They've been working on the railroad

Jump to navigation Jump to search

They've been working on the railroad

Making and operating steam locomotives that huff and puff just like the real thing is a rapidly growing hobby.

By Jack B. Kemmerer

Industrial Progress, Goodyear, Volume 9, Number 1

This 15-inch track at a private layout handles the big three-inch-scale models. (Looks real, doesn't it? But note the relative size of the "switchman's" hand.)

Ever ride an "iron pony"?

Visit the Los Angeles area some weekend and you can ride one -- for free. The ponies -- old-fashioned steam locomotives to the uninitiated -- are stabled at Griffith Park's Traveltown, where, on a typical weekend, you'll find members of the Los Angeles Live Steamers Club operating as many as 100 different steam engines, and offering free rides to youngsters and young-at-heart adults.

Don't expect to find full-size locomotives, though. These are scale models, accurate to the tiniest fraction of an inch, of the steam engines that made railroad history not so many years ago -- engines that were the inspiration for such Americana as "Casey Jones" and the "Wabash Cannonball."

In this land of lilliputian locomotives you'll find a wide variety of vintages, shapes and sizes. The smallest practical live steamers are built to 1/4-inch scale and operate on ordinary O-gauge track. Jumping several popular sizes in-between, the biggest models are the 3-inch scale jobs that run on 15-inch track; a live-steam model locomotive in this scale is about 26 feet long, and can cost as much as $35,000.

Mark Piper, retired city employee, pretties up his 1-1/2 inch scale American engine, car and caboose. He built the whole thing himself, with more than 5,000 hours of patient work.

A price tag like that might make even a millionaire pause, but railroad buffs are railroad buffs; and the tiny tools appeal to a broad cross-section of men who remember the days when there was smoke up front, clickety-clack below, and romance on the rails.

Models are precise scale-downs from actual blueprints of the original life-size engines; and everything works, from a real coal fire in the firebox -- to tiny steam gauges on the boiler -- to throttle and brake levers in the cab.

Live-steam buffs range from blue-collar workers to the starchiest business and professional people. The late Walt Disney was a member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, and musician-conductor David Rose is an ardent fan who regularly runs his own engines.

Controls in the cab of a 1-1/2 inch Northern. They're just like those in the parent engine, and all play some part in operating the model. The man's hand is on the throttle.

You don't even have to be mechanically-minded to join in the fun, though it helps to be. Several companies make standard models that can be bought in kit form, and even at various stages of completion. Take, for example, the Hawaiian Plantation Engine, which runs on 7-1/2 inch track. For $300, you can buy rough castings of its parts; for $900 a kit of finished parts ready to assemble -- or for $1300 the locomotive all put together and ready to roll.

Whether it's nostalgia, the satisfaction of building an intricate piece of machinery, the thrill of hearing the roar of steam when the safety valves pop, or a combination of these and other reasons, the live-steam hobby is gaining new fans every year. Some 30 clubs are already active in this country, and there's even an association, the International Brotherhood of Live Steamers, with which most of these clubs are affiliated.

With all these people working on the railroad and all the talk about steam automobiles, who knows -- it could be that steam is on its way back!

A 1-1/2 inch-scale engine pulls a load of youngsters. The Los Angeles Live Steamers Club maintains its own layout, with tow main tracks and rails designed to accommodate several different gauges.


Editor's note: This copy of "Industrial Progress" was mailed to Friend Box Company, attention Henry A. Vachon, husband of Cecile.

HA Vacho Friend Box Corp.jpg

Richard Symmes wrote:

A "Miss Vachon" worked at the Friend's Yankee Shop, and also ran the locomotive at Friend's Joy Town Railroad at the Topsfield, Mass. fairgrounds in the 1950s. There are pictures of her doing so.

Engineer Vachon with Joy Town Railroad Hudson. Miss Vachon worked at the Friend's Yankee Shop, and also ran the locomotive at Friend's Joy Town Railroad at the Topsfield, Mass. fairgrounds in the 1950s. Photo by A.W. Leggett.