Spotlight on the National Toy Train Museum

Just like prototype railroads, model railroading has a rich and colorful past that has manifested in the depth and quality of products that are available to us today. One place to fully appreciate the fullest dimension of that journey is the National Toy Train Museum at Strasburg, PA.  If you have not already done so we highly recommend that you make time to visit the train museum or if you have not been there for an extended period, take that second or third look!

Scale model railroaders have occasionally referred to early trains as crude. But close examination of early models from 1880 through the early 1930s reveal that many early manufacturers did pay attention to popular prototypes. The popular American 4-4-0 was of course one of the most frequently reproduced prototype designs prior to 1900. Within that mix famous locomotive #999 of the NYC that achieved the speed record of 112.5 MPH was a popular subject. Most early toy trains were wooden, tin or cast iron.  Decoration on locomotive trains and cars was printed paper, enamel, or later lithography.

Weeden Company produced a respectable live steam locomotive and sold that with a reasonably impressive set of passenger or freight cars. But most miniature live steam models were manufactured in Germany and England well into the late 1930s. It is interesting to note that many early manufacturers decorated their models with names and insignias of actual railroads, a practice that fell out of favor around 1920 but surfaced again in the late 1930s.

In an age when railroads represented the cutting edge of technology and were a dominant part of our society many toy trains replicated landmark locomotive designs. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad is credited with the first mainline electrification in the US in 1895.  Voltamp Electric in Baltimore, MD used B&O Steeple Cab Tunnel Motor #1 as prototype for one of its early models. An unknown manufacturer used the popular camelback design (favored by Reading, Jersey Central, and Lackawanna) as the inspiration for a creditable cast iron pull train.  The storied Ives Toys offered reasonably well-proportioned locomotives and cars in advance of competitors that were accompanied by freight cars that recreated the color of “billboard” reefers and boxcars that captivated the imagination of youthful trackside railfans. Lionel embraced the famous NYC 20th Century Limited as inspiration for their pre-World War I passenger train sets and later used that theme again in the early 1930s with a passenger set powered by its massive 400E steam locomotive.

Fidelity to prototype was briefly sidetracked in the 1920s by Lionel when they began painting locomotives, cars and accessories in bright colors with the reasoning that mothers purchased the majority of trainsets and accordingly, they were more apt to favor colorful train and accessories. Initially American Flyer resisted but by the mid-1920s they too capitulated to the new “new norm” that Lionel established. Ives did promote its own “Ives Railway Lines” but still used accurate railroad identification on many of its freight car line. Other model train manufacturers were a mix of more accurate railroad colors and identification and the manufacturers own brand name. By the 1930s pressure from children and adults gradually inspired toy train manufacturers to return to realism. The introduction of true scale O gauge trains in the period from 1927 to 1937 also gave that movement traction.

The collection on display at the National Toy Train Museum gives tangible evidence of that journey and trends in design and manufacturing. Starting with a primitive Milton Bradley wooden 4-4-0 with cars of 1880 the collection offers viewers an impressive display of each era and scale of toy trains that are an important part of our heritage. Equally impressive are the representative operating layouts of each scale that faithfully replicate the excitement of each era. The collection itself is housed in an impressive facility that resembles a Victorian railroad station and a monument to early Train Collector’s Association founders greets visitors at the main entrance.

We thank Tammy Hersh of the National Toy Train Museum for sharing her knowledge of the collection with us and allowing us to assemble the material presented today along with additional coverage we’ll be posting in the coming weeks! Visit their website for more information:

We also recommend that serious modelers and collectors check out the Train Collectors Association at:

The organization has worked tirelessly to promote toy train collecting and is a wonderful source of information!

FAW MB Klein, Inc