Tom Thumb Railroads
by Charles F. Carter
Railroad Magazine, 1939
Junior stood gazing at a little old 4-4-0 type locomotive of fifteen-inch gauge in the American Museum of Public Recreation at Coney Island, New York City, and suddenly became interested in the subject of midget railroads.
"Isn't she a beauty!" he exclaimed. "I wonder how much they'd take for her?"
"Museum pieces aren't for sale," I replied, "not even to Henry Ford. Mr Ford tried to buy that steam-driven bicycle just behind you, because it's the only of its kind ever built; and he was willing to pay a handsome price, but the management wouldn't sell."
"If we had that engine," Junior persisted, "we could build a garden railroad for her and have lots of fun. You said the other day that 'garden railroads,' as they are called in England, are becoming fairly common on gentleman's estates."
I nodded, "Besides the garden railroad, all that we lack at the moment is the estate."
Then we got to talking about Vincent Astor's railroads. Mr. Astor, who is a director of several full-grown railroads, owns a couple of impressive outdoor pikes on his swanky estates in Bermuda and at Rhinebeck, N.Y.
"Unfortunately," I said, "they're not open to the public, like the one we rode on at Playland last summer."
"At Rye Beach," Junior chimed in.
"Yes," referring to the amusement park in a suburb of New York City. "And there are plenty of other Tom Thumb Railroads throughout the country."
"Why do you say Tom Thumb?" Junior asked.
So I told him about the world's best known midget, the late Charles Sherwood Stanton, who was born January 4th, 1838, at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and never grew taller than forty inches nor heavier than seventy pounds. One day Charlie met P.T. Barnum, whose "Biggest SHow on Earth" wintered at Bridgeport. Barnum renamed him General Tom Thumb, taught him to sing and dance and tell droll stories, exhibited him to millions of people for the rest of his life, and made a barrel of money out of the little fellow.
I pointed out to Junior the miniature pony carriage that stood beside the locomotive he was admiring. "Queen Victoria gave that to Tom Thumb when he visited England," I said.
But Junior's eyes were still riveted on the locomotive. "She looks like the 999," he stated, "that ran 112-1/2 miles an hour."
"Yes, the world's most famous engine in her day. This baby was built by a mechanic named T.G. Cagney -- no relative to the movie actor, so far as I know. Mr. Cagney decided that if he were to turn out a replica of the 999 he could sell her for real money. Which he did. He built her to scale, for an amusement park. The novelty scored a hit, and T.G. got duplicate orders from other parks all over the country faster than he could fill them. Those Tom Thumb engines were just what amusement-park men had been waiting for; and thus Cagney started a nation-wide craze. Altogether he built about twelve thousand Tom Thumbs, in addition to those constructed by rival builders."
"She looks realistic," said Junior.
"Realistic?" I echoed. "Say, Mr. Cagney's version of the 999 was an honest-to-goodness coal-burner, with injector, whistle, airbrake, and all the other patent doodads. She could haul forty children -- four carloads or less -- at a speed of ten miles an hour. Yes, she looks realistic enough, but the first 999 was only one-sixth as large as the original and was too small to get around the curves with her load, no matter how carefully the outer rail was super-elevated. When the engine came to a curve she would hesitate and then lie clumsily down on her side like cow preparing for a snooze. This, of course, spilled the passenger into the dust."
"What did Mr. Cagney do about that?"
"Well, Junior, Mr. Cagney concluded she wasn't broad enough in the beam, and he began turning 'em out with two-foot gage, and they worked beautifully. There," I pointed to another midget locomotive in the recreation museum, "is one of Cagney's two-footers. She's about a third the size of the original 999 and she's still in good working condition."
"I'd like to see her run," Junior sighed.
"I've seen plenty of them running in my day," I said, as Junior stepped over to the larger engine for a close look and compared the two 999's with the critical eye of a railfan. "But it's getting late now," I added. "The museum is about to close."
So we dropped the subject until we got back home. And then, after the supper table had been cleared, I dusted off my scrapbooks and told him the story.
About the time of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 1876, the narrow-gauge fad reached its height. Not less than ten thousand miles of such railroads had been built or projected in this country. Westerners had the fever so bad that they even spoke of jackasses as "narrow-gauge mules." And, of course, there had to be a narrow-gauge at the Centennial Exposition so that visitors from all over the globe could see for themselves its superiority over standard gauge.
The Centennial's gauge was the same as the Denver & Rio Grande's, three feet, which everybody then was talking about. The line was four miles long, double-tracked. Half-grown trains wound their way through the stately exposition grounds in Fairmount Park (the world's largest city park), passing all the important buildings and stopping at most of them. The route was rather crooked.
Equipment consisted of ten locomotives and forty coaches. The engines were 4-4-0's, each weighing 42,650 pounds and having twelve-by-sixteen inch cylinders. A hundred passengers could find standing room in each coach, making a gross weight of about twelve tons. The average train had six or seven of these heavily loaded cars and made sixteen round trips a day. Passengers paid a five cent fare before entering the coaches and they got off wherever they chose. That saved the conductors quite a bit of work.
But in spite of the popularity and success of the three-foot Centennial line, T.G. Cagney built practically all of his engines with two-foot gauge, and the other manufacturers did likewise. In fact, Cagney's gauge was officially adopted by the National Association of Amusement Parks, Pool and Beaches. For years the prize attraction in the amusement parks was the miniature steam trains. Children and even adults went crazy over them. Most of the lines were from half a mile to a mile long, depending upon the space available, and the standard fare was a nickel. The public was having fun, the manufacturers and amusement-park men were coining money, and everybody was happy.
That is, everybody but the law-makers. There is nothing in the world that law-makers love more clearly than the regulating of railroads, large or small. And so when the legislatures in most of our states discovered that the Tom Thumb railroads were prosperous, they began to devise ways and means of regulating them.
The amusement-park men had fixed 90 pounds of steam pressure for their attractions, although some of Cagney's competitors were advertising pressure as high as 250 pounds. In the controversy that followed, the solons saw their chance. Gleefully they passed laws requiring every midget steam locomotive to be accompanied by a licensed engineer and a licensed fireman, thus creating what they fondly hoped would be thousands of new jobs for the unemployed.
But it didn't work out so simply. The tiny motive power could not haul a two-man crew and enough passengers to make a paying load. For a while it looked as if the amusement-park roads would have to be abandoned. But on second thought, the park proprietors decided to abandon the high-priced engine men instead. They sold the steam locomotives for scrap; they bough gasoline motors to be run my cheap labor, and they kept right on coining money. At first they used make-believe steam engines with gas motors, but it wasn't long before all pretense at steam was dropped and the gas motors were run for what they were.
Another midget line in Michigan is the Whysall Light Railway at Bloomfield Hills, whose engines and rolling stock were built as a hobby undert the critical eye of Jesse Gall, superintendent of production at Ternstedt plant 16 in Detroit. The WLR is one-quarter of a mile long, with 7-1/4 inch gauge, eight pound mine rails, and a pebble-ballasted roadbed. The locomotive, a live steamer, can haul ten loaded cars at speeds up to thirty miles per hour with no trouble at all.