All Aboard… for Plasticville!

by | Dec 1, 2007 | Features

Story by Bob Virden
With Christmas approaching, some of the fondest memories of the season were entering the toy section of the major retail stores and seeing the elaborate operational layouts of Lionel Trains. Multiple locomotives pulling their loads through tunnels and over bridges with landscapes seemingly created by highly trained artists. A Baby Boomer born in the late 1940s in Philadelphia, I grew up in the zenith of the popularity of Lionel and American Flyer model railroad sets.

Two of my uncles had train sets, as did my family — my father purchased one of the mid-level Lionel sets of the 1951 model year. He would set it up on a platform in one of the downstairs rooms of our Philadelphia row house.
On this platform, he would assemble an array of Plasticville buildings and houses with small plastic automobiles, creating a small city which would be serviced by the locomotive and freight cars. A small population of lead figurines — including railroad workers, housewives, professional men, laborers, schoolchildren, dogs and cats and even a hobo — were used to give life to Plasticville.
As the train circled the town, the whistle would sound and small puffs of smoke could be seen coming from the stack of the locomotive. The white refrigerated car was always fun to watch. Five milk cans were loaded in the top of the car. When the car was positioned in front of the metal freight platform, the push of a button revealed a tireless little man depositing milk cans on the platform.
The family’s train set had a cattle car which included a stock pen and ten or twelve steers. When power was switched on to the pen, the doors on the stock car would open and the pen would vibrate, hopefully sending the steers either into or out of the stock car. This was not the most precise operation and it seems that there was always just a little human intervention necessary to get the car loaded or unloaded.

In 1955, my father took a job in Miami and moved the family to sunny south Florida. The enthusiasm to spend time in doors setting up and displaying the train diminished, until finally the train found its way into the attic or a closet.
There it remained until I was given full possession of the set. I spent my first Christmas out on my own setting up Plasticville in my one-room studio apartment. With a little TLC, the train performed almost like new. That was in 1975.
The layout would not see the light of day again until 1981 — one year prior to the birth of our first daughter.

For the next 23 years, the train set would remain in our closet, basically forgotten. Until — thanks to the popularity of the movie The Polar Express and the marketing of Polar Express train sets — I realized that our two daughters, Cindy and Elizabeth, then in their twenties, had never seen Plasticville.
So for the Christmas of 2005, I decided to pull the boxes out of the closet, set up the plywood plat form, and rebuild Plasticville.
Once again, with a little TLC, Plasticville was thriving. The smoke was still puffing from the stack of the locomotive. The milkman looked as if he had not aged a year and still could unload the milk cans without tiring. The cattle car and the steers still needed some prodding to get loaded, but that was expected. The town was thriving again with people and automobiles.
While searching through the Lionel documentation, an undiscovered personal treasure was found. A piece of family memorabilia that will always be cherished — the original track layout design, drawn by my father, on the back of a Reading Railway System spiral calendar page dated Nov. 2, 1949.
My grandfather was a conductor for the Reading Railroad (that’s pronounced “redding”) and retired in 1955. That is the same Reading Railroad you landed on the last time you played a game of Monopoly. A subsequent search of old family albums revealed a photograph of the original train set up built by my father in 1951.
This Christmas, Plasticville is thriving. The railroad has grown to include passenger service with a second locomotive. New housing construction is under way to accommodate the growing population. The enthusiasm has returned and is shared with guests and family alike.
It looks as though Plasticville will be revived for many years to come.

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