The Iron Hobby Horse

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A selection from "The Iron Hobby Horse"

by J. C. Furnas
Saturday Evening Post
August 21, 1937 Vol. 210 No. 8 issue

Miniature Railroaders

The granddaddy of them all was a wealthy old gentleman in Pennsylvania in the last century, who died gloriously in the cab of his own 9-7/16 inch gauge engine one night, when she turned over as authentically as if she had been the old Ninety-Seven herself. He was particularly fond of using his two engines to buck snowdrifts, they say. You could go on forever. When the late William Gillette's will was probated, the wire-service reporters had themselves a field day over the fact that one solid paragraph of it was devoted to cautioning his executors against allowing "sapheads" to lay hands on the miniature railroad which ran round his estate at Hadlyme, Connecticut, in the case of which Mr. Gillette's guests often rode with Sherlock Holmes himself at the throttle, barbed in overalls and a blue-denim cap and yellow wash gloves.

That railroad of Sherlock Holmes', however, tactlessly brings up the subject of the contempt that each kind of amateur railroader feels for the others. Mr. Gillette's miniature layout had cars, roadbed, ties, and rails. But one of its locomotives made the social error of being storage-battery powered, a dodge which is anathema to those aristocrats among private railroaders, the seventy-odd members of the American Brotherhood of Live Steamers, all of whom own and operate -- many of whom are capable of building with their own hands -- exact-scale locomotives run by real steam. Vincent Astor, for example, has a miniature railroad with a live-steam loco at his place at Rhinebeck, New York. Up in Westchester is another prosperous man whose proud possession of a two-inch-gauge live-steamer results from a history of youthful frustration. As a boy, he was wild to own a toy train, but his parents, who had ideas of their own, never supplied one. So, when he grew middle-aged, he made it up to himself gorgeously, with any amount of track curling round the back premises and, chuffing along its rails, an engine which is patrician even among live-steamers, because, instead of alcohol, it burns actual coal in a firebox of about the size of cigar case.