A Lionel Train Set Was the Dream of Every Young Boy

I noted in my last column that I acquired an American Flyer train during Christmas of 1947. On Christmas Day in 1952, I received my second one, a Lionel “O” gauge assembly that was the dream of every young boy. I had wanted a Red Rider BB gun that year, but you can readily surmise why I didn’t get one. My parents were afraid I might shoot my eye out.   

The two train products were quite different. American Flyer trains were double track, whereas Lionel ones had three, offering the advantage of some complex track designs without the problems of reverse polarity of electric current. The center track was negative; the two outer ones were positive.


The locomotive came with a bottle of small pills that, when placed in the engine’s smokestack, emitted white smoke as it chugged along. It also bellowed out a mournful steam whistle sound when a lever on the thermostat was activated.

Soon after Thanksgiving, my dad told me he was going to make me something special for Christmas and made me promise to stay out of our basement. I agreed to his request and kept my promise. He spent countless hours at night and on weekends fabricating a complex train layout for his only child.

Dad mounted everything on a 4’x8’ piece of thick plywood and added four legs. He constructed a city along one side; the rest of the board was rural terrain. The back portion had a tunnel where the train would disappear for a few seconds. Two separate loops of track allowed the switching of the train to go to the city or to the country.

Dad even subscribed to Model Railroader Magazine several months prior in order to glean ideas for the project. His biggest challenge came Christmas Eve night when he and Mom had to carry it up the stairs and into our living room. All the weeks of hard work were worth it when he saw the glow on his young son’s face. It made me forget about a Red Ryder BB gun.

An undated Lionel Train ad believed to be from the early 1950s shows a complete “O” gauge outfit for $14.99 that included a 30”x60” oval track, locomotive and button control, tender with automatic couplers, box car with automatic couplers, gondola car, caboose, automatic flagman, train station and 75 watt transformer.

A November, 1948 National Geographic magazine ad declared: “We know of no other gift that offers so many years of fun, excitement, and happiness as a Lionel Train. Thousands are passed on from father to son. They are so real, so true-to-life. Watch them puff smoke. Hear them whistle so realistically. Note the scale-detail perfection of their manufacture. For that boy you love, let it be a Lionel this Christmas.”

Another ad from November, 1949 added, “Here is, undoubtedly, the greatest father/son Christmas gift in the world. With reasonable care they will last a lifetime, therefore, a most economical purchase. They are real trains in everything but size.”

A fourth advertisement proclaimed that a Lionel train allowed every mom to see the boy in her man and man in her boy.

I was permitted to keep the train board in our living room for several weeks after Christmas, but eventually, I had to dismantled it and put it back in our basement. Within a year, the village was taken apart and the train set went into a large cardboard box for a couple years.

My 1952 Christmas present’s demise came when I sold it to an avid neighborhood train enthusiast, Ronald Turner, for a mere five dollars. I only wish that I had kept it for my young son.