Many can fondly recall the small train sets that operated at fairs, zoos, parks, and even the occasional drive-in theater. These trains reached their peak popularity during the 1950s and 1960s.
Two such park train sets were donated to the Southeastern Railway Museum by Ben and Joy Black. These train sets (two locomotives and eight passenger cars) were originally purchased and used at the Birmingham Zoo. They were manufactured by the Miniature Train Company in 1957 and used by the Zoo until their retirement in 1976.
After their donation to the Southeastern Railway Museum, the Museum began fundraising and planning for their restoration and for the installation of track. In October of 2012, the Museum began regular Park Train operations using one of the train sets on a loop track of 1,600 feet.
P.A. Sturtevant, the founder of the Miniature Train Company, was a self-professed tinker and owner of a successful machine shop. In 1928, he built a 7.25-inch gauge scale model of a Chicago and Northwestern steam locomotive.
P.A. installed track around his home, and it soon became the hit of the neighborhood.
One of P.A.’s neighbors was a Sears executive who asked if he could run the scale model locomotive at one of his stores at Christmas time. In 1932, P.A. Sturtevant leased the train set to Sears, and it quickly proved to be a huge attraction. Parents could go Christmas shopping while their children waited in line for the train.
Other store managers began to request similar or larger trains. Since the Electro Motive Corporation (EMC) was about to introduce the E1 locomotive, the team worked to build a model of a Rock Island E1. In order to increase the number of passengers a train could handle, a 12-inch gauge was selected.
World War II brought a halt to production of miniature trains. By this time, the company was leasing 36 electric department store train sets and had sold over 50 gasoline powered units for use in carnivals and at fairs.
In 1946, the G-16 train set was introduced. The ‘G’ indicated that the train was modeled after a GM locomotive (formerly EMC) and the ’16’ indicated the track gauge of 16 inches. The 12-inch gauge sets were renamed G-12s. On April 4, 1947, the first G-16 locomotive, #501, began a 30-year run at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
In November of 1956, the Miniature Train Company was sold to the Allan Herschell Company, the world’s largest maker of amusement park rides. Allan Herschell made over 20 amusement park rides, but trains were not one of them.
Herschell continued to manufacture G-16s under the Miniature Train Company name until 1963. During this period, ride operators pushed to increase capacity, and the new, larger 24-inch gauge trains became the norm.
Over 240 G-16 train sets were produced by the MTC. Approximately 70 locomotives remain in existence as of the early 2010s, with about 50 currently in operation. They are widely remembered as the little train that generations grew up riding at their local park or zoo.
The train set in use at the Museum has undergone a complete restoration. This two-year effort involved a tear-down of the entire locomotive and the passenger coach set.
When train sets were ordered from the Miniature Train Company, the purchaser could optionally select the paint scheme. The Museum’s train set has been restored to the pattern used by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad: the original scheme it was delivered in.
Locals can help keep the Park Train running by leasing a track-side billboard. Funds received from the billboard lease program help offset the annual operating costs of the Park Train. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the billboard program.