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All Aboard for the National
Toy Train Museum

Bob Brooke


Most young boys love trains. And so do their dads and granddads. If there’s one place that must seem like Nirvana to little boys and their dads it’s the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, headquarters of the Train Collectors Association. Located just down the road from the Strasburg Railroad and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, this museum doesn’t seem a bit out of place, even though it’s surrounded by Amish fields of corn and wheat.

Inside a simulated Victorian California railroad station, it recreates a large family train room with a variety of layouts and displays of toy and model trains from the 1850s to the present. The museum owns one of the most extensive toy train collections in the world. Here, you’ll see trains that children pushed, pulled or rode upon, as well as miniature trains, accurate in every detail to their full sized counterparts.

But this is no static display of old trains—far from it. As you enter, you can hear the whirr of little engines as they chug around the tracks. And you’ll be able to operate them on five different layouts, displayed by scale, using a systems of push buttons.

Each large layout is a different gauge and represents a different period of the 20th Century. Each offers an interesting variety of period accessories and extensive scenery. And all are built to enable even the youngest visitors to have an excellent view of the action.

Train videos, so much a part of model railroading today, run continuously on a large screen T.V.s

And the museum curators have really gotten creative in their latest displays of historic and vintage model trains. Two of the most unique are Harry’s Hardware window display and the Lionel Dealer’s Exhibit.

Generally, the museum displays toy trains by themes or by track gauges as they might be in actual use on someone’s model train layout. Individual enthusiasts and members of model railroad clubs create large layouts which demand dedicated care and maintenance.

Although toy trains go back only to the 1860s in Europe, real trains have been around since the 1830s and the invention of the steam engine. The first toy trains were made of wood or metal.

It wasn’t until 1901 that Lionel produced its first electric train for use in store display windows. These trains weren’t built to scale but served to promote the new form of energy—electricity. Since those first display window trains, other manufacturers, including Gilbert’s American Flyer, LGB, known for their large-scale trains, Marx and Marklin have produced an array of engines and rolling stock. While the two former makers focused on scale model trains, the two latter made mostly tin-plate toy trains. Lionel began making toy trains and tried to get into the scale model market, but its trains lacked the fine scale detail of those producing scale-model trains, such as Gilbert’s American Flyer.

"Tinplate" is a term collectors use to describe toy trains originally built of thin stamped metal, but it also includes trains composed of plastic parts as well. The common thing about these trains is that their manufacturers built them as toys for mass-market enjoyment rather than the precise scale of model trains.

Though the first interest in model trains began in 1934, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it peaked. Back then, just about every boy wanted a train set. Trains were a popular gift from Santa Claus and some makers even produced pink trains to appeal to girls. But those never caught on.

It was during the 1950s that a model railroaders began to make a distinction between cheaper toy trains for kids and the elaborately detailed model trains made for adults. Some of these model trains are exact reproductions of famous trains while others follow more general themes like freight and passenger trains. And while some boys had passenger sets, the majority wanted freight trains because of all the accessories available for them.

The Museum showcases a variety of accessories. Train catalogs bulged with photos of coal and barrel loaders, working cattle cars, trackside signals, bridges, working drop-down traffic gates—the list goes on and on.

While the National Toy Train Museum contains just about every toy and model train that was made, dedicated model railroaders have created detailed scale worlds where the trains even run on a time schedule. Especially at this time of year, you can see holiday exhibits featuring model trains in church and firehalls, basements of train collector club members, and special store displays.

Today, model trains run the gamut from super tiny “Z” gauge all the way up to trains large enough to ride on through a garden layout. And lest they be left behind in this digital age, model train enthusiasts have embraced technology with onboard and wireless control systems. Wiring on many layouts is so complicated that professional help is often required. You’ll see plenty of this technology at the National Toy Train Museum. This isn’t a place for stodgy old antiques, but instead is the home of fine craftsmanship and ingenuity.

The National Toy Train Museum is open from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. on weekends. Call 717-687-8976.

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