Brent Lambert talks about the history of model railroading and describes current trends in the hobby. Since 2003, Brent has been the Director of the National Model Railroad Association’s A.C. Kalmbach Memorial Library in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He can be contacted via the library’s website at NMRA.org.
The NMRA library’s original purpose was to focus on model railroading, but over time we’ve also received donations that have helped us become a historical resource for information on prototype historical railroad subjects. I’m interested in railroad history, more the prototype than actually modeling, but I don’t collect personally. I’m from Chattanooga, and of course we have a rich railroad heritage here, so that’s one factor, but I also love history. I was a history major in college, and I had an opportunity to actually study under a prolific railroad historian, James Ward.
There are many different types of collectors within the hobby. Model railroading offers many different avenues that people can enjoy. Some people like to build their own layouts. Some people prefer to just collect model trains, locomotives, and cars, and they don’t have really any interest in an operating layout. There are also people who really enjoy book collecting within the hobby. They may collect both modeling books as well as history books, all railroad-related.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the biggest names within the hobby?
Lambert: Throughout the years, there have been several thousand model train manufacturers. Lionel, Amerian Flyer, Marx, Atlas, too many to name. William K. Walthers is the largest hobby distributor in the country and they deal mostly with model railroading. Not only are they a distributor, but they’re also a manufacturer.
But there have also been many very smaller operations. They may specialize in manufacturing wheels to go on the rolling stock and do nothing but that. Some produce cars. Some produce little figures that go on the layout, whether those be human figures or animals or all of the above. There have been hundreds of companies: Lobaugh, Red Ball, Megow, Varney… it’s a long list.
Collectors Weekly: Do more people tend to collect vintage trains or those from modern manufacturers?
Lambert: Both. Some people recognize not just the historical value but the monetary value of the vintage equipment, but there are also a lot of people who have a favorite railroad and will collect new locomotives produced with that road’s paint scheme and the numbers. They may buy it just because it’s Pennsylvania Railroad, for example, and it doesn’t matter who manufactured it.
The New York Central is another popular railroad to model or collect. Moving out toward the West, The Chicago and North Western was a big one. The Union Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Southern Railway, and the Great Northern, which was in the upper Midwest through the Northwest, were among the bigger railroads and the most popular.
Model railroading really took off in the 1930s. The National Model Railroad Association was formed in 1935 because manufacturers were producing so many new models and there were no standard gauge definitions. There was an O scale and an HO scale, which represented a certain ratio to the size of an actual train, but in the 1930s there was no standard definition of what those scales meant. An O scale locomotive from one manufacturer wouldn’t run on an O scale track produced by a different manufacturer. They weren’t interchangeable, so the NMRA was established to set standards to clarify the scales. That stemmed from the growth of the hobby – there were so many new trains out there that there had to be some ground rules.
Collectors Weekly: How many different scales are out there today?
Lambert: Currently there’s the Z scale, which is the smallest, and then N scale, HO, O scale, TT scale, and S scale. There’s a generic category of large scale, and right now various groups of people are trying to hash out standards to define large scale and G scale and whatnot. There are many different ratios that fall into that category: 1 to 29th scale, 1 to 22nd scale. It’s a catchall category for the largest of the scales.
A lot of times people will pick a scale based on how much space they have. If they’re limited in space, they might opt for N scale or HO scale. HO is by far the most popular. You can fit a lot of the railroad into a smaller space, but at the same time, it’s large enough that you can have a fair amount of detail on both the layout and on the individual pieces of equipment. It really appeals to a large segment of the hobby. The HO is 1 to 87th scale. N scale is 1 to 160, and O scale is 1 to 48.
O scale was the most popular during the 1930s and ‘40s, and there were various reasons for that. Lionel produced O scale material. They also did something called O27, but O was primarily their product. A lot of companies wanted to take advantage of the popularity that resulted from Lionel trains becoming a big business, so they produced O scale equipment as well. HO became popular because of its size more than anything and the fact that it offers the best of both worlds as far as being able to fit a lot of railroad in a small space but still having a lot of detail.
N scale became popular only in the last two or three decades. A lot of people, even apartment dwellers, can really take advantage of that because it’s small. You can have a lot of railroad in a very small area – 3 by 4 feet, for example.
Large scale model railroading is growing in popularity. These are what they call garden railways, where people actually have railroad layouts in their backyard. If people happen to like gardening and model railroading, they can combine the two and have a garden railway. They can incorporate plants into the layout to serve as trees or any other type of green scenery. Those are popular as well, particularly in the nicer climates.
Collectors Weekly: What are some other ways model railroading has evolved?
Lambert: There have actually been models of locomotives and railroad cars since the beginning of the railroad industry itself around 1830, although it wasn’t necessarily considered a hobby at that point. Model railroading began to slowly gain popularity in the 1880s, and really took off in the 1920s and ‘30s.
One important recent trend is the popularity of “ready-to-run” models, which is often abbreviated as RTR. That means you go to the hobby shop, buy a model, take it out of the box, and put it right on the layout, as opposed to actually having to model it. There’s quite a bit of debate within the hobby about whether that is truly modeling or not.
“The railroads had a huge impact on the Civil War.”
Back in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s when there was a more limited selection of products, they would actually build their models from scratch. They might use wood, cardboard, soup cans, and any number of things to create those models. There are still a lot of hobbyists who enjoy scratch building. Some people would rather just buy things that they can put on their tracks and run immediately.
Most of the models today are plastic, but the top of the line these days is brass. Brass trains are very expensive and certainly very durable. A lot of the older models were made out of wood or very heavy metal. The cars generally were wood. Tin was used for vintage models, and it could certainly be used as a scratch-building material.
I’ve seen articles in old publications that actually show how to build a locomotive out of tin cans. I’m sure that there’s a segment of the hobby that might still do that, but mainly, people who prefer to scratch build will use more modern materials. You can get cheap styrene now, which is plastic, and people can cut it into the shapes they need. There are a better variety of products that are easier to work with.
I think a lot of the motivation for getting into the hobby has remained the same since the beginning. However, railroads in general are less present in our lives than they were. In the 1950s, people used trains frequently to go on vacation, but most people don’t run into trains that often now. You might see one passing through the countryside or you may have a crossing fairly close to your neighborhood, but generally you don’t see them very often.
A lot of the people who are modeling now are more or less reminiscing, and they’re recreating what they knew as a child or a teenager. This is a way of tapping into history.
Collectors Weekly: Do people tend to model their railroads after a certain era?
Lambert: It really just depends on individual preference. One era that’s very popular with modelers is the 1950s, because that’s when steam locomotives were still around, but diesel locomotives were really gaining popularity. People who model in the 1950s can use both steam and diesel locomotives on their layout at the same time and still be historically accurate, whereas if they’re modeling the 1920s, they can’t have diesel, and if they model the 1980s, they can’t have steam. Steam was pretty much gone by the early 1960s.
Locomotives generally fall into three basic categories: steam, diesel, and electric, with electric being the least prevalent. Because they’re a relic of the past, I think steam locomotives tend to be more interesting to the average onlooker or hobbyist, although diesel locomotives are also very popular. Within those categories are many different models, meaning types of actual locomotives. There are many different historical prototype manufacturers and they produced many different kinds of steam and diesel locomotives. It would be hard to put a number on it.
Collectors Weekly: What do people model on a typical layout?
Lambert: Generally folks won’t make an entirely new railroad, but within their little layout scene, they can have equipment from different railroads. If they like a Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, they may have equipment from both. They might look at a roster of what those railroads actually had during that time period.
If they’re modeling the 1950s, they can say, “Well, the Pennsylvania Railroad had this kind of locomotive active and this one, too, so I’m going have those two on my layout.” That’s generally the way they determine what they’re going to use. Of course, some people just have whatever they want and really don’t care about historical accuracy.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us more about the historical aspects of model railroading.
Lambert: I’m interested in the historical base that people use to create their models. The prototype history. I have a couple of cars that depict railroads that were here locally and that are of interest to me. The only major railroad that had its headquarters located here in Chattanooga was the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia Railway, so I have a model that carries the Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia paint and emblem and all that.
I’m personally interested in the impact railroads had on the development of the country. Like where communities began to grow. There are many towns across the country that originated as a stop on the railroad and the railroad literally built the town. The workers who worked for the railroad built the homes there so that they could live there and have access, and the company itself may have built a hotel and other facilities. The town actually sprang up around the railroad.
The railroads had a huge impact on things like the Civil War. The north had a much more developed railroad system than the south and it was certainly more unified. The south had railroads that couldn’t connect to each other because they used different gauges of rail or had different distances between the two rails, which caused a lot of problems.
Collectors Weekly: Is model railroading a worldwide hobby?
Lambert: Definitely. It’s very popular in Europe and Australia. Some collect American trains. There are actually a couple of historical societies in England that are focused on American railroads, so there is an interest in American products.
Collectors Weekly: If somebody was just starting out with model railroading today, what books would you suggest they look at?
Lambert: There are some good ones put out by Kalmbach Publishing. They’re typically soft cover, around 90 pages, and they cover introductory topics, whether that be building the framework, the bench work that supports a layout, the woodwork, the braces, etc. They’ve done books on basic painting of locomotives and cars, basic electronics, those kinds of things.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me a little about the NMRA?
Lambert: Yes. The NMRA has a major show once a year in conjunction with our national convention, which is typically in either July or August. It’s a three-day event and it features a few hundred dealers. Those can be manufacturers or just distributors, and they have a wide array of products available, including books and scenery and tracks and all kinds of different things.
There are also NMRA regions and divisions located all over the country and they’re the ones that typically have meetings. Generally the meetings are at the divisional level.
The association is on the verge of celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2010, and that’s obviously going to be a special occasion for people associated with the NMRA. We’ll have our convention in Milwaukee that year, which is where the founding members of NMRA gathered and actually created the NMRA.
Prior to the move to Chattanooga in 1982, NMRA was located in rented space, and the NMRA leaders decided they wanted to have a permanent home. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which is located here in Chattanooga, offered to sell us a parcel of land right next door to their facilities for a dollar, so they more or less donated the land to us and we were able to build our headquarters here and we’ve been here ever since.
(All images in this article courtesy Brent Lambert and the NMRA)