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