model train set on track

A Trip to Gimbels, The Jersey Central Virginian, & Other Things Story

e*Train Issue: Feb 2004   |   Posted in: ,

By Paul Olekson

October 1965 is very important in my toy train history. First, a few preliminaries about how it became so are in order.

I was born in Manhattan and I had close contact with real railroads everyday. I lived on 98th Street just about 100 feet west of Park Avenue . This is significant because on Park Avenue at 97th Street , the four tracks of the New York Central Railroad emerged from the tunnel that ran south to Grand Central Terminal. This was the very place where famous trains such as The Twentieth Century Limited emerged from beneath well to do Park Ave to travel the “ Water Level Route .” A favorite activity of mine as a child was to stand with my father on the pedestrian bridge that crossed over the tracks at 98th Street and wave at the trains.

Most times the engineers, as I called them all, would wave back and sometimes even blow their whistles. Whistles? Yes, every electric locomotive, MU car, or New Haven FL9 Diesel that ran on Park Avenue back then had a whistle. Even if the device looked like a horn on some trains it still tooted like a whistle. But I digress.

My other railroad thrill was the New York City Subway System, specifically, the Number 6 train of the Lexington Ave IRT line. They had horns by the way, very loud horns.

Every Saturday, my father took me downtown on the No.6 to Grandma’s apartment on 10th Street . We always rode downtown in the last car, and without weekday delays the train could get up a good speed between stops. On straight runs like between 77th and 68th the subway train would get to maximum speed and the cars would bang from side to side. In my imagination the car was rolling wildly – roller coaster style with the jolting from side to side being caused by the wheel flanges hitting the opposing rails and saving us from crashing sideways into the tunnel walls. When leaving the 14th Street curved station the southbound train always seemed to reach full speed before the last car cleared the platform. The curve tightened at this point and the last car’s flanges would again hit the rail extra hard and the resulting jolt always reminded me of the Whip ride at Palisades Park .

Riding the subway was rough and loud; it was the kind of thing where the big attraction was the trip itself, and the destination was unimportant. All in all, I was destined to either hate trains from being over saturated with them or love and enjoy them throughout my life. As it turns out, the latter occurred.

From 1959 when I was three until I was about age eight my only toy train was a Lionel 1613S set. It comprised of the number 247 B&O engine and tender, a helicopter flat car, a Christmas tree flat, another flat car with crates, and a brown SP style caboose. My uncle had bought the set from Madison Hardware. I never knew if Christmas, my birthday or any holiday was a reason for giving me the train.

That train was always around since before my earliest memory. He also bought an extra automobile flat car to make the train longer, and enough tracks to make a figure 8. The 247 locomotive has a 2-4-2 wheel arrangement, and Lionel publications called it a Columbia type. It had a plastic shell, the official parts manual name of which was ‘boiler and cab.’

This shell took a beating. Two screws secured the motor to the bottom of the steam chest area. One other screw held the top rear of the motor and shell together. The area where the two screws went up into the plastic from the bottom had cracked from repeated crashes. The boiler and cab no longer could remain attached firmly to the motor. This would cause the side rods to jam. As a last resort, my father filled the cracked area with plastic cement hoping it would give the screws something to hang on to. While the cement was drying, I completed the refurbishing by painting the boiler with fresh black paint and adding a new blue stripe to the side of the catwalks. The paint came in small bottles from Woolworths and I think it was Testors brand. It did a fine job of melting the surface of the plastic. In a desperate attempt to save my engine, father tried wiping the paint off with an old rag. He may have even used turpentine, his favorite household chemical.

In the end my 247’s boiler and cab was turned into one lint covered sticky plastic mess. I think it took years for the plastic to fully dry and become hard again. The shell exists today as a fuzzy, partially dissolved reminder of a very bad childhood day.

The engine wasn’t the only thing in my first train set to get damaged. Check out what’s left of my original helicopter! Note: unmarked variation of the helicopter I acquired as a replacement.

My father and I sometimes walked to Madison Hardware from my Grandmother’s on Saturday mornings. Instead of getting on the train at Astor Place ( 8th Street ) for the return trip uptown, my father would occasionally decide to kill time by walking uptown to the 23rd Street station and there I would dreamingly study everything in Madison ‘s window. A while after the 247 meltdown, my father decided we go inside and look around. Madison Hardware was awesome to a boy my age. It had a great oily electrical smell mixed with stagnant air. Thinking back, I believe the smell could be duplicated with Lemon Pledge sprayed on moldy paper. The ceiling was so high I never really saw it. The walls had dusty shelves full of old trains, with many wrapped in paper. I remember that almost all had paper tags hanging from them. There were some wood drawers way above my head on one side. Also, there was a wide low shelf at my eye level on both sides of the narrow shop. This shelf was piled so high with so much train stuff I couldn’t take note of what it all was. To get to the rear, there was a short ramp up and I could tell this was the important area of the store. The cash register was on the back counter in front of a wall of orange boxes, there was a wall of wooden drawers on the left, and a display of locomotives high up on stepped shelves to the right. Everywhere on the floor were piles and piles of dusty trains and parts of trains. I was too excited to really see what anything was. I was overwhelmed by the sounds, smell, and sight of the place. A man there directed us to one of the piles and he said that was the only stuff in any of the piles that was for sale. My father wasn’t going to buy me anything new. I was going to get what he called “shopworn” trains.

We came home with 2 brown metal passenger cars and a green Canadian National diesel. The diesel only ran in forward as it did not have a reverse unit. What these Lionel items really were, at the time, I did not know. I wish I had them today as they would make for very interesting discussion. I did not like the diesel and it was not long before I acquired more paint from Woolworths and caused melting damage to that locomotive’s cab also. I enjoyed the brown passenger cars and ran them fast, repeatedly flipping them off the tracks. In my child mind, I was trying to duplicate that rough and rollicking subway ride to Grandma’s.

In the time leading up to October 1965, I had just begun what was to be my last ever good year in school. I was in 5th grade only a month, the teacher loved me, and my grades were already in the high 90’s. Now, my parents were not ones to worry too much about Christmas and they were about to pull a fast one on me.

Mom loved to shop at Gimbels on 32nd Street . We knew Christmas season arrived when she would receive a letter from Gimbels inviting her to come in and pick up the “play money.” Gimbels offered booklets of what looked like play money to their charge customers. My mother spent it all every year in spite of my father’s pleading not to. In fact, he would always yell at her “it’s not play money you know!” Of course any of this “money” that was not returned in January was charged to her account.

This year they were going to spend some of it on me in Gimbels 6th floor toy department. I was going to get my birthday present in advance. Mind you that my birthday is in April and this was only October. There was no mention of Christmas either. I did not care. I just wanted the train set. On the way we had stopped for lunch inside Gimbels right next to the toy department. I remember this lunch break because it delayed my charge to the train display. We ate hot dogs that were cooked in a new invention. The whole point of the lunch counter was to sell food that was heated inside Amana Radarange Microwave Ovens. Truly a first!

Going past the lunch stand in the back corner of the 6th floor, year round, was Gimbels’ train display – a long narrow loop of track on a table with a foot high glass barrier at the 2 outer sides. Shoppers were cut off from the backside of the table, which protected low wall shelves of Lionel trains and accessories in their orange boxes. In October, they were already running a 736 Berkshire and freight cars. I had begun to read catalogs and had learned the numbers of all the current locomotives. For some reason never explained, my parents seemed to know the woman floor manager of the toy department.

My father had craftily inserted his opinion into my mind as to what locomotive I wanted. He thought that the Santa Fe AA F3 was a rip off. He decided somehow that the dummy unit was a cheat because it did not have a motor. We did not understand why there was such a thing as a dummy unit, and in our study of the 1965 catalog in the weeks prior, he convinced me that the Virginian was best.

The “Virginian” was Lionel’s number 2322 rendition of the Fairbanks Morse Train Master Diesel locomotive. To us back in ’65 it was the Virginian and it headed the #12820 freight set.

I wanted passenger cars though, and we were about to create one of the train set mysteries that boggle the minds of Lionel collectors to this very day. We selected the Virginian set with the manager lady and asked if I could get it with passenger cars. It was explained that the passenger cars only came with the Santa Fe . “But we don’t want an engine with a dummy unit,” said my father. The woman offered to switch the cars between the two sets. Out from a back room came the Virginian set. What a giant white box it was!

She announced she was out of Santa Fe sets but she had separate passenger cars. She unpacked the freight set. Every freight car was put to the side and into the box she loaded the Presidential cars: Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley. There should have been two Pullmans , but they only had one in stock. So we left Gimbels with a Lionel freight set box that actually contained a three-car passenger train. We thus created a set variation for the train collecting community of the 1990’s to discuss. In the end, that set counted as both my Christmas present and my birthday present the following April. My parents got away with proverbial murder in toy land on that one.

Shortly after I got the Virginian set, I began investigating toy trains on my own. There were times when I would call Madison Hardware on the phone and ask for strange things. Lou and Carl must have thought there was a nut out there.

I had acquired a copy of Lionel’s out of print book “Model Railroading”. In the book they had a photo of what is today referred to as a Madison Car. The book’s authors called it a “deluxe six wheel Pullman .” I have no idea what they thought down at Madison when I would call them and ask in my youthful voice: “do you have any deluxe Lionel six wheel Pullmans ?” The usual answer was no or they would just hang up. I would call again a few weeks later thinking they had replenished their inventory. I had no idea the trains were long out of production. When I discovered there was a Jersey Central version of the FM Train Master locomotive I would call Madison Hardware often and ask one of the brothers if they had a ”Jersey Central Virginian”. Can you imagine the thoughts that must have gone through Lou or Carl’s mind on the other end? What the heck did I know about FM’s and Train Masters? I was a kid. I always called that style locomotive a Virginian.

June 1969 we moved to a house in the Bronx where I soon had a decent layout on a table. No longer were real trains visible just across from the corner. Eventually it was discovered that some high school guys had girl friends, and my teenage logic figured out that I couldn’t possibly get a girl unless I got myself out of the basement and away from trains. So the trains got packed up in 1971. I unpacked them in 1982, ran the trains for a few months on a table in my new apartment, and then my new wife helped me decide to sell them all to buy furniture. Fortunately, my original set with the fuzzy repainted glued locomotive was left behind at my parent’s house so it was not sold. I did begin collecting again a couple of years later, but I still left that original set with my parent’s. Good thing, because my no longer new first wife sold all the new trains during our divorce in the early 90’s.

These last ten or so years I have been retracing my toy train footsteps. I have purchased a couple more of those old 247’s in order to get the parts to restore my first locomotive. Although I now have what I need to fix it, I have not had the heart to replace that old boiler and cab. The engine from all those forty-five years ago is just too important and too full of memories to change. I swear I can still smell the turpentine sometimes. I have also found another Virginian freight set with its’ big white set box. There was no exciting trip to Gimbels this time as they are long closed. Rather, it was the effort of this older man haggling with other older men that got the train. Getting it wasn’t as thrilling as the first one either, and I didn’t swap the freight for passenger cars this time. The reality of train collecting just drained all the childhood fun out of that concept! These days I can’t run a train on the floor because they are all packed away in storage waiting for endless home remodeling to get completed. When that’s finished, there will be a new layout built in the coming year. I’ve been planning for ‘next year’ a long time, but it is October 1965 that I’m secretly wishing would come again. If only it could.

These Days my 12820 set doesn’t have any passenger cars. Being an adult collector keeps me from changing the contents to a passenger set. What happened to the fun?