Toy train collecting a serious hobby for children, adults for 175 years

  • A model of a Virginian Railway Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster leads a freight train during a North Central O Gaugers model train club open house at the Fremont Public Library in Mundelein.

      A model of a Virginian Railway Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster leads a freight train during a North Central O Gaugers model train club open house at the Fremont Public Library in Mundelein. JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer, JANUARY 2013

Posted10/6/2014 11:43 AM

You wanted to know

"Who invented toy trains?" asked a young patron at Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville.


Riding the rails just behind the invention of the train was the invention of the toy train.

Model railroading and antique toy train collecting have become serious hobbies for children and adults for nearly 175 years. Fans are offered a variety of collectible options, including miniature die cast, tin-plate, brass and plastic trains; various gauges or widths for the tracks; and toy trains powered by steam, electricity, batteries or containing a windup spring.

Paul Ambrose, a toy train expert, said train collectors are found worldwide.

"There are conventions, train shows, train collector clubs and associations throughout the U.S. and in Europe," Ambrose said.

His first toy train set was a birthday present given to him by his father more than 60 years ago -- a Lionel #671 steam turbine freight he still owns.

Ambrose and his associate, Drew Bauer, attract hundreds of buyers wishing to add to their collections through online auctions offered on Ambrose is author of "Greenberg's Post War Train Guides" and numerous articles in "Classic Toy Trains," "The Train Collectors Quarterly," and "The Lion Roars" publications.

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Roger Carp, senior editor of "Classic Toy Trains," gave this overview on the history of toy trains.

"No one knows for certain who invented the first miniature version of a train. The first toy trains were probably carved out of wood by a carpenter or another craftsman for the amusement of a child.

"Later came cast-iron versions, also pulled by a string. Such toys appeared in England, Europe, and the U.S. in the 1830s and '40s, wherever real railroads were being constructed," Carp said.

Ambrose said the toy train passion emerged in southern Germany in the late 1800s when companies Märklin, Bing, Karl Bub and others marketed well-crafted die cast and tin-plate toy trains in several gauges. In 1856, U.S. toy-maker George W. Brown made engines that could pull train cars.

"He had added a windup, or clockwork, motor to a cast-iron locomotive whose exterior had been coated or plated with tin to prevent rust. As windup motors became more powerful, the little locomotives gained the strength to pull cars behind them and to run over miniature track," Carp explained.


"The Ives Manufacturing Co., based in Bridgeport, Conn., developed better toy trains in the final third of the 19th century."

World famous Lionel model trains came on the market at that time.

"Joshua Cowen founded Lionel trains in 1900," Ambrose said. "A typical set included a steam-powered engine and tender for fuel and water supply, or an electric-powered engine along with passenger cars or several items of rolling stock, plus a caboose for the crew."

Ambrose said the interest in toy trains has edged up after a slump in the 1970s.

"Train collecting is now coming back with grandkids loving them," he said.

Those interested in toy train collecting, Ambrose advised, should locate the nearest Train Collectors Association chapter, which can be found online at

Toy train enthusiasts often love train travel, and Ambrose is no exception.

"I took my grandkids on the Cuyahoga Valley Steam Railroad in Akron, Ohio, on a steam engine excursion. My favorite Amtrak train rides in the U.S. are the California Zephyr, a Chicago-to-San Francisco route, and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle."