Santa Claus’ mode of transportation has traditionally been a reindeer-powered sleigh, but somewhere along the way, toy trains chugged their way into Christmas tradition.
For about a century, they have clacked around tracks that orbit Christmas tree trunks, to the delight of kids and adults alike.
The connection between Christmas and choo-choos started with the Lionel Train company in the early 1900s, according to Tripper Stiles, an employee at Mohawk Valley Railroad Co. in Schenectady, a business that sells, restores and repairs model trains.
“They basically carpet-bombed the market with advertisements for trains for Christmas that all the little boys wanted,” he said.
Christmas advertisements from The Schenectady Gazette featured toy trains at least as far back as 1914, according to research performed by Melissa Tacke, librarian for the Schenectady County Historical Society.
“Years back, the Carl Co. had trains and a lot of the merchants in the Schenectady area had trains and they set them up and operated them at Christmas time. That’s when they had their biggest sales of train sets,” said Dave Halverson, treasure for Upstate Train Associates, a group that puts up an extensive model train display at miSci in Schenectady during the holidays.
A Dec. 15, 1914, ad for the H.S. Barney Co. in Schenectady highlighted the store’s Toy World, which featured Santa Claus and toy trains, along with “mechanical men performing funny antics” and “miniature gas engines that explode so many times a minute.”
A Dec. 14, 1922, ad for the Boston Store claimed that the department store offered the largest line of trains in Schenectady, including Overland Flyer miniature railways, American Flyer miniature railways and Lionel electric toy train sets with tunnels, electric lamp posts and electric warning signals. Advertised prices ranged from 98 cents to $26.75.
Other Schenectady stores that used to sell toy trains at Christmas included James F. Burns Electrical Works, Sears, Alling Rubber Co., The Wallace Co. and David Mahoney Co.
According to the Lionel website, the toy train company was at its peak in the early 1950s.
During that decade, the pastel-colored Lady Lionel train set and trains with space age and Cold War themes appeared under Christmas trees.
Lionel ads from the 1950s show happy families playing together. One, which shows a mother, father, son and even a dog enjoying a train set up near a Christmas tree, reads: “Everybody is happy when it’s a Lionel Train Christmas.”
Another ad shows a father and son admiring a miniature locomotive. It says, “Make him the happiest boy in the world this Christmas with the only train in the world with Magne-traction. The sensational new 1950 Lionel trains.”
“Unfortunately, Lionel was selling far more engines and rolling stock than existed on real railroads, which were rapidly overwhelmed by competition from highways and airlines. Lionel actually had its own television show, but the new medium soon mesmerized America, and interest in toy trains waned,” the history section of the company’s website reads.
“Lionel went through some ups and downs over the years, but nowadays they’re kind of picking back up and they’re trying to recapture nostalgia,” noted Stiles, who said sales still spike at Mohawk Valley Railroad Co. during the holidays.
While capitalizing on nostalgia, Lionel is also trying to appeal to the younger set. The company now offers a Thomas the Tank Engine line and Polar Express set, which is one of the biggest sellers at Mohawk Valley Railroad at holiday time, Stiles said.
Since 1970, the Hudson Berkshire Division of the National Model Railroad Association has held a Great Train Extravaganza show and sale in Albany on the first Sunday in December. Many people who grew up when toy trains were all the rage attend the show and bring along younger generations to share the magic with them.
“We think having the show this time of year is great because we get a lot of grandparents coming with the grandkids, and they kind of secretly go off and buy something when the kids aren’t looking. I see that all the time,” said train show manager Richard Smith. The toy train show and sale, which will take place today, will include about 300 dealers and exhibits, clinics and a train ride for kids.
Interested in trains?
-- The annual model train exhibit is back at miSci, 15 Nott Terrace Heights, through Jan. 20.
Volunteers from Upstate Train Associates construct and staff the elaborate 19-by-27-foot display of running O-Gauge model trains located in front of the main entrance to the Suits-Bueche Planetarium. In addition to several model trains that run continuously, the exhibit includes a miniature amusement park with Santa riding a rollercoaster, a pair of children ice skating on a pond, a farm scene with horses and cows and more.
This year’s exhibit also features toys little visitors can play with, including a walk-on piano and giant building bricks.
For more information, visit miSci.org or call 382-7890.
-- The Great Train Extravaganza will be held from 10 to 4 today at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.
The event, sponsored by Upstate Train Associates and the Hudson Berkshire Division of the National Model Railroad Association, will include about 300 dealers and exhibits, clinics on model train basics and tree-making, operating layouts and a “Roaming Railroad Rides” for kids.
Admission is $7 for adults and free for children younger than 12. For more information, visit www.gtealbany.com/GTE_Website/index.html.
-- Rides on the Polar Express, based on the popular children’s book and movie “The Polar Express,” run from the Amtrak station in Saratoga Springs through Dec. 29.
While riding in a decorated train car to the “North Pole,” kids hear the story “The Polar Express,” are served cocoa and cookies and get to meet Santa and his elves.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sncrr.com/the-polar-express.html or call 877-726-7245.
Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @KellydelaRocha.