Stop and Fast." The little steamer raced around the oval at something like 200 scale miles per hour, and my brother's Santa Fe diesel wasn't much slower. It took a while, but the newer locomotives operated at paces more like their prototypes and less like aircraft. Rolling stock also became more like the real thing. As the hobby magazines presented more and more ideas on what could be done with model trains, I became more and more frustrated with how "small" the layout in my father's office looked. A few years later, I don't remember when, I "graduated" to a more standard height four by six foot area for my N Scale, which, let us say, turned out to be more than I could handle. I wouldn't have a layout that large again until I was a grown-up, no longer living at my parents' house.
Over the course of the next fifty (!) years, the piece of plywood that was once the base of the first N Scale layout unceremoniously became the door to the crawl space underneath the concrete block back porch at my parents house, my brother moved away from model trains completely, and in a reverse of the previous generation, I chose HO Scale for my children when they became old enough to want to "play with" my N Scale trains. Of the original four-piece train set, the two freight cars survived, the caboose was lost somewhere or other, and the original 147 finally stopped running years after it was first included in the set. There were plenty of copies of this little steam locomotive made, and now there are two of them in my accumulation, both in running condition, available for a memory-filled trip down the track.