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Sixty-Something: When Toy Electric Trains Were King

T.J. Clemente

One of the author's HO trains. (Photo: T.J. Clemente)

How does one begin to tell his lifelong love affair with electric toy trains? As a boy in the 1950's electric trains were my generation's Xbox. While I was growing up Lionel Trains Company was the king of electric trains. In the early single digit 1900's, Joshua Lionel Cowen, although not the first to create electric trains was the first to market them as toys when he created his "Electric Express." Amazingly enough, by 1906 the system we know today of pre-fabricated connecting "gauge" tracks and small electric transformers were being sold in department stores across the country.

Little boys and girls with their parents were thrilled creating train setups in their homes. By the time I was in grade school, in 1957, Lionel Trains Company was peaking as a company and there were two very popular standard train sizes. As early as I can remember (1956-1957) my brother Elia had the standard "0 Gauge" Lionel trains, with the three rail metal tracks. The setup was in our unfinished attic on a huge plywood table. My dad covered the plywood with this green grass sandpaper and my brother's setup had homes, train stations, and churches. It even had switch tracks for two separate trains that could go on a long or short route. Touching anything on that table was not permitted and most of the time I was too short to reach it anyway. My brother had an orange colored Santa Fe diesel train along with a vintage Baltimore and Ohio steam engine. He would put a tiny tab in the smoke stack of the B&O and as it went around the track the electric light on the nose of that train engine would heat up the tab thus real smoke would come out of that smoke stack! At 6-7-8 years old that was as good as it got. Totally amazing technology! Elia would turn out the lights in the attic and then sometimes I would watch him control two trains on separate tracks simultaneously with just the two train engine lights illuminating the room. It was pure magic.

1960 was our first family Christmas in Pelham and at 9-years-old, I received a pre-fabricated HO size Lionel Train set for Christmas. That set came with already stapled in place tracks, totally landscaped board including a long mountain tunnel and various houses. There was also a "Casey Jones" engineer hat for me to wear. I did not sleep for three days until I was ordered out of the basement. The set came with two engines and about seven cars and a red caboose. I loved that set, it lasted 14 years until while I was in college my mother gave it away. She gave my older brother's "O" set to my Aunt Gloria, who is still alive and I believe still has it in storage after her boys enjoyed it.

Before I move on I must mention that the ultimate HO train set that belonged to my cousin John Barazotto. Built by John and his dad, my uncle Johnny, their setup looked like all of Europe and John had perhaps ten different HO engines. A visit to his basement was like going to the hobby shop. He had log loading terminals and crossing guard-polls going up and down with three Lionel transformers, one just for streetlights and other electric accessories. It was a big deal.

Then times changed, in 1965 Joshua Lionel Cowen passed on and around that time Lionel Trains Company was sold. That same year at Christmas my younger brother Jim was given electric cars for Christmas. To this day he loves exotic cars and somehow has owned a few. However, he just wasn't into electric trains the way Elia and I were. That was the trend so slowly but surely electric trains sets became rare novelty gifts and not the main event gifts at Christmas.

In 1985 I had my first own family Christmas and on an urge bought a cute Christmas antique HO train setup to put around my first daughter's first Christmas tree. Somewhere is a photo of her at 7-weeks-old in a small car seat chair thing in front of the tree with the train visible. Amazing enough that very train lasted 14 years. It came out from storage with the Christmas tree ornaments. It was fun to watch my young teenage girls set up the train. After a divorce and life changes brought me a wonderful life on the East End of Long Island I ordered some HO trains online for my 60th birthday. I always wanted to go to Alaska so I bought, The Lionel HO size, Alaska "McKinley Explorer!" The actual "Explorer" is a famous train that cuts through the Canadian Rockies and connects Alaska and Canada with a tremendous scenic route. The train includes their famous sleeper cars. I wasn't totally thrilled with the mess it made in the basement and after a few days I wisely packed the train set up. Today I finally pulled them out to write this story.

Today's youth have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and other devices. Many fortunate youngsters have Xbox type devices that collectively cost thousands. To them I suppose electric trains are prehistoric devices such are slingshots and peashooters. I am not thrilled watching these new expensive screen games where people and buildings are being blown away in constant never ending wars, but I suppose art imitates real life. Yet I will forever fondly remember the sound and the sight of an electric train coming to life when I switched the transformer to GO!




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