Sunday, July 26, 2009

Remembrances... Installment #8: Trains, Real and Toy


By Lynn Harrington

Part I: 1918 – 1927, continued

Lynn Harrington's fascination with trains would last beyond his childhood and throughout his life. He took this photo of a New York Central locomotive near Syracuse more than 20 years after what he recounts below took place. -SH

14. 1923 or 1924: Trains, Real and Toy

In my description of the Cannon Street house I did not mean to be depicting a typical house in the neighborhood. Ours was almost surely one of very few which were without either electric or gas ser­vice. Some of the homes nearby were very fine upper­ middle-class residences. One such was the home of Mark Conan, a boy my age and one of my kindergarten through sixth grade classmates. Mark's father was a lawyer, active in civic affairs. My especial remem­brance of Mark relates to two or three occasions, when I was probably five or six, when he invited me to come to his house so I could see some of his toys. Those were great occasions for me.

Of houses, there could be no other like his in the world. The rooms were large and beautifully furnished. Not only did it have elec­tricity, with reading lamps and table and ceiling fix­tures, but it also had something I had never seen before. When Mark's mother called us to the kitchen for cookies and milk. there was a stove that burned gas. All Mrs. Conan had to do to start it was turn a lever and then strike a spark close to the burner. The thing that made the spark was a pincher-like wire frame bearing a flat surface like a small section of nail file, and when the device was squeezed a piece of flint was scraped across that. A spark flew off and the gas was lit. The burner was a circular ring of iron pipe with many small holes around its upper surface. There were four such burners on the stove. When the gas issuing from the little holes burned it formed a ring of beautiful little dancing lights, which Mrs. Conan could make burn higher or lower just by turning the small control lever.

Best of all at that house was Mark's elec­tric train. He laid out the tracks on the floor in a figure-eight arrangement, plugged the lead wire into an opening in the wall, put the engine and cars on the track, hooked them together, and the train was ready to run. He could make the train go slow or fast by turning a lever on a box he said was the transformer. I didn't know what a transformer was, and probably Mark didn't either, but it worked just wonderfully, and he let me run it too. I was a little puzzled to see three rails in the tracks instead of the two that street cars and real trains ran on. I asked Mark about that, and he said it was because his train was a Lionel, and Lionel trains used three rails. I didn't understand, but it was Mark's train, so the explanation suited me just fine.

1920's-vintage Lionel electric train equipment. (Photo by and copyright Frank Tellez. Please view this image large on his Flickr photostream.)

Even at that early age I was fascinated by trains. I loved to walk up east Colvin hill to the D.L.&W. Railroad crossing occasionally, and wait in the hope a train would come by. It was wonderful to see a steam engine, its exhaust barking rapidly as it pulled a string of five or six passenger cars at an already fast and still accelerating speed up the long grade out of the city. Better yet would be the times when an even bigger locomotive crept more laboriously up that grade, the very ground trembling as the roar­ing exhaust sent black smoke billowing high out of its stack, and cinders showering down on me as the engine worked past me. Trailing along behind would be a long string of freight cars of all kinds, swaying and rock­ing in their heavy passage. As often as not such a freight train would be helped up the grade by another big locomotive shoving hard against the caboose which marked the end of the train of cars. And a trainman would always return the wave of a boy who thrilled to stand at trackside to catch the sights and sounds of such an impressive passage.

I never felt envious of Mark for his elec­tric train, nor did I ever expect to have even a wind­up train of my own. We were poor and knew it, but I don't remember ever feeling bitter about it. It was just the way things were. By the time I was seven or eight I had decided to have a train of my own, and this is the way it came about:

First of all, Dad had had a tool box and a work bench in a closed-in end of the back porch. Any time he was working there I just loved to watch. He encouraged me to do little pieces of work with scrap wood he brought home from the shop. He also encouraged me to use his tools, but there were rules I must obey. First, I was never to use any tool until he had taught me how. Second, if anything hap­pened to any tool I used, such as if I broke one of the delicate coping saw blades, I was to tell him at once, and he would go over the incident with me, and show me what I had done wrong. And, last but not least, when I finished what I was working on I must put what­ever tools I had used right back where I found them, and clean everything up where I had worked. I might add, in this, connection, that by the time we moved from Cannon Street, he had built and equipped for me a very nice small toolbox of my own.

Windup toy trains from the 1920s (photo from the Milford, NH, Antique Show website.)

In our back yard that summer of 1923 or 1924 there was a pile of dirt that we boys liked to play on. I resolved to build a railroad on that mountain. I had for some time been collecting sect­ions of the kind of track that came with wind-up trains. It was simple material, with tinplate ties to which little hollow rails attached. Sections, either straight or curved and eight or 10 inches in length, could be securely connected by metal inserts that fit tightly into the ends of the hollow rails. On trash day, people placed their ash cans and boxes of discarded materials out by the curb for pick-up by city sanitation men. I had learned by observation that at the time of traditional spring house-cleaning all kinds of interesting discards appeared in the dis­posal boxes at curbside. Wind-up trains were common Christmas presents for young boys. Those train sets were not especially durable. The engine spring would break, car wheels would get lost, cars would get step­ped on, and kids in general had lost interest in their toy trains. Cars without wheels appeared in the trash, but they were no good to me. Sections of track held up better, and they were what I rescued whenever I found them.

Windup train tracks from a modern EBay antiques offering.

With the track I could lay down a very nice, curving railroad around Dirt Mountain. What I needed was cars, and I found a way to get them. We had always known that tobacco shops accumulated empty cigar boxes in quantity. In those days cigar boxes were nicely made of fine-grained, smooth wood about one­ eighth inch thick. All a boy had to do to get some free boxes was to go to the tobacco shop and ask the man politely if he had any empty cigar obxes. I don't remember coming away from such an expedition empty­ handed. The boxes had many uses --all members of the family had one or two or more, for storage of letters or trinkets or private little treasures. They had no tobacco odor, either. As I learned many years later, the wood was sycamore, the same kind as used in much larger pieces for butcher blocks and butter tubs. It possess the unique characteristic of neither taking on odor from nor imparting odor to materials with which it comes into contact.

My purpose for the cigar boxes was as wood I could work with. The work was quite precise and demanded considerable care in measuring and cutting and assembling. What I did was to cut out a substan­tial number of rectangular pieces, alL a half::~inch or so wider than the space between the rails. For each bottom piece I cut two side pieces about a half-inch shorter than the bottom. Then I cut two end pieces, as long as the bottom was wide, and the same width as the side pieces. Then, using Dad's tack-hammer and vice, I would nail together (using little brads Dad had given me) an open-top box, the bottom of which extended out a little way on each end. Placing the open-top boxes on the bench, I drove a brad into the top of the platform at each end. Turning the affair upside down on the bench, I drove into the bottom of the platform four brads deep enough that their heads extended down about a quarter of an inch from the bottom. Those four brads, two an inch or so in from each end, had to be opposite each other and spaced just far enough apart so that when the rig was placed right side up on the track, they would allow the wooden box to be slid along the rails, with the downward protruding brads holding it in position from side to side. If the box slipped left or right, as it would tend to do on a curve, the brads between the rails served the same purpose as the flange of a real train wheel.

All that remained was to make a set of small loops of string, one of which could be dropped over the upright brads standing on the platform ends of every two adjacent cars. And so the cars were coupled together to form a train. I put the joined cars on the track and, by inserting a finger into the first car I made of it the engine. Then I could crawl along beside the layout, and my train of cars slid right along the rails, moving up grade and down, and negotiating curves flawlessly. Of course, the train had to be drawn gently, and not too fast. But it held the rails, and I could produce my own sound effects as I moved the train along, and I was pleased as punch with my very own homemade train. I doubt very much that Mark Conan enjoyed his Lionel electric train any more than I enjoyed the train I had made for myself.

Next week: Rat tales and more from Arthur G. Harrington


  1. Very interesting, Woody! Trains have always been a fascination of mine, as they were for my father-in-law. He would have enjoyed this very much.


  2. "Woody"??!! just came upon this post, but time for bed. will read tmw. people call you Woody??? haha. wonderful.

  3. p.s. am helping on a book about a transcontinental train ride in Canada. fascinating. my brothers' train set was my favorite toy as a child. and #2 favorite was their steam engine. and #3 was anything and everything on my dad's workbench in the basement.

  4. Ah, yes, the "Woody" thing. That's worth a whole post over on SherWords, if I'm ever feeling particularly uncharitable to my parents. Here's the short version: I have no middle name, and my parents called me "Woody" when I was growing up -- and so did everyone else. (Garth was a boyhood pal of mine going all the way back to elementary school, for example, so that's who I am to him.)

    As life went on, an increasing number of my friends and co-workers apparently felt that "Woody" seemed incongrous, and the usage of "Sherwood" increased. Today, almost (but not quite) all of my colleagues call me "Woody," but almost (but not quite) all family members call me "Sherwood." Friends are about evenly split.

    I honestly have no preference -- they're both uncomfortable in their own way ("Sherwood" sounds stuffy to me, but "Woody" has its own stiffening connotations.) The only thing that creeps me out a little is when somebody who has always called me one of them starts calling me the other.

  5. Hard to imagine the author rolling his eyes at the meticulous walkway maintenance mentioned over on SherWordies.

    Lynda called you Sherman the first time you met.

    Set the Way-Back-Machine to embarrassed.