My favorite uncle, Ed Cooley, spent his career first as a machinist and finally as the shop foreman of Hunter Douglas Co. I worked summers in the shop when I went to school, and was in awe of his knowledge (even though he never finished high school) and ability. After retirement he built custom machines, and even though I was by then an engineer and pretty good at making things, I couldn’t compete with him.
He had always loved trains, and one of the things he built was an extraordinarily accurate steam-driven model (7-1/2 inch gauge —distance between tracks) of a Pacific locomotive with tender. It took him two years part-time to build it and was accurate down to the handles on the valves in the cab. It would have taken me five years and would not have been nearly as accurate.
There is a large track layout in Riverside California named after Joe Hunter, who was my uncle’s boss and also a railroad fan, and each Sunday Ed would take his train to the track and haul carloads of kids (both young and old) around the track layout. They loved it, and so did Ed. Ed was certainly not alone. There are many people who have built such things, many track layouts, and even more people who like to ride them (usually free). I concluded at the time that these trains were outstanding products. The people who ride them have a wonderful time, and the builder not only has a great time building and running them, but also receives tremendous positive feedback from the people who ride them and who watch the show.
I have been tempted to build one, but have never been willing to devote the necessary time to doing so to the standards I would like. But I have had a few friends who have done so and I had the pleasure of watching a couple of them in action yesterday on an extensive track layout built by Jacques Littlefield, who was one of my students and who achieved fame by amassing a huge and beautifully restored collection of military vehicles, but unfortunately died a few years ago. These two people, who were good friends of Jacques, have built exquisite models and were running them along with trains belonging to a number of people in the San Francisco area who have made or otherwise acquired them.
The photo above shows Bill Boller with his locomotive and cars (cover story in Live Steam Magazine) at speed with passengers. The one below shows Peter Mosely with his locomotive. It was a magnificent day, the Littlefield ranch is spectacular, and I had a wonderful time wandering around, watching the trains, admiring the craftsmanship, talking to people, and saying goodbye to the tank collection, which is going to cross the country and join the Collings collection of historic airplanes. The result will be amazing, but I hate to see the tanks go, because the collection has been part of my life for a long time. Fortunately the trains will remain.
And I had my mind expanded by a person named Ron Siechen, who had a minimalist electro-mechanical driven engine pulling a couple of simple cars. He unloaded it, put it on the track and immediately began pulling kids around without needing an hour to get the steam pressure up and the skill necessary to operate the steamers. At first I was not so impressed by it, but it was so simple to operate and he was willing to let other people drive it (he is instructing Dick Denicola, the father-in-law of one of my sons, in the photo to the right), and at the end of the day, loaded it and drove away an hour before the steamers were able to do so. I realized the joy of simplicity, low cost, and the even greater pleasure kids (once again both young and old) got from being allowed to drive it for a short distance in addition to being able to ride it.
But if I were to play the game, I would probably go for steam and for scale accuracy. The results are spectacular, especially if your life span has overlapped the age of steam locomotives.