NMRA President That Never Built A Model

One would expect hands-on model-building experience to be a prerequisite to lead that driving force in the hobby. Lawrence W. Sagle proved otherwise. Sagle was President of the National Model Railroad Association during its formative years between 1944 and 1945 and left an indelible mark on the NMRA, the greater acceptance of the hobby, and railroad history and preservation.

Sagle was born in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., on the eve of the 20th Century. His ability at drafting enabled him to later attend the Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore, to further perfect that skill. Afterward, he joined the B&O Railroad and labored in the engineering department at Mt. Clare Shops. The B&O celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1927 with the lavish Fair of the Iron Horse. The Fair galvanized appreciation for historical preservation on the B&O and became the catalyst for its unsurpassed efforts at Public Relations that evolved in the 1930s. Sagle had a natural interest in B&O history, assisted with the displays at the Fair, and afterward moved on to serve R. M. Van Sant, B&O Director of Public Relations. Van Sant was one of the most highly regarded PR men in the railroad industry, and both he and Sagle watched with interest the favorable public reaction to the mammoth C&O scale O gauge model railroad built by E. P. Alexander that was displayed at The Century of Progress in Chicago 1933-1934.

In 1936, B&O, under Sagle’s direction and aided by B&O employee-model makers R. Kenneth Henry and William Sakers, built their own portable O scale railroad and sent that around the B&O system as its ambassador of goodwill. The custom-built equipment used on that railroad was commissioned by Sagle, who assembled a host of skilled custom builders that accurately reproduced miniatures of popular B&O prototypes for that display. In that process, Sagle acquired a wide appreciation for craftsmanship and quality model-building. Sagle made certain that all model railroad manufacturers had access to B&O plans and fully backed all that called on the B&O for guidance with new releases. He did the same for the ever-increasing requests that flooded the B&O PR Department from aspiring model-builders far and wide. Interestingly, licensing restrictions accompanied by hefty usage fees were never part of the equation. Sagle was aware that many B&O families had an interest in purchasing B&O-themed trains for their children, and frequently he would write a Christmas gift-giving guide for the employee’s magazine that featured model trains that were on the market lettered for the B&O. That industry-statesman status and broad experience made Sagle well-qualified to head the NMRA.

Sagle represented the B&O at the Chicago Railroad Fair 1948-1949, served as a technical consultant to numerous authors and motion picture studios that frequently leased vintage B&O locomotives and cars for feature films, and then became the Curator of the B&O Transportation Museum in 1953. The model railroad trio of Sagle, Henry, and Sakers once again applied their talents and built a large HO model railroad on the Museum’s second floor that replicated the critical Magnolia Cut-Off on the B&O west of Cumberland. The materials for that railroad were donated by all the leading model manufacturers of the day since it was of great value to be represented in that landmark display. B&O closed the Museum in 1958 (reopened in 1964 by C&O/B&O Railroads), but Sagle remained active in other PR work for the railroad and finally retired in 1961. Sagle also authored numerous books about model railroading and general aspects of railroading. Throughout his career, Sagle kept his interest in art alive, maintained his own private studio, was skilled at the process of etching (and created a set of six early scenes of the B&O), and was a member of the Baltimore Watercolor Club. He passed away in 1975.

We salute Lawrence W. Sagle, his unflinching interest in model railroading and greater railroad history, and longingly look for a new-age LWS to spearhead such efforts within the railroad industry today. Looking back on that enviable record, it was a win-win for all involved. MTS cannot change the world, but in common with the subject of this story, we unflinchingly press on developing a business structure to serve you more effectively and make the wide world of products unfolding available to you at competitive prices.

Frank Wrabel