by John D. Atkinson
In 1969, when I was nine years old, I inherited a miniature railroad built by my grandfather, Kenneth Lee Atkinson.
From 1953-1970 Kenny’s railroad operated along an edge of his property, across the road from the State Fish Hatchery, near Honor, Michigan. The railroad included two storage battery powered locomotives, six freight cars, a caboose, approximately 400 yards of railroad track, and grade crossing signals. At the end of the line, there was a covered railroad station called “Trouthaven”. Its bench provided a shady place to wait for the next ride, or better yet, to wait for the next turn to be the engineer and “run the train.”
Daris Nevil, of the IBLS (International Brotherhood of Live Steamers), recently asked me to write about my grandfather’s miniature railroad. At first I felt a bit reluctant. It is not a “Live Steam” railroad, but even more so, it would be a large sorting task because it involves surveying nearly 70 years of its history. The railroad has been set up and operated in ten different locations through the years and has sat dormant in storage at times.
In recalling the miniature railroad’s past, the “train” has been written about before. In the 1960s, it was featured in the Grand Rapids Press and in the Detroit News. In 1988, its story reappeared in a large page article in the Traverse City Record Eagle when the railroad returned to Benzie County, Michigan. (It had previously been located at Bay City, Michigan and portions of it were also located at Mound, Minnesota with other family members). Today, the miniature railroad has become a five generation family heirloom. The most recent locomotive engineer in the family made her debut on a very hot summer day back in 2013 at Lansing, Michigan. Perhaps it is time to write about the railroad again, to add more details and to update this legacy which originated from my grandfather.
Kenny began constructing his railroad in 1946 while living in Kenton, Ohio as a sort of artistic homage to his family’s railroad employment history. His father was a locomotive engineer for the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad when Henry Ford owned the company. Kenny's brother also worked for the DT&I, retiring as a conductor from the line in the 1970s. As for Kenny, his expertise was in working with electricity, initially in radio repair and later as a licensed master electrician. Back when Kenny began building his equipment, it was an engrossing engineering challenge for himself for there were few options for using any pre-manufactured components. He was from the era of “make your own, or go without”. His method of building things from scratch would often start with making “it” first, and then drawing a picture of it. My grandfather’s locomotives and rolling stock could be looked upon as early day “tin plate” equipment when compared to the scope of highly detailed items available for today’s railroading enthusiasts.
As the railroad stories in our family go, some enjoy the memories involving my grandmother, Van Dora, who was Kenny’s wife. She bucked many of the rivets used in the train’s construction. And one funny incident was that, it seems, for a long time she couldn’t find one of her brass cooking pots. One day she noticed the top portion of a tank car Kenny had finished (back in January of 1963), and she suddenly exclaimed in discovery, “There’s my brass pot!”
This brings to mind another one of my favorite stories. In 1966, Kenny had finished making an open style car-carrier and mounted it to the top of his Buick for a trip from Michigan to Minnesota. He drove up to the Tonka Toy factory entrance (then located at Mound, Minnesota) with the full intention of buying enough Tonka Toy cars to outfit his railcar. A representative from the factory commented, “You’re going all the way back to Michigan with this on the top of your car? It will be worth the advertising you’re going to do for our product for us to load it up for free.”
The early history of the railroad wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Carl Lamay. He was a great, great uncle in his eighties living with my grandparents in the 1960s. Carl was often my grandfather’s helper and the engineer for the miniature train when grandchildren were not visiting. At times he and my grandfather would clash for whatever reason and occasionally my grandfather would tell him to get the hell out of his workshop. Carl had kept an ongoing register of guest train riders on a clipboard tucked underneath the gondola car engineer’s seat. He was always so diligent about getting a guest to sign their name. I can recall him asking me at 6 or 7-years-old after giving a group of guests a ride, “Did you get them to sign their name?” Regrettably, his list of some 2000 names of people who rode the train disappeared.
As I think about Kenny’s engineering and problem solving skills used to construct his railroad, I also reflect upon the countless hours I have spent working on it myself. In 1985, I decided to challenge my own handcrafting skill by beginning construction of an Industrial Brownhoist (IB) 250 ton wrecking crane to compliment the 7 other railcars. I was living in Bay City, Michigan at the time, which was the home of IB, which later became known as American Hoist to Bay City residents. Like my grandfather’s fabricating of a caboose in a community where they actually made real railroad cabooses in Kenton, it seemed a fitting parallel to build a crane car in the community where they had actually manufactured real railroad cranes for over a century. It took me three years of patient work to complete the “big hook”. This included the cutting of all the working gears by hand, using a hacksaw and file. A gentleman with a thick Canadian accent who stopped to look at the railroad one time inspected the gears in the crane, looking at them for some time, and then paused to look back at me and uttered in a very friendly tone, “You’re fu%@*ing crazy.” I shrugged in reply with, “I had more time than money”.
The wrecking crane project also made me curious about my grandfather’s choice of building materials. I wanted to follow his construction style, matching the same kind of materials and fabricating techniques. He chose to primarily use aluminum for constructing his locomotives and railcars. My dad often commented that my grandfather was very concerned about rust. He didn’t see the purpose of expending a large amount of time on a project only to watch it rust away when exposed to weathering elements. This intrigued me enough to write letters to the three original producers of aluminum; Alcoa, Reynolds, and Kaiser, telling them about my grandfather’s use of their metals in his railroad. I was surprised weeks later to receive a rather large envelope packet addressed from W. Boone Groves, Jr., Market Manager for Railroad at Alcoa, who wrote, “…I’m sure the aluminum has held up well, for its non-corrosive properties, as well as its light weight, are among its major attributes.”
Over the years, people have asked me many questions about the railroad’s “specs.” Starting with the track, the wood ties were originally soaked in Penta, now a substance not readily available to the general public. Hence, it was the reason the track smelled like a real railroad track when I was a kid. The rails are eight foot sections of extruded 7075 T-6 temper aluminum, originally intended for use in aircraft construction. It is not as corrosive resistant as other aluminum tempers, yet very strong, and it continues to hold up well.
The track gauge is 12-15/16” which is an exaggerated width my grandfather seemed very comfortable with despite his 1-1/2” scale plan. My dad’s recollection was that the answer to how the gauge was chosen seemed to be built around a center-of-gravity stability issue. The actual reason(s) my grandfather decided on this gauge followed him to the grave. I have measured the distance between the inside of the rails many times. It is indeed 12 inches and 15 sixteenths.
All of the rolling stock wheels are fabricated from canvas base Phenolic material exhibiting strength and electrical insulating properties. It’s also quite light in weight when compared to a wheel made from metal. Kenny wanted to utilize the track for electrical purposes, and solid metal wheels and axles would have shorted out that idea. Ball bearings augment the stainless steel axles of the “un-sprung” trucks. The couplers are cast aluminum which operate prototypically when joined together and a few of the cars are spring buffered to cushion coupling action.
While the steam type locomotive finished in 1948 (also storage-battery-powered) is in a state of retirement, the Lima Switcher completed around 1955 still operates and can be placed into service. Battery weight contributes to the Lima Switcher’s tractive effort and only the rear set of trucks are powered. Among some of the engines’ features include, back lit raised-letter number boards and a traditional headlight. A small motor driven cam actuates a limit switch operating a 6 inch diameter Edwards single stroke bell. The two trumpet air horn is a loud Italian made Stebel. When the railroad is set up for operation, grade crossing signals or a power operated track switch can be controlled by the engineer using a locomotive mounted electromagnet which passes over magnetic reed switches located at fixed positions on the track.
In the early days of the “train” operation, audio from a sound effects record was fed through the rails to a speaker mounted in the locomotive hood, blaring out the sound of a roaring diesel engine. The locomotive’s stainless steel wheels are electrically isolated from each other providing an electrical path to the aluminum rails for purposes of recharging the batteries without having to use a plug-in cord. This design attribute was a pretty novel concept especially if the train happened to run out of “juice” 300 hundred yards down the track, away from any direct power hook-up. Locomotive traction is obtained from a 2HP rated 24volt 4000 RPM Sperry hydrostatic gun turret motor originally used in B-17 military aircraft during WWII. The units have held up well except for a slight blip in 1990 when I had to repack worn out leather gaskets in the transmission’s swinging yoke mechanism. I fixed that problem using leather from old Marine Corps boots issued to me back in boot camp. The Lima Switcher weighs 412 lbs loaded with 3 six-volt group 2 batteries making up an 18-volt system. The 2 horsepower rating of the motor is reduced by operating it at 18 volts. And older wiring diagrams of the engines showed my grandfather originally ran the units with just 12 volts.
The train’s wheels being wider with robust flanges contribute to the equipment rarely derailing. That is not to say accidents have not happened. I remember running the locomotive off the track end as a child and wondering what the ramifications were going to be. My daughter Maggie however, still holds the record for running three entire cars off the track end onto a ballast buffer zone when she was 5-years-old. I wish I had captured a photo of the event. My son Lee has quietly reminisced how in today’s world, Maggie and his experiences with the train could possibly be viewed as a kind of “child endangerment.” In spite of these railroad accidents, the Safety First bulletin board would still indicate 25,567 days without any personal injuries.
The engines and various cars have been painted with partially prototypically correct hand lettered logos and numbers under different company themes. The caboose and Lima Switcher originally ran in a “C&O for Progress” paint scheme.
And railroad “purists” are often eager to point out, the DT&I did not operate Lima Switchers.
The transition to the DT&I theme occurred in 1965 when my father, a product illustrator, and commercial artist painted the compass herald on the caboose and on one of the gondolas. The caboose paint job (now weathered) remains original.
The gondola being the more utilized car providing a place for the engineer to sit, did receive a refreshed paint job again by my dad in 1990 using a combination of paint and vinyl transfer letters. During the country’s Bicentennial, I painted one of the other gondolas red-white-and-blue highlighting the “Spirit of 76”. That car now runs with an older logo of Michigan based retail grocer Meijer. Except for the wrecking crane which is the heaviest car, the individual running weight of the cars range from 56 to 70 lbs.
The railroad is in another transitional phase having been stored for a little over a decade as its next chapter is formed.
Recently on December 3, 2016, the Lima Switcher and 4 railroad cars were temporally set up in a public park for a Christmas event running on a short 208 foot stretch of track. The train ran nearly continuously for 4 hours with the newest engineer (my granddaughter, now 6-years old) providing well needed operating assistance. During that event, she had asked me who made the train she was running, and I had to stop and count on my fingers briefly telling her, "... your great, great grandfather made this."
Christmas in the Park, Saint Charles, Michigan 2016
In closing out this article, I’ll highlight a seldom mentioned observation. When the railroad operated across the road from the State Fish Hatchery near Honor, Michigan from 1953 to 1970, eventually Kenny expanded his trackage along county road 669 (now referred to as Maple City Highway). The track crossed a public road formerly known as M-11 which the county never officially declared abandoned. The old road had been replaced by US-31 in the 1930s and had pretty much degraded to a two-track path by the time the track crossed it. Yet, Kenny’s installation of a concrete pad, welded stainless rails, and oak flange way filler was accomplished without any authorization from Benzie County or the (then) Michigan State Highway Department.
As for all those Tonka toys? They're a little rusty and banged up from being played with, yet they are still around.