Adventures of a Model Train Room Volunteer

Tom Walter

One of the perks of being a Model Train Room Volunteer is unpacking donations of trains and model railway structures that are donated to Moore Museum. Every time a donation shows up, it’s like Christmas.

Over the last 8 years, donations have come in many different forms and they are all very much appreciated. Some of the trains arrive in their original boxes in like-new condition. More often though, they come in dusty old boxes that have been stored in an attic for decades.  No problem!  Even if the models are incomplete or broken, they can provide a valuable source of inspiration for further development of the train room.

photo of rocket gantry

Here’s an example -- In the summer of 2019, the museum received a call about a possible donation of 6 boxes of old Lionel trains which needed a new home. Among these 50 year old toys was a # 6650 missile launching car (minus its missile) and a rusty, broken Lionel #175 rocket gantry (minus its rocket.)  We didn’t have anything like those items in the museum’s collection, so we did a little of missile launching car

As many people are aware, the early 1950’s were the Golden Age of Toy Trains in general and for Lionel in particular. 1953 was Lionel’s best year for earnings.  By the end of the decade, however, the toy train industry was losing market share, big time. Space exploration was in the headlines and record-breaking jet aircraft were attracting a lot of attention.  Trains were becoming old hat. (Perish the thought!)

Lionel and competitors, American Flyer and Marx, didn’t take these new realities lying down. To recapture kids’ imaginations, they devised a whole range of trains cars and accessories that would harness the popularity of these new areas. Missile launchers, rocket cars, space capsules, exploding boxcars and many other clever models were marketed to boost flagging toy train sales.

With our new/old missile car and rocket launcher as inspiration, we decided to rebuild our latest train layout to showcase the aerospace/aviation theme. The display will have track on 3 levels and the trains will be customized to reflect this exciting bias.

Although the pandemic has temporarily halted the rebuilding of the bench work on this layout, we have used the time away from the museum to build models that will highlight certain aspects of the Canadian aerospace and the Royal Canadian Air Force scene of the 1950’s along with our trains.

Another donation, received in 2020, represented another direction in product development that Lionel used in the late 1950’s. At the same time that the space related items were coming into the product line, the new phenomenon of TV was popularizing cowboy and western programs.  Again, the toy train makers turned this new fad to their advantage by introducing Old Time trains.  (The cover of the Lionel catalogue from 1959 featured an old wood burning locomotive with its old-time cars surrounded by modern diesel-powered trains firing rockets and missiles. Quite a contrast!)

Part of this donation included an Old Time train. Our plan at this point will be to run the ‘Old Timers’ on special occasions like Model Train Day and the Victorian Tea.

Although volunteers did not have access to the Lionel Model Train Room during the Covid lockdowns, our modellers have been very busy working on projects at home.  There are many volunteer hours represented in each layout, as it can take 20 hours to build a model water tower, 30 hours to build a missile from a kit, and over 100 hours for a scratch-built addition to a layout.  

Once the pandemic is behind us, the model train displays at Moore Museum promise to be more exciting than ever!