Greetings all. Joined the forum recently after years of stopping by as a visitor. I could not find a formal introduction section to the forum so I’m hoping this post will act as such. I grew up in Elizabeth, NJ back in the 60’s, not far from the site where the Lionel factory in Irvington once stood. Even at a young age I had an appreciation for “old things”. We lived in a house that was built in the early 1900s. The creaky stairs led to an attic which was filled with cobwebs, old furniture, framed portraits of past family members and cedar chests filled with old clothing and keepsakes. I was always "exploring" up there looking for treasures. There was one item in particular that brought me back time and time again…the old box of Lionel trains. The 390E set had a locomotive, a tender and three brown and tan cars; Pullman, Mail, and Observation. The outfit was originally purchased by my paternal grandfather sometime around 1929 when my father was born.
My grandfather (far left on the black Harley) ..the original owner of my 390E set. Newark, P.D. circa 1938
I’m not sure what the cost was at the time but it was likely a stretch for a motorcycle cop with a wife and 3 kids. When my father left the Air Force in the early 50’s to start his own family, he took the trains with him and stashed them in the attic. By the 1960’s when I came along, these trains were already “antique” looking. Unlike the small plastic HO trains my friends had, these trains were huge and made entirely of metal. The engine I could hardly lift. I would take the cars out of their boxes and roll them along the floor or on a piece of loose track. The faded label on the carton showed an elaborate layout with a bridge, a giant factory with smoke stacks…a switching tower and a train station on a platform. There were crossing gates, street lights and telegraph poles. The kids playing with the trains on the box were squeaky clean looking with slicked down hair and Cardigan sweaters ...and they were wearing ties! This was now the psychedelic 60’s …the age of long unkempt hair, bellbottom pants and tie-dyed tee shirts. I studied that illustration endlessly, I was fascinated by it. I wanted to be one of those kids even if it meant I had to wear a tie...I was hooked !
The box illustration. The stuff that dreams are made of.
When I would ask my father if we could set them up he would reply “when you’re old enough”. It was right around Christmas time in 1969 that I guess he decided I was responsible enough to run the trains. My Uncle Joe, a carpenter for Thomas & Betts, built a platform from 2x4s and Homasote which we painted with flat green paint. It was in the middle room of the attic and built to sit directly on the floor. There were no Lionel accessories but there were some homemade wooden houses and a church that my grandfather had built. We made a simple oval with the tarnished stamped steel track and wired up the Model T transformer and sliding rheostat. Excitement and anticipation filled the air. With a hum and some sparks and a nudge to get it moving I saw for the first time the mighty engine turning its wheels under its own power as it rumbled along. Even with the Homasote cushioning the sound you could hear the rumbling of the train in the house below. It was the moment I had waited for. The excitement was short lived however, and it didn’t run long before it stalled…then again…and again.
A closer look revealed the problem. Besides the dirty track and dry gears, the engines drive wheels had cracks in them, lots of cracks. They were actually crumbling under the weight of the locomotive.
It was disappointing but we determined it would never run right unless those wheels were fixed. The nearest train shop was a place called Rosewood Hobby located on Wood Avenue in Linden, the next town over. Through the front door and against the wall to the right was the “service area”. We placed the engine up on the glass display case. The man behind the counter peered over his glasses as he looked at the engine and shook his head. He could replace the wheels but they would have to be ordered . It was looking like our first Lionel Christmas was not to be.
On the way out of the store another man walked over, I’m assuming it was the owner. He pointed at a stack of huge colorful boxes piled up on the floor. Shiny brand-new HO train sets complete with track, switches, houses, trees, etc. He said “If you’re interested, I would trade you one of these new sets for that old train. Takes up a lot less room and you’d have it for Christmas.” Even at 9 years old I knew this was a bad idea. My father smiled and said “no thanks we’ll pick up the engine when it’s ready”. I remember that like it was yesterday.
We got the engine back and for the next few months enjoyed the sights and sounds and smells that come with running a 40-year-old toy train. When summer rolled around the track was taken down and the trains were boxed up again. We never again set them up in that house. I didn’t know it at the time, but soon enough I would become the next caretaker of the trains that never seemed to run.
When my father passed the train set fell to me. I kept that 390E outfit with me through the next 30 years...first job, dating, marriage, eventually raising my own family. Moving from house to house the safety and security of the Lionel trains was always paramount and I kept looking forward to the day I would see them run again. I’d go to train shows now and then or swap meets or antique shops. (This was before the days of Ebay). I focused mainly on collecting accessories and scenery rather than rolling stock. ..always dreaming of finally building that layout I had pictured in my mind. I have everything I need. The Hellgate Bridge…the 840 Power Station…the Terrace Station Platform…just like the picture on the old box.
The 390E that has been in the family since new.
I’m still dreaming and still waiting for that day to come. The train set is nearing 100 years old. Heck the replacement wheels we put on are now 50 years old ! I find it sad that it has spent most of its life in storage. Maybe soon. I’m retired now and have the time to make it happen.
When that day comes, I may just put on a tie and a Cardigan sweater and comb my hair down neatly (what's left of it) . I guess you’re never too old to play with trains.
Normandy Beach, NJ