The Golden Era (1910-1940)

In the early 20th Century, US railroads reached their peak of 254,000 route miles. The railroads were the dominant providers of transportation, serving both small industries and large populations in every town and city across the country. This was the era of the great long distance luxury trains, marketed as the most civilized way to cross America. Freight railroading was steadily growing, and new, powerful locomotives meant longer trains and less maintenance stops.

The face of railroading dramatically changed with larger locomotives for freight and passenger service. Railroad traffic peaked on the eve of World War I when most carriers were literary choked with traffic. For a brief period during WW1, the railroads were temporarily nationalized to help with the war effort.  Locomotive manufacturers and car builders struggled to improve designs while filling orders for urgently needed engines and cars. Passenger and freight cars were making the transition from wood to steel construction. New locomotive designs in that period included the 2-10-0 (Decapod), 2-10-2 (Santa Fe), 2-8-4 (Berkshire) and 2-10-4 (Texas type) for freight and 4-6-4 (Hudson), 4-8-2 (Mountain), 4-8-4 (Northern) for passenger and fast freight service.

Pullman Company merged with Standard Car to form the Pullman-Standard Corporation and that enlarged entity further expanded production capacity for the wildly expansive market of the 1920s. The prosperity of the times produced an unprecedented demands for all-Pullman, luxury trains that a more affluent and discriminating passenger sector demanded. Suddenly that Golden Era ended abruptly with Black Friday and the resulting Great Depression. More devastating was intense competition from the automobiles, busses and trucks that utilized publicly-funded highways and the emerging airline industry that also received generous support from the Federal Government.

Railroads somewhat belatedly responded to those competitive challenges with flair and innovation. First, air-conditioning was introduce in May of 1931 when the B&O Columbian became the first air-conditioned train in the world. Next railroads embraced lightweight, streamlined passenger car construction, streamlined steam power and the diesel-electric locomotive. In January of 1935 the PRR inaugurated the largest US mainline electrification project that extended from Washington to New York. Without question that was the most advanced railroad operation in the Nation. Still steam reigned supreme and the Lima Locomotive Works captured much of that market with their “Super Power” designs. Lima engineers worked in concert with the Chesapeake & Ohio to build the legendary 2-6-6-6 Alleghany locomotives in 1941. The first thirty C&O class H8 locomotives hold the record of being the heaviest and most powerful articulated locomotives in the US (ahead of the UP Big Boy locomotives also produced in 1941). The total weight of latter orders of H* was reduced due to concerns about damage to the physical plant.

While diesel and electric power was starting to enter the market, big steam was king, and could be seen everywhere from dockyards to mountain grades. This period is well covered by manufactures in all scales, and includes some fascinating locomotive types.

Locomotives Available for this Period

There are a ton of locomotives that fit well within this period. Check out our great selection at

Do you model the Golden Era? Send us some photos of your railroad on Social Media – we’d love to share your work on a #TrainLayoutTuesday post!