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© December 8, 2007  

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Riding Scale Railroading, Two Views
Part I, A Half Century of Change


Andy Morrison still steaming after 50 years


Written by Andy Morrison

Where is the hobby of riding scale railroading headed? To answer this anywhere near accurate, you need to look where the hobby was, where it is and where it may be in years to come. To get a wider focused picture of the question, I concluded presenting two views would offer a more creditable insight for you. If you are reading this, you are very likely a big part of the future, so it does concern you.

I recruited Andy Morrison to write part 1. He has been in the live steam hobby for 53 years now and with his engineering background, has presented an excellent brief accounting of the last 50 years in the hobby and what it has turned into in more recent years.

I have also been in the railroading hobby for 53 years but was a late arrival on 7½" gauge scene. My background in researching railroad data, being very active in building the 7½" gauge Eagle Point Railroad and, more recently, compiling data on all riding scale railroads for Discover Live Steam, has given me a chance to analyze the gathered information enough to pose the right question. What is our future?


A Half Century of Change

From day to day it doesn’t seem like much changes in our live steam hobby but when I reflect back on a half century I see a great many changes, some of which are, no doubt, inevitable and irreversible.

In the 1940’s steam locomotives were in use everywhere and virtually every family included somebody that worked for one of the many railroads. Almost every town still had a functioning depot that most likely had some degree of passenger service. Just about every kid got a toy train as a Christmas present and saw trains every day so steam locomotives were in the general consciousness in a different way from today’s humanized "Thomas".

In the late 1940’s, there was not a lot of readily available information on the hobby. "Model Craftsman" magazine ran occasional articles on constructing small gauge live steamers that ran on trestle track and could pull one or two passengers.

In the 1950’s there was, of course, no Internet. Long distance calls were expensive so every request for information went by U.S. Mail. The excellent English magazine, "Model Engineer" was available by mail subscription in the United States. Little Engines, in southern California, was the big supplier to the hobby and did a fine job producing model steam locomotive kits in every track gauge from "O" to 7 ½ inch. Their catalog was full of useful photos and information including wheel and gauge standards. The Brotherhood of Live Steamers had been founded during the Depression as a clearing house for the addresses of live steamers wanting to find others in their area. But who knew? There were a handful of private and club tracks around the country, generally near major population centers. Apparently people found out about them by word of mouth or newspaper articles or stumbled across them.

The good news was that the populace was full of railroad men with steam experience and of skilled machinists that had supplied WW II. Almost every high school had a machine shop course (not just auto mechanics) as well as wood shop and drafting labs so the knowledge of how to make things was quite widely available, encouraged by projects published in the likes of "Popular Mechanics". Foundry practice and welding technology courses were offered by many engineering colleges. The hobby had a large potential pool of participants. But due to the extremely low level of communication and promotion, it was a pretty slow growing hobby.

In 1967, Bill Fitt took over the tiny mimeographed "Live Steam Newsletter" and turned it into a very nicely produced monthly magazine that included supplier advertising and lists of club tracks. This was the breakthrough that enabled the hobby to grow in the U.S.

By 1970, there was a very nice selection of suppliers and kits and tracks to run on. Winton Engineering and Railroad Supply in California and Harper Locomotive Works, which had evolved into Allen Models by 1971, provided other sources of steamers and components as an alternate to some of the Little Engines line. At that time the typical club meets would consist almost entirely of steam locomotive models and the club memberships were composed of many machinists and engineers able to assist newcomers from other disciplines.

In the subsequent decades things have gotten a little rocky from the perspective of the hobbyist interested in machining and assembling their own models, especially of steam locomotives, and looking for company. The good news is that the profusion of model diesel and electric locomotives has made it much easier and quicker to get into the hobby and get something running. All of these new entrants have expanded the membership of existing clubs and caused the formation of dozens of new clubs and tracks, giving the steamers many more places to run within a reasonable radius.

In 2007 you have to be at least 50 years old to remember main line steam in daily operation in the U.S. If younger, and you were impressed by a locomotive as a child, it would have been by a diesel and that is what you feel familiar with. It is highly unlikely that you have received any training in high school or college that had anything to do with designing or fabricating anything mechanical, those courses and labs having been abandoned with the advent of the personal computer and off-shore manufacturing.

Today, in a large "outdoor railroad" club with over one hundred members, it is a big deal if more than three or four of them are building or running steam. Those that are, are most likely "long in the tooth". Somehow, there are still a few youngsters that have enough curiosity about steam to study it and to go through the long process of learning how to build and operate a locomotive. The problem for them is that the "old heads" with years of experience are passing on and there is risk of inadvertent unsafe steam operation caused by a loss of consistent knowledgeable mentoring.

It has been painful to watch the struggles of the original suppliers as their founders passed on and their successors learned how much dedication and sacrifice that it took to keep those typically family businesses going. Fortunately, new steam component suppliers continue to try their luck but none have approached the "one-stop shopping" offers of the Little Engines or Railroad Supply of old. However, there is no question that the Internet now makes searching for supplies and components and clubs easy in a way that no one could have imagined in 1954.

Well, new live steamers, do your research, read the old textbooks, talk to the old timers, and make sure that you understand the safety issues. Hopefully, you will be able to keep model steam running for another half century.


Written by Andy Morrison

Be sure to read Part II of Riding Scale Railroading: "Today and Beyond"
Written by Rick Henderson


Please help in our research of this hobby.  Answer these questions based on your assessment of the hobby after thinking about all of the questions for a moment.


1. What do you feel will be the interest in owning and operating steam locomotives in the hobby in years to come?

Remain the Same  


2. Is the hobby, as we know it today, going to survive another 50 years?

Yes, and grow much bigger  
More likely to shrink

3. Where would you prefer to participate in the hobby?

A club railroad allowing public riders
A club railroad not allowing public riders 
A private railroad as owner or helper

4. Where do you see the cost of participating in the hobby going?

Costs will come down with growth
Costs will remain affordable
Costs will exceed my budget

5. With regard to liability, what do you feel the railroad’s attitude towards public ridership will become?

Invite the public anytime
Disallow public rides
Require membership in order to ride

6. What additional comments can you offer on the future our our hobby? (optional)


Sorry, this survey has concluded.





Be sure to read Part II of Riding Scale Railroading: "Today and Beyond"
Written by Rick Henderson





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Technical Issues such as problems and solutions associated with steam locos, hydraulic drives, electric drives, track laying and maintenance, signal systems.

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