Among the many traditions of the winter holiday season, having a toy train or as in the home of San Francisco resident Tim Vigil a complete model train set around the Christmas tree is a must. "I remember we had a miniature train and track that went around the tree, just about each year when I was growing up. Christmas is not complete without it," he said. This year his friend John Cantisani surprised him with a full-working model train of the classic California Zephyr.
Vigil was ecstatic. "a model train of the legendary California Zephyr,
can you believe it!" The CZ or "Silver Lady" as it was sometimes referred to traveled over 2,000 miles from Chicago to Oakland, CA. Initially back in the 1940's it was "the train" to travel in if going westward from the east. Over time as air travel became more affordable and popular with the traveling public the use of trains for long-distance travel decreased. The California Zephyr ceased its original travel itinerary. But subsequent railroad service under the Denver and Rio Grand Western Railroad took over a portion of the original route from Salt Lake City, Utah to Denver, Colorado. Then in the early 1980's, AmTrak created a hybrid route
which is still in use today.
On a trip to the East Coast last summer, Vigil took AmTak's California Zephyr, rekindling an affinity for "the old-fashioned way of travel" as he called it. But especially, he was thrilled to be on the Zephyr itself. And, that is one reason why he wanted to have a train around the tree this year.
"I will be slow to take down all the decorations this year," said Vigil as he invited friends and family to a gathering at his home this past Dec. 14. Cantisani helped Vigil find the right size of plywood to build a platform on which to set the circumference of train track. "A train set like the California Zephyr is not cheap," said Cantisani. Even a small size to fit within a budget can be of considerable cost. "It all depends upon the model and gage," said Cantisani.
And, Cantisani would be correct, because according to Jim, a sales clerk at Chan's Trains and Hobbies shop on Van Ness Ave in San Francisco just a section of track can cost as much as $100.00. "It is one model that is not made very often," he said. Gage refers to the size of the train and track. There are so many sizes like G-gage, O-Gage, H.O. Gage, HON-3 Gage, and so on. "With all the various manufacturers and sizes "there are more than you can count," he said.
While Cantisani described the various gage sizes and what he remembered from childhood, the question popped up of "how did model trains become a tradition around the Christmas Tree?" Cantisani could not say for sure, yet he surmised, toy and model trains being sold at Christmas time, "they just naturally go together."
Yet the question in this reporter's mind remained, "how did the idea of having a train go round a Christmas Tree first come about?" Cantisani mentioned that model train maker company Lionel might have something to do with it.
Calling around to the local model train and hobby shops around the City,
the name of Lionel did crop up as the most likely one to originate the tradition of having a train set around the holiday tree. "We don't have any California Zephyr models this year," said sales clerk Melissa at The Hobby Company of San Francisco
on Geary Blvd in the City's Richmond District. "Christmastime is when we sell the most trains and this year what we had in stock got sold out," she said.
Don Grant, sales clerk at Franciscan Hobbies on Ocean Ave
near San Francisco's Ingleside Terrace and Mount Davidson area, noted that Lionel is among the largest of the model train manufacturers. Founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen
in 1900 the company was prolific in the making of toy trains. By1909 Lionel became an industry standard leader in the manufacturing of model trains powered by electricity.
"It is said that Lionel was the first to display a train in a New York store at Christmas time," said Grant. And, while the official Lionel model train website does not make reference to that on its site, there are other sources that mention it on The Internet. "From what I understand, Lionel simply wanted to display various items that were set on the train cars. But people who saw the window display wanted the train," said Grant.
Jim at Chan's Trains and Hobbies
mentioned "they say it was Lionel and that it was only a display in a store window."
Paul Race of Family Christmas Online
pointed out that, the practice probably predates Lionel." It likely even predates electric trains period," he said. "Many of the earliest photo
postcards show kids playing with trains around the Christmas tree."
Regardless of Lionel's original intentions, the idea of having a train circle around the Christmas tree caught on. Cantisani figured it was about the 1950s and '60's when train sets for Christmas trees were at their peak. Race would agree as he notes on his web site
that the train around the tree was as important as Santa Clause or a stocking on the fireplace mantel.
The age of jet planes and outer space exploration certainly did have an impact on the popularity of trains. Yet trains still hold a place in the hearts of many people, especially in American History. "We have many loyal customers," said Jim. While the hobby of model trains can be expensive, those who love trains are many. Places like Hazle Township, Pennsylvania are dedicated to keeping the railroad past of America alive. "We still have this weekend left for our Open House that we open for the public to visit our layout," said Mamie SImcox advertising coordinator for The Anthracite Model Railroad Association club.
Founded in 1990, the primary goal of the club is to promote model railroading in all its forms. The main layout is approximately 2,000 sq. ft. in area and contains about twelve hundred feet of HO gage scale track. It is composed of two levels. General club meetings are held monthly. AMRC also provides track layout sessions for non-members regularly. For places like Hazle Township, PA the tradition and love of model trains endures, all year round not only at Christmas time. "There are people who love trains and building model trains, not just here in this country but all over the world," said ARMC founder Joe DeLuca. Speaking from his home in Hazleton, PA as he just returned from the ARMC Open House, he noted that there are model train groups in places as far away as Russia. "I founded the club more than 20 years ago, because I thought that my son Ron who was little at the time need something to do, like a hobby, something that he could build with his hands." That hobby grew into the ARMC and now son Ron owns a hobby and train shop of his own.
And, with regards to trains and Christmas, DeLuca noted, trains especially when I was growing up during World War II, was associated with coming home. Taking the train was the major mode of transportation back then and when people traveled during the holidays it was by train," he said. So, a train around the Christmas tree certainly fits the season.
"This is so marvelous, with the extra train track that I got as a gift from John for Christmas I want to make the route of the train even larger. That means that I will have to go back to the hardware store and get an even larger piece of wood to make my platform," said Vigil. Where he will store all this new model train equipment? "I will think about that later, said Vigil. "I just want to enjoy my train."