Back Yard Locomotive Plant

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Back Yard Locomotive Plant

by Wesley S. Griswold

Popular Science, January 1956

Having a Field Day, members of the Brotherhood of Live Steamers held their convention in Mrs. Lewis' back yard, making full use of its 15 steaming racks, turntable and tracks.

The quietest and probably the smallest locomotive works in the U.S. occupies part of a roomy back yard in Lomita, Calif. There, under the direction of an energetic widow whose late husband converted his hobby into a business, four people make parts for scale-model live-steam engines that are marketed in kits all over the world.

Little Engines, as their enterprise is called, makes parts for five different model sizes, ranging in scale from 1/4-inch to 1-1/2 inch to the foot, and for a total of 12 types of locomotives.

Essential parts for the kits are either rough-cast or precisely machines, depending on what the purchaser can afford or what he prefers. If he is long on cash but short on power tools and know-how, he may pay as much as $600 for a kit that requires only an electric drill, a set of drawings, and a supply of bolts to assemble. If he has a home workshop and wants to save money, or simply have the fun of machining the parts himself, he can shell out as little as $125 for a kit and pile up the hours doing all the machine work himself.

Through correspondence courses, Mrs. Irene Lewis, who owns and manages Little Engines, taught herself enough mechanical and steam engineering to scale down drawings, cast a boiler or get up a head of steam on an engine.

Now she leaves most of those technical details to her assitant, young Bob Harpur. She devotes herself to managerial matters and the complex job of preparing an annual 90-page catalogue of the hundreds of parts for her scale-model engines. In addition, she corresponds with live-steamer fans and customers throughout the United States, and as far distant as Siam, Europe, South Africa, Australia, South America and Saudi Arabia.

Tidbits From Chaski

Living Legends writes:

In the early (Irene Lewis) days, they poured their own castings.
Back in the late 1970's/or early 1980's, I was talking to a L.A. City Fire Dept. Battalion Chief assigned to Battalion 6 in the San Pedro area, not far from Irene Lewis in Lomita. He told me as a young fireman in the 1950's, he spent some of his off duty hours doing foundry work for them to pick up some extra money.
The last time I was in the quonset hut that housed the foundry (not used for years) and patterns was back in the early 1990's when Moodie Braun still owned the company.

Irene Lewis' house as well as all of the buildings in the back yard and the track are gone now (December 2008).