American Flyer Prewar Accessories Series – Article 1 Special Art Tunnel #85
By Leon Sweet
As any prewar American Flyer collector knows, tracking down production dates of some of the items made can be difficult. Items are often not marked, while other marked items appeared over numerous years. Additionally, serious collectors have realized that American Flyer was apparently experimenting with different production methods/features in the late teens and early 1920s, with some of those experiments lasting for a year or possibly less.
American Flyer was noted for their composition tunnels during the pre-war era, and with the exception of a tin two-piece tunnel shown in the 1909-1910 catalogs, all American Flyer prewar tunnels are known to be composition type tunnels, with the composition tunnels generally being of single piece construction.
The American Flyer Tunnel Special Art Tunnel #85 appears to be one such item that apparently did not qualify for long-term production. Tunnel #85 is a two piece composition tunnel that features two non-identical halves that were formed in a mold. The decorations of the two tunnels in my collection vary significantly, with one showing an apparent “winter scene” and the other showing a “summer scene”, with the difference showing up in the colors, which are quite vibrant on the winter scene tunnel and dark and muted on the summer scene tunnel.
My first observation of Tunnel #85 was in an unusual early Set #1228, which is one of American Flyer’s “complete railroad sets”. The set not only included a train and track, but also came with a tunnel, station, and various signals. The tunnel observed in the set was unmarked and features the darker muted colors.
These “complete railroad” sets generally came in oversized boxes that were 12 to 16 inches deep. However, the Set #1228 that features the #85 tunnel came in a very unusual large display type of box that was somewhat awkwardly shaped. The box is 24 inches wide by 24 inches long, and is only 4 inches deep. These unusual sized boxes, while containing a complete railroad, did not offer room for a large one piece tunnel. Additionally, these large set boxes themselves appear to be an item that did not qualify for long term production, as they are seldom seen. I know of two such boxes and they feature relatively similar sets and the same accessories, with both sets featuring the darker muted colors on the tunnel.
My second observation of Tunnel #85 was the vibrantly painted tunnel with lots of white and blue colors, showing the apparent winter scene. This tunnel came to me with the remains of its original box in multiple pieces. Luckily enough, I discovered that all of the pieces were there and the box was reconstructed. This separate sale box was the key to identifying the tunnel as the label clearly showed the number and given the design of the tunnel, the shallow box could not be used for any other American Flyer tunnel or the era.
My search for information on this tunnel first led me to the original catalogs for the early 1920s. A C. 1921 American Flyer supplemental catalog lists tunnels 81, 82, 83, and 84. The 1922 catalog lists tunnel 82. The 1926 catalog lists tunnels 81, 82, 83, 84, 86, 251, 252, 253, 254, 4255, and 4256. I found this catalog the most interesting as it skips from number 84 to number 86. With this information, I used a life-line and phoned a friend. I knew that the tunnel number should appear somewhere in the American Flyer Dealer’s Price Lists from the era.
Hollis Cotton reported to me that the 1922 American Flyer Dealer’s Price List features the #85 Special Art Tunnel. He indicated that the number is not shown in the 1921 or 1923 price lists, indicating a limited production. One might think that is the end of information relating to the tunnel; however, in scanning the TCA Quarterly on-line archives for information on prewar American Flyer, I found an interesting reference to Tunnel 85 in an article by Joe Kotil. Joe’s article “American Flyer Part VI” from the TCA Quarterly July 1982 (edition 4), deals with American Flyer internal memos relating to obsolete items. I noted that the memo shown on the upper left corner of page 29 notes “85 Tunnels: we have 14 of these, They can be used in #1228 trains”. This does correspond to our finding the tunnel in boxed examples of set 1228. In looking at the 1922 and 1924 catalog artwork for set 1228, it is noted that the tunnel shown with set 1228 is not a two-piece tunnel and the artwork for the streetlight does not match the actual production item. However, the 8 page foldout from 1924 (listing over 4 million happy owners at the top) shows an apparent actual photograph of set 1228 with a two-piece tunnel. This appears to indicate that American Flyer was using these tunnels up in later years.
As for the single sale item #85 Special Art Tunnel, it has been suggested to me that American Flyer did not specifically make a winter or summer scene tunnel, but that the tunnels were hand painted and the colors of the resulting tunnels varied according to the person painting that particular tunnel. This makes sense and I have found later single piece tunnels that had significant differences to their individual coloring. However, it is interesting that the price list notes the tunnel as “Special Art Tunnel”, which could possibly denote a difference between the tunnels that were offered for single sale and those that were used in Set #1228.
As for the history of my “winter scene” tunnel, it came to me through a friend who acquired the tunnel in the Milwaukee area from the original owner’s family. I have never observed another one of these two piece tunnels with the vibrant colors, but have observed several with the muted darker colors.