model train set on track

The Three-Rail Rambler

e*Train Issue: Jul 2021   |   Posted in:

Lionel 394 beacon and Erector set house make an illuminated fire-watch tower

By John W. Coniglio TCA 79-14629 (aka the Three Rail Rambler!)  Summer 2021

In 1952 as Christmas approached, I was one sickly seven-year-old.  I was at home for six months of restricted activity after spending a month in the hospital. My entertainment was the Lionel 2036 freight set that Santa Claus left under the Christmas tree two years earlier. One evening after the holidays, dad came home with leftovers from a post-holiday sale. He hooked up a Marx crossing gate, Lionel 145 Gateman that was missing the crossbuck, and a red beacon. My world improved instantly!  Eventually I recovered, and we moved the house and the train and the accessories to a 4 x 8 plywood board until high school.  That’s when I had a brief and ill-fated affair with HO gauge and rubber band drive diesels.

As operators of postwar Lionel know, the operating mechanism of the 394 is a tipsy lantern that dances in a dimpled bulb. Warm air from the bulb rose through angled vanes in the lantern and caused it to turn slowly like an aircraft beacon. The lanterns were delicate and would melt into the lamp housing when the power was turned up too high.

The beacon cap

The beacon cap lasted until the train was packed up in the mid-1960s. I started my latest layout by moving a 6 x 3 foot tabletop over a wood and tool storage rack in the garage. I found two beacons and one cap in a box of accessories. My old one was faded and scratched so I began looking for creative re-use for it.  In the bottom of the box was an Erector house, the last surviving part from a 1.5 Erector set I had as a child.

Bingo! I glued semitransparent plastic sheeting in the house and drilled the beacon for a mounting bolt.

Meet the No. 394 Illuminated Watch Tower!