The Amazing World of Trains

The Amazing World of Trains – history and the model railroader

By Chris55 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The amazing world of trains has sparked the imagination of young and old alike ever since Locomotion No. 1, the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, made its first trip in 1825.  Locomotion No. 1 travelled between the collieries near Shildon in north-eastern England to Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington, at the absolutely breathtaking speed of 15 mph!

In fact, Locomotion No. 1 only hauled coal from the mines to the ships at the start, while passengers were hauled in horse-drawn coaches until 1833, when the first carriages were hauled by steam locomotives.  While the route has changed hands and technology over time, it is still operating, today, as a part of the Tees Valley Line.

But did you know that the amazing world of trains, sometimes very rudimentary, have been operating in some form since the sixth century?  At that time, trucks pushed by slave power were used to carry boats across the Greek isthmus of Corinth, with their wheels running in grooves cut into limestone.  Known as the Diolkos Wagonway, it operated for some 600 years.

Various different ideas have been incorporated over time. These have included raised wooden roads for wooden-wheeled carts, which were hauled by horses or people.  Some systems used wooden rails and ropes, such as the funiculars that hauled people and supplies up steep slopes to wealthy European castles.

Various methods of improvement and guidance were developed over the years both to improve the longevity of the equipment and to help guide the cart.   Iron-clad wooden wheels lasted longer and an iron pin between two hardwood rails proved to be  wonderful way to guide mine carts out of the mines without wasting manpower on guiding them.

The First Railroads

The original railroads were built using hardwood for the rails, which proved to be no match for the heavy steam locomotives when they came into use.  Various attempts were made to solve the problem, including cladding the hardwood in iron, but the only solution that finally worked was to use iron rails.

The first railroad in America was built in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1720.  This railroad was used in the construction of the French fortress in Louisburg.

The first permanent, chartered railway in America was the Leiper Railroad, built in 1810 by Thomas Leiper, the owner of a quarry near Philadelphia.  He built the horse-powered tramway to move his product to ships when he was not able to build a canal for the same purpose.  The tramway became a short-line branch of the B&O railroad some time in the 1880s.

The first railroad in the United States to use a steam powered locomotive running on rails was the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company.  They used an engine called the Stourbridge Lion to haul coal (Its sister, the Agenoria, is on display in the National Railway Museum in York, England).  In fact, almost all railroads of the period were built to haul coal.  Canada’s first railroad to use iron rails and run year round was the Albion Railway, which served coal mines around Stellarton, Nova Scotia.  Stellarton is home to Samson, built in 1838, the oldest surviving locomotive in Canada.

Steam-powered Passenger Service in America

The first steam powered, scheduled passenger train to run in America was run by the South Carolina and Railroad Company, beginning in 1833.  It was pulled by their first steam locomotive, the Best Friend of Charleston. This locomotive is credited as being the first locomotive built in the USA, and also as the dubious distinction of being the first locomotive to have its boiler explode in the USA.

Throughout the 1830s, there was a great explosion of railroad construction in both the US and what is now Canada, yet few carried passengers.  Indeed, freight always was and in fact, still is the number one reason for a railway to exist.

Times and technology never stop changing.  The age of the steam engine was relatively short, although the steam locomotive, more than any other single item, is what caused the rapid growth, industrialization and prosperity of the United States.  However, high labor and maintenance costs in the 20th century, especially after WWII, along with advances in the internal combustion engine led to the decline of steam power and the rise of the diesel-electric locomotives of today.

With the diesel locomotive, however, came the reality of trains longer than every imagined in the past, traveling faster than ever imagined, hauling freight of every type from coast to coast to coast.

No other mode of transportation has inspired such a spirit of adventure, imagination and excitement as the amazing world of trains.  While the automobile became the preferred mode of transportation for millions of Americans after the invention of mass production made it affordable, it is the train that has continued to fire the imaginations of young and old, alike.

The First Model Trains

This is an intriguing area.  Depending on the source, the decade for the first models inspired by the amazing world of trains ranges from the 1830s to the 1860s.  Three separate, usually reliable sources have the first model or toy trains showing up in the 1830s, the 1840s and the 1860s.

While it was not the first production toy, the oldest known toy train in the world is a locomotive “discovered” in the UK at the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow in 2011, which turned out to be a very crude home-made model created out of reused materials in the 1820s or 1830s.  It is believed that the man who made it for his son lived in a cottage behind the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Most reliable sources say that the first to make miniature models inspired by the amazing world of trains were German craftsmen of the 1860s, who made miniature trains that could be pushed along a track.  These had no moving parts, cast in one piece of brass, tin or lead.  They added hand-carved fittings to the bottoms of these figures, but nothing moved.  Naturally, they were not very durable and early examples are rare.

Next door, French craftsmen created some very fancy and elaborately painted trains with tall chimneys and spoked wheels.  They were not on rails, but were designed as toys to simply be pushed along the floor.  Unfortunately, tin is not a good base for paint, and pristine originals are rarely seen, today.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1891 when  Marklin of Germany established a series of standard track gauges for its clockwork (windup) trains that the day of the model (or toy) train as we know them today really began.  The standards set by Marklin are still used, today.

Lionel Toy Company introduced the first production electric toy train in 1901.  (It is most interesting to note here that there is another electric toy train on record that is claimed to have been sold in the 1848 Daniel Davis Jr. or Boston catalog for the princely sum, in those days, of $35.  It is likely that it was for educational purposes only, to demonstrate the still relatively new and rudimentary electric motor, and not sold as a toy.)

The Lionel train was supposed to be a store display, but it soon became obvious that visitors to the store were more interested in the display than in the store’s goods.  By the 1920s, electric toy trains had become very popular among children, but only the wealthy could afford them.

Before long, smaller scale electric toy trains, usually only available as kits, began to be available.  Mainly available in O gauge and HO gauge, they were very challenging kits requiring the hands of a skilled and experienced adult to put together.  Just the same, their popularity continued to increase.

When WWII hit, and production  of toy electric trains stopped from 1941 to 1945, but when the war ended, production resumed and their popularity soared.  By the 1950s, as availability and affordability increased, toy electric trains became the most popular toy among boys in the USA.

It was during the 1950s that manufacturers, especially Lionel, caught on to the fact that the big boys  were fascinated with the amazing world of trains, too, and there were soon different lines created for adults and for children.

The Modern Era

Many changes have occurred since the 1950s, both in the real amazing world of trains and with model toy trains.  As the trains that moved freight and people across continents made the change in technology from steam to diesel and beyond, model trains changed, too.  More scales, including the very popular G or Garden gauge were introduced, and the split between scale model trains for adults and toy trains for children became more apparent.

As technology innovated, digital control systems for the model trains became available, and entire systems that produced realistic sounds were introduced.

Today, there are about half a million model railroaders, collectors and toy train hobbyists in Canad and the USA.  Model trains are also wildly popular in Western Europe and Japan.  The amazing  world of trains and model trains appears to be truly the world’s greatest hobby.

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