Trains have long held a nostalgic place in people’s hearts. Walt Disney was particularly enthralled by them and made sure to include them prominently in Disneyland, as well as having his own private railroad in the backyard of his Beverly Hills home. Of course, most folks don’t exactly enjoy the freedom to do things quite on the same grand scale as Walt, but Lionel Trains have allowed many a train lover to enjoy the experience of having their very own railroad, running in the privacy of their own home. And they have been doing so for over 100 years now, with no signs of running out of steam.
A man named Joshua Lionel Cowen initially designed these beloved toy train sets around the turn of the century – not for home use, but for store window displays. The public proceeded to fall in love with them, however, and demanded a train set for their very own – and Cowen couldn’t help but realize one heck of a business opportunity. He didn’t invent the toy train concept, by any means, but he did mass-produce them for a grateful population and, in the process, make his name a household word.
Attention to detail is what makes Lionel Trains stand out. Built to scale, the company offers replicas of just about every major line that ever ran in America. With engines that let out puffs of smoke and whistle on command, not to mention reverse direction, they are remarkable representations of the real thing. Alongside the trains are numerous available accessories to add even more realism to the home train experience. Coal elevators that really work, water towers and crossing gates are just a few of the possibilities made available over the years. Keeping track of them is easy, thanks to the annual catalogs that Lionel has produced for many years – giving kids plenty of ideas for Santa each year.
That’s not to say that Lionel trains are only enjoyed by children. Many an adult has been bitten by the toy railroad bug and created huge mock landscapes in their basements to watch their trains chug through for hours on end. Often though, they are a cherished father and son activity, a hobby that both can share in, and one that is often passed down through generations.
It hasn’t necessarily been a smooth ride for the Lionel Company. The Depression and WWII both took the public somewhat out of the toy train mood. And, as other forms of transportation eventually made railroad travel a thing of the past, train sales haven’t always been stellar. The company actually declared bankruptcy in the late 1960s. But, overall, Lionel Trains have proven resilient over the past 100 years and will likely be riding the rails and tooting puffs of smoke across faux landscapes for years to come.
If you are one of the millions of kids who grew up playing with Lionel trains, we’re sure that all you former (and current) engineers have plenty of fond recollections of this popular hobby. We hope you will share some of your memories in our comments section, as we tip our conductor hat to this fine toy tradition for over a century.