Walter Johnston

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Walter Johnston was a Chicago-area live steamer.

Bill Koster wrote:

Walter Johnston had quite a railroad on a farm. It was just across the border from Chicago in Indiana. My diesel was the first diesel to run on his track. He later came to visit me in Homestead, Florida and ran my diesel there. I don't know what may have happened to his track. It was on property that his relative Emery Ohlenkamp (the injector manufacturer) owned.

Leonard Carey Williams wrote on Facebook, 4 February 2020:

Walter was very kind letting me run his Hudson. It was a wonderful running engine. I was 9...first touch of steam...never have been the same since.

Hobbies, Unlimited!

The following article appeared in the magazine Together, January 1959.

It really runs on steam, this remarkable exact-scale train built by hobbyist Walter Johnston. That's Walt operating the engine.

YOU COULD HARDLY call it a "model" train. The engine is one eighth full size, weighs 1,440 pounds, and runs on live steam supplied by a coal-burning boiler. And the eight cars it tows carry up to 20 passengers.

But one thing is clear: this unusual product of a home workshop marks Walter S. Johnston as a true railroader at heart — even though he's a manufacturing-plant manager by profession. It's the culmination of a hobby interest that began years ago when this locomotive engineer's son first yearned to have a real whistle-tooting, smoke-belching locomotive. That dream has come true only in the past 15 years, during which he has built two live-steam engines — and, for the larger, more recent one, three gondola cars, three flat cars, a tank car, and a caboose. Soon he'll add four new boxcars.

The pride of the "Johnston Line" is the 12-foot locomotive and tender, an exact-scale replica (1-1/2 inch per foot) of a New York Central Hudson-type engine. Mr. Johnston designed, manufactured, and assembled it almost entirely in his well-equipped basement shop. He needed technical knowledge of steam locomotive operation, machine design, pattern making, etc. — and plenty of patience, stretched over six years and roughly 3,000 man-hours. When the engine finally was completed, he excitedly fired it up right in his shop. Smoke and steam soon had him gasping for air, and big drops of condensation hung from the ceiling. But, says Mrs. Johnston, the look on his face when the engine worked was well worth the expense of redecorating!

The complete 10-section train is far too big for the usual back yard. So Mr. Johnston laid nearly a half mile of special 7-1/2 inch track on a friend's Indiana farm. When summer comes, the train is moved 30 miles to the farm from its off-season "roundhouse" — the Johnston home in Blue Island, 111.

Once it is on the tracks, Mr. Johnston dons overalls and an engineer's cap to fuel the tender with coal and water, fire up the boiler, oil running gear, and fill lubricators. Then, with a shriek of the whistle, a few huffs of black smoke, and a rush of live steam, the train is under way. Soon the click of wheels indicates 80 miles an hour — scale speed. The train brakes to descend a grade, rounds a curve, then climbs uphill with the sharp bark of its steam exhaust echoing across the fields.

Up front, astride the engine, Engineer Johnston again breathes the delicious lingering aroma of steam, valve oil, and coal smoke. Sure, he knows diesels are more powerful and more economical than an old-fashioned steam engine. But the Johnston Line is strictly for pleasure — and that's a dividend it pays every year!

— Richard C. Underwood


Library to present RR 'Journey to Yesterday'

Suburbanite Economist, Thursday, May 10, 1973

Walter S. Johnston

Railroaders, past and present, will be interested in hearing Walter S. Johnston speak on "Railroading in the Age of Steam" at the Blue Island Public library, 2433 York St., Tuesday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m.

Johnston is a native of Blue Island and attended public schools here. He received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Armour Institute of Technology in 1924, after which he was employed in the manufacturing industry from which he retired in 1966 as works manager with the Flintokote company.

With a life-long interest in steam locomotives, Johnston has built two operating scale model engines. he uses one of them to power a miniature railroad which he operates during the summer months in northwest Indiana.

This locomotive is one-eighth full size, is fired with coal and is capable of carrying passengers on the 1/2 mile Johnston Line.

The prototype is the New York Central Hudson, which formerly powered the Twentieth Century Limited and other famous trains.

During the program, Johnston will recall some of the aspects of steam power as learned from his father, who was a Rock Island locomotive engineer.

There will be a slide presentation entitled, "A Journey to Yesterday" featuring a steam train trip to Colorado over the Burlington Railroad with a steam trip to Rock Springs, Wyoming, on the Union Pacific Railroad and steam trips on the DRGW Narrow Gauge railroad from Alamosa to Durango, and Durango to Silverton and return. This was an outstanding trip for rail fans sponsored by the Illini Railroad Club.

This program is open to the public. "Railroading in the Age of Steam" is the fifth and final program in a series which began last fall. It is sponsored by the Friends of the Library.

The Johnston Line... in miniature Miniature railroad pictured above is one-eighth full size, is fired with coal and is capable of carrying passengers on the 1/2 mile Johnston Line in northwest Indiana.


Emery Ohlenkamp, Ray Pieper and Bill Schreiber wrote the following obituary, which appeared in Live Steam Magazine, January 1980, page 59:

Walter S. Johnston of Blue Island, Illinois, passed away on October 30, 1979 as the result of an automobile accident. He was born on December 28, 1901, and is survived by his wife, Lillian.
Walter was a pioneer in Live Steam. The New York Central Hudson that he had built to 1-1/2 inch scale was a beautiful and excellent locomotive to run. He built another to 3/4 inch scale, as well. He operated his 1-1/2 inch scale locomotive for 27 years on his magnificent Johnston Line layout near Cedar Lake, Indiana. All were invited to try their hand at the throttle of the 2031 and many new engineers were created with his help. Incidentally, the Johnston line was featured in the June 1978 issue of Live Steam Magazine.
Funeral services were held at the Grace United Methodist Church in Blue Island where Walter was a very active member.
Walter was a fine craftsman, a good business executive, a civic-minded Rotarian, and a fine Christian gentleman. He leaves behind a host of friends who appreciate having shared Live Steam operations with him.


  • The Miniature Locomotive magazine, March-April 1953