The Good Old Days?


I’m cautiously willing to acknowledge that I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Leaving aside the old age comments, it is interesting to look back upon the model railroad hobby as it once was and to marvel that this idea ever caught on in the first place.  Consider the seasonal project railroad published in the December, 1952 issue of Model Railroader magazine.

Pine Tree Central

The “Pine Tree Central”, which fit onto a flat sheet of 4′ x 6′ plywood with 1×3 pine frame, was designed to start off in the living room at Christmas time.  After the Christmas season had passed, it was then supposed to weasel its way into the household, becoming a full-time fixture in some model railroader’s life.  Of course, it was the 1950’s, which means that you built everything.

Parts needed for the Pine Tree Central

You built everything except the transformer, which is probably just as well; no telling how many houses were not destroyed by fire because of that.  It’s interesting looking back at the train:

The Train for the Pine Tree Central

Once Christmas had passed, the railroad added two more sidings and scenery, and you had something:

The Complete Pine Tree Central

Of course, we have progressed considerably since 1952, and the hobby has become much more user friendly.  So, too, what you get for your money has improved, too.  Consider the 1952 prices and the adjusted-for-inflation 2010 prices:

  • Mantua Shifter 0-4-0 steam switcher.  $15.95 then, $127.88 now
  • Varney gondola. $1.90 then, $15.33 now
  • Roundhouse box car.  $2.70 then, $21.65 now
  • Ulrich stock car.  $2.95 then, $23.95 now
  • Varney caboose.  $2.95 then, $23.95 now

In 2010 dollars, you would have spent $212.06 for items that cost $26.45 back then.  And, you still had to spend over 12 hours to build these trains.  And, if you were lucky, the 0-4-0 would actually run once you had finished.

Of course, the model train revolution had not really started until the Athearn “Blue Box” trains entered the scene in the late 1950’s.  Athearn produced a series of inexpensive yet reliable items that would make a lot of people take up model railroading.  Consider these items from the 1971 Walthers catalog:

  • Athearn Super Power F-7.  $12.95 then, $68.93 now
  • Roundhouse gondola. $2.00 then, $10.64 now
  • Roundhouse box car.  $2.25 then, $11.98 now
  • Athearn stock car.  $1.98 then, $10.54 now
  • Athearn caboose.  $2.98 then, $15.86 now

So, in twenty years, the costs for the Pine Tree Central trains had both dropped in dollar cost and improved in quality.  By the 1970’s, Walthers no longer sold Mantua, which had been merged into Tyco during that era.

Today, of course, things have become better and cheaper again.  This is due, in no small part, to the considerable presence of Chinese labor.  Mantua is still in the marketplace, but the smaller engines such as the Shifter are now sold under the Model Power brand.  Steam locomotive kits are now an oddity, reserved for those who enjoy a challenge.  The Pine Tree Central trains in the modern era:

  • Model Power Shifter 0-4-0 steam switcher.  $47.98
  • Bowser 40′ gondola.  $13.95
  • Walthers 40′ box car.  $19.98
  • Accurail stock car.  $13.98
  • Atlas Trainman caboose. $17.95

And, of course, these different cars are available in a large number of different road names and numbers.

So, 60 years after the Pine Tree Central article was published, the model hobby has grown in both scope and in quality.

A few things have changed along the way.  For one, scenery techniques are both more realistic and safer.  The 1952 Pine Tree Central article calls for a scenery plaster formula of glue-based patching plaster combined with 7 lbs of ground asbestos.  Although this was a widely accepted technique at the time, fortunately, the hobby has become better in any number of ways.

And, we haven’t even talked about the improved locomotive performance that results from command control.  I don’t miss the old days; I like to look back and read about them, but I don’t miss them.


3 Responses to “The Good Old Days?”

  1. Chuck Lytle Says:

    What’s even more interesting is that model railroading was happening anyway without the commercial hobby. Case in point…

    In 1968 I started graduate school in the chemistry department of Purdue University. Up in the attic of the old chem building was a complete model railroad, three-rail, larger than O gauge. It was off in a corner behind a locked cage (we had the key) and was completely scratch built, including the track. We asked emeritus professor M.G. Mellon, who even then was in his eighties, what he knew about it.

    Turns out, it was built by grad students back in the 1920’s, just for the hell of it.

    I left with an MS in 1970 and have no idea what happened to the “pike.”

    • Riley Says:

      That’s in keeping with the notion of the old days of science when you built all of your experimental equipment. You had to be knowledgeable not only in the hard science but also wood working, metal working and the like. If you wanted to test a theory, you built the test equipment.

      You also see examples of this in the old Louis Hertz books, of these home built railroads from a time when there was >nothing< available. You're old enough to remember a trolley car which was pictured in MR of the 1960's; it was the result of an ingenuity-development class where the student took odd materials such as tongue depressors, safety pins and such and made it into a credible trolley car.

      It's interesting, but I've gotten lazy in my old age. It's so nice to just pull out a finely finished locomotive in your favorite liver, place it on the track. And it runs!

  2. Brent Arritt Says:

    The train could be done for a lot less in Feb 2014 train show prices all New In Box.
    Mantua 0-4-0 Kit 1976 release New In Box $20
    Lifelike Gondola $1.50
    Athearn Blue Box Stock Car $3.50
    Athearn Blue Box 40′ Box Car $3.50
    Mehano Caboose $1.50

    Total train show cost for NIB train is $30 at Feb 15 2014 train show.
    If you know how to shop you can save!

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