Miller Backyard Railroads
From Large-scale Model Railroading, p 6
- Cliff Pettis of Texas introduced a low cost line of car and locomotive parts, all in 1-1/2" scale. This line changed hands many times during the thirty or more years that it was available; originally starting as "Texas Railways" which became "Miller's Backyard Railroads", followed by "Bethlehem Pattern Supply", and finally, "Texas Railway Supply Inc". It is felt that this line started many enthusiasts in 1-1/2" scale modeling.
My name is Jan Miller. I am the daughter of Robert Miller of Miller Backyard Railroads. A few weeks ago I Googled our company name for fun and came across your site. I even saw a picture of me!! (I'm the little blond girl sitting in the cattle car from the 1958 Model Railroader ad. No the boys aren't my brothers. They are the sons of the man who owned the foundry we bought to make our castings.) Several people were asking whatever happened to our business or to my dad. I hope what follows will answer questions raised on this site.
After coming home from WWII, my dad was toying with the idea of building a roller coaster in the backyard for my two older brothers (who were both toddlers at the time). He had always been a model railroader in HO and O scales and eventually went with a a 1 1/2" scale / 7 1/2" gauge train, thinking it would be safer. At one point he was the biggest customer of a company in Texas and that owner offered to sell him the company for a good price. Later, (probably still in the late 40's or early 50's) he bought the only other company in the U. S. producing 1/8th full-size railroads. Both of my brothers tell me the "Texas" models had real springs so they were probably the original models from one of the companies we bought. By contrast the "Lehigh" models had springs that were for show only. Since we lived in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylania, the "Lehigh" name probably refers to the models we developed to keep backyard railroading affordable.
My dad also realized that our customers had varying degrees of time, expertise and access to machining or woodworking tools, so you could order everything from component parts to kits in varying stages of completion to finished products. We would even bend the rail to your specifications to create curves. (By this time Dad had talked the Reynolds Alumninum Company into making aluminum rail to for us to replace the very heavy steel rail.) By the end of our run we had at least two customers in each of the 50 states plus at least one customer in each of 7 foreign countries. We had several customers in Hollywood, CA including bandleader David Rose, several animators from the Disney studio including Ub Iwerks, Ollie Johnston and Walt himself, who eventually offered my dad the job of building the narrow gauge railroad at the original Disneyland. (Several of the animators preferred the "English" live steam trains which were 1/10th full size but still bought castings and other parts from us.)
At one point we had at least one car of every size of train ever made, including a full-size track-checker in the back yard. I was raised with a hammer, saw and nails in hand so I could build the packing crates for the trains once I turned 12, but we sold the business about 1960-62) by which time little sister Joy had arrived. The buyer was Cliff Lynn of Bethlehem Pattern and Model Shop. Mr. Lynn used the same castings but was much more of a perfectionist in making the train bodies so the prices started to rise. He sold the business sometime in the 1970's back to another concern in Texas. (Editors note: Terry McGrath of Fort Worth, Texas, purchased the business from Cliff Lynn circa 1972 and renamed it Texas Railway Supply Inc). We heard at one point they were featured as a "His and Hers" gift in the Neiman-Marcus catalog and that's where I lose the thread of what happened to the company.
Both of my older brothers had backyard railroads as adults but only one has even a modicum of equipment now, which he keeps as a memento. While brother Jon was raising his family at "Millerheim" (the site where the our business started), the family hosted midnight haunted railroad rides for Halloween. His wife Chris even replaced the bodies of two radio-controlled racecars with handsewn rat costumes to "terrorize" the passengers who had just "stalled" on the 90' trestle over a stream. The antennas of the cars became the tails for the rats.
Our most advanced layout (which was later run by brother Robin and his wife Nancy) had 1 1/2 miles of track in the woods with two concentric circles, a turnaround triangle and a long extension with a loop. The 12 minute-long ride included several tall trestles, four villages of buildings in scale including an overshot grist mill which created enough energy to light up the building (appropriate for Millers!). The layout was big enough to run two trains simultaneously. We were at least joking about installing radio-controllers on some of the 13-or so double and triple switches so engineers could switch them on the fly.
This was all good fun but the railroad's real legacy to us was spending quality family time together, sharing with neighbors, visitors and customers, developing "can do" building skills and encouraging imagination and entrepreneurship. My dad may have declined Walt Disney's invitation but he gained the confidence to become a successful businessman whose positive influence is still being felt. He died too young in 1977 at the age of 58. My mom is still merrily chugging along at 92. The four siblings have lots of pictures and fond memories and we still enjoy talking with model railroaders. Its been a long time since I've been to a meet but I especially love the layouts with dual tracks so live steamers can meet the hoi polloi. (Except for one brief period where we got to try someone's lovely live steamer, nearly setting the woods on fire at Millerheim, our engines were all powered by gasoline or electric.) If you have questions, please do not hesitate to reply via the site or to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please let me know if I can forward your info on to my sibs.
From Chaski.org, 12 July 2010:
Somewhere, I have a 1970s(?) era hardcover book on the rideable miniature railroad hobby, published by Kosters (a company based in Florida that built 1 1/2" scale trains) that mentions Miller's Backyard Railroads in an early chapter, and credits this firm - and the little magazine ad that started this thread - with really bringing mainstream America, rather than just machinists, into the hobby. I guess Millers was one of the first to widely advertise affordable, gas-powered locomotive kits in this gauge.
My father built a backyard railroad in NJ, starting in the mid-1960s, that began with a "Lehigh" SW diesel kit from Millers. He purchased the whole kit, wooden body, mechanical castings and gas motor from Millers, and assembled it in our basement. We ran that locomotive for 25 years in our little back yard. I still have it in more or less operable condition today. I wonder how many others are still running? I would love to hook up with other Miller operators and see how they are faring finding replacement parts. There are two items associated with the uniquely simple Miller "transmission" that need to be replaced periodically due to normal wear. One is the leather clutch pad and the other is a rubber diaphragm (probably not quite the right word) that substitutes for actual needle bearings inside the drive shaft's universal joint.
Other than those two items, the unique Miller power transmission is simple and really bulletproof. After running one of their locomotives for more than a quarter of a century, the only weakness I would report is that there is no practical way to power both trucks under the locomotive. Traction can become a problem when curves and grades are combined.
I don't believe anyone is making these Miller castings today and I wonder if the patterns have survived? The company went through several names (just looking at this thread, it appears in the 1950s the line may have originated as "Lehigh Models" that were distributed by "Miller's Backyard Railroads") including Bethlehem Pattern Supply and a name that began with - and was presumably located in - Texas. The last catalog I have that offers the Miller designs is from a place in Texas and I think dates from the mid/late 1970s.
As a very young boy (maybe 5 years old) I visited Miller's "store" in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. I recall it being kind of like an automobile garage at the end of a macadam driveway, and filled with shelves of castings. There were no finished locomotives or cars, like the catalog shows, at the time I was there. That makes me think everything was sold in kit form. One clear memory I have from 40 years ago was that the owner gave me a bright yellow plastic whistle, in the shape of a steam locomotive, with the company name and address stamped on the side. There was a big pile of these cheap plastic whistles on/near the counter at the back of the shop - in a wicker basket. The things your mind retains!
One other note: in the 1950s Miller's catalog that is scanned on this thread, it shows a unique track system with stamped aluminum ties held to the rails with special metal clips. I own about 300 feet of this track, and at the time my father bought it (1960s), he told me the owner mention it was his invention - and that my Dad was the only person who had ever purchased any up to that point! It is not terribly authentic looking track but I can tell you it lasts forever.
Thanks for the memories and scans of this unique place that others have shared here. BTW, I have many written articles on the history of amusement park trains (for Live Steam, Modeltec, Grand Scales Quarterly and many other publications) under the name Ray Haigh. If anyone knows of another Miller owner who wants to get in touch, they can reach me at ray59 @ pa.metrocast.net (eliminate both spaces, I did that to defeat the cyber bots of the world).
From Chaski.org, 17 July 2010:
Just to add another piece to the discussion, I have a GP-7 based on Miller components. I'm told it was built maybe 45 or 50 years ago and ran up in Sussex County, NJ. I am about half way through restoring the body which was reportedly built by the owner who was quite the sheet metal expert. It was very well made for its day.
The trucks are quite heavy and it came with the Miller cone friction drive system and about a 3HP B&S engine. My plan is to re-power it with electric drive but will try out the old gas drive system first just to see how it works. The narrow hood makes it tight for a bigger gas engine.
I have attached a shot of the locomotive as I received it. Its a monster at about 7 feet long coupler to coupler. I am about 1/2 way through the body restoration. I sand blasted the heavy main frame and have painted it. The locomotive was built to resemble the Erie's #1234 and sported a great paint job that unfortunately peeled off the galvanized sheet metal rather badly over the years.
I'd appreciate any history anyone may have on the locomotive.
A Miller Backyard Railroads EFR Diesel Locomotive was on auction on eBay in May 2013. The engine was setup for 7-1/2 inch track (the wheels are adjustable). Overall length is 10 feet and weighs in excess of 500 pounds. It is powered by a 4 cylinder Crosley engine with a hydraulic drive system to the trucks.