Lionel for 1947

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Lionel for 1947
Posted by Penny Trains on Friday, January 11, 2019 8:41 PM

Maybe you've heard this story, maybe you haven't.  I've been looking for an answer to this question for 2 years now and I haven't found it.  But maybe we can speculate and come to an at least semi-educated guess and have some fun!  Big Smile

From a letter dated December 8th, 1947 via LIFE Magazine Books:

"I bought myself a birthday-Christmas present-

something I've wanted all my life-an electric train!

I have set it up in one of the outer rooms adjoining my office

so that I can play with it when I have a spare moment.

It's a freight train with a whistle, and real smoke comes out

of the smokestack-there are switches, semaphores, stations, and everything.

It's just wonderful!"

So who's office is this?

Walt Disney's of course!  Wink

All accounts say that Walt became absolutely obsessed with trains following that purchase.  In this letter, to his sister Ruth, Walt mentions the set as being "a freight train with a whistle, and real smoke comes out of the smokestack".  From that we know that the train set in question is a Lionel.  The rest is too vague to determine anything further.

From Wikipedia

"Disney renewed his interest in trains after injuries forced him to stop playing polo.[7] Seeking a calmer recreational activity, he purchased several Lionel train sets in late 1947."

From the Walt Disney Family Museum

"Being a girl, you probably can’t understand how much I wanted one when I was a kid, but I’ve got one now and what fun I’m having." 

Back to Wikipedia:

"By 1948, his interest in model trains was evolving into an interest in larger, ridable miniature trains after observing the trains and backyard railroad layouts of several hobbyists.Music These hobbyists included Disney animator Ollie Johnston, who had a ridable miniature railroad, as well as Disney animator Ward Kimball, who owned the full-size, 3 ft (914 mm) narrow-gauge Grizzly Flats Railroad.Music[9]"

Walt purchased his new home in the Holmby Hills area specifically with the idea of building what became the Carolwood Pacific 1/8 scale live steam railroad.

But that's not the only train layout we can attribute to the purchase of a Lionel train!  Big Smile

How about the two pictured and or diagramed above Walt's couch!

"The reason Walt built Disneyland is because he wanted one. He wanted the biggest train layout; he wanted a place for all of his toys.” —Bruce Gordon, Imagineer

Several sources say Walt referred to what became Disneyland as "The big layout".

So.  Which train set was the impetus for "The Happiest Place on Earth"?  We may never know with certainty, but here are the candidates:


  1. 1435WS: 2025 K5, 2466WX, 2452X Blk gon, 2454 Baby Ruth, 2472 Penn N5.
  2. 1437WS: 2025 K5, 2466WX, 2452X Blk gon, 2465 Sunoco, 2454 Baby Ruth, 2472 Penn N5.
  3. 1439WS: 2025 K5, 2466WX, 3559 Dump, 2465 Sunoco, 3454 Auto Merch, 2472 Penn N5.
  4. 1441WS: 2020 Turbine, 2020W, 2461 Depr. flat w/transformer, 3451 Op. Lumber, 2560 Crane, 2419 DL&W Work.
  5. 1443WS: 2020 Turbine, 2020W, 3459 Auto dump, 3462 Milk, 2465 Sunoco, 2472 Penn N5.


  1. 2121WS: 675 K5, 2466WX, 2452 Blk gon, 2555 Sunoco, 2457 Penn N5.
  2. 2123WS: 671 Turbine, 671W, 2458 Automobile, 3559 Dump, 2555 Sunoco, 2457 Penn N5,
  3. 2125WS: 671 Turbine, 671W, 2411 Big Inch, 2454 Baby Ruth, 2452 Blk gon, 2457 Penn N5.
  4. 2127WS: 671 Turbine, 671W, 3459 auto dump, 2461 Depr. flat w/transformer, 2460 Crane, 2420 DL&W Searchlight Work Caboose.
  5. 2129WS 726 Berkshire, 2426W, 3854 Auto Merch, 2411 Big Inch, 2855 Sunoco, 2457 Penn N5.
  6. 2131WS: 726 Berkshire, 2426W, 3462 Milk, 3451 Op Lumber, 2460 Crane, 2420 DL&W Searchlight Work Caboose.

Or, could it have been the 4109WS: 671R Turbine, 4671W, 4452 Blk gon, X4454 Baby Ruth, 5459 Auto Dump, 4457 Penn N5, the Electronic Control set?

Walt was NOT known for doing things WITHIN his limitations.  When his wife Lilian refused to let Walt lay tracks through her garden, he tunneled underneath it instead.  And, he planned it with an "S curve" to "give riders twisty thrills in the dark."  When his foreman said "Walt, it'd be a lot cheaper if you built the tunnel straight."  Walt replied "Hell, it'd be cheaper not to do this at all!"

So here's Walt Disney, at the tender age of 47, the proverbial kid in the candy store picking out the train set that will lead him to create the "theme park".

But which set could cause that kind of inspired thinking? 


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Posted by Flintlock76 on Friday, January 11, 2019 9:22 PM

Good question Becky, as to which set caused 'ol Walt to go ga-ga over toy trains.

Then again, he wasn't the first middle-aged guy to pick up the hobby and certainly wouldn't be the last.

If I remember correctly, Walt was a lifelong railfan to begin with, growing up as he did in Marcelline Missouri, which was on the Santa Fe mainline from Chicago.  SF was the best show in town in those days, and it was free!

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Posted by robmcc on Saturday, January 12, 2019 7:18 AM

That's a great question, Becky. Ironically, it my father's 1947 1433W set he handed down to me for Christmas some 35ish years ago that got me started in this madness! Just to spin the question even more, do we know it was even actually a 1947 model year set? I'm surprised he didn't have any toy trains sooner due to his love of trains. i would have assumed he would of had at least the Mickey and Minnie handcar!

Not to hijack Becky's post, but FLINTlock76? Did I miss the memo?



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Posted by Penny Trains on Saturday, January 12, 2019 7:23 PM

Some more bio stuff.  Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago.  In 1906, Elias, an unsuccessful carpenter, moved his family to a farm in Marceline Missouri.  To quote LIFE: Walt "spent his four short years there prowling its main street, marveling at the locomotives, and sketching the animals that populated the family farm."

From the Walt Disney Family Museum: "Walt’s love for trains went back to his early childhood. In a 1938 Family Circle article titled “Snow White’s Daddy,” Walt recalled one of his earliest train memories, “When I was five my family moved out of Chicago and we went to Marceline, Missouri…I can clearly remember every detail—just as if it had been yesterday. I even remember the train ride from Chicago to Marceline, and I remember the new things I saw as I looked out of the window.”

But Elias was not cut out for farming and in 1911 he moved his family to Kansas City where he bought a paper route.  Walt and his older brothers were, of course, Elias' employees.  From Wikipedia: "As a young boy, he wanted to become a train engineer like his father's cousin, Mike Martin, who drove main-line trains on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.[3][4] Disney's father worked as part of a track installation crew for the Union Pacific Railroad.[3] As a teenager, Disney worked as a news butcher on the Missouri Pacific Railway, where he sold newspapers, candy, cigars, and other products on trains.[5] He sometimes climbed over the tender and into the locomotive's cab while the train was in motion.[5][6] After he bribed the engineer and fireman with chewing tobacco, they showed him how to operate the locomotive.[5][6]

Wikipedia: "In 1917, Elias bought stock in a Chicago jelly producer, the O-Zell Company, and moved back to the city with his family.[16] Disney enrolled at McKinley High School and became the cartoonist of the school newspaper, drawing patriotic pictures about World War I;[17][18] he also took night courses at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.[19] In mid-1918, Disney attempted to join the United States Army to fight against the Germans, but he was rejected for being too young. After forging the date of birth on his birth certificate, he joined the Red Cross in September 1918 as an ambulance driver. He was shipped to France but arrived in November, after the armistice.[20] He drew cartoons on the side of his ambulance for decoration and had some of his work published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes.[21]

Disney returned to Kansas City in October 1919,[22] where he worked as an apprentice artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. There, he drew commercial illustrations for advertising, theater programs and catalogs. He also befriended fellow artist Ub Iwerks.[23]"

And Walt and Iwerks made cartoons:

Further info from the Disney family: "Down on his luck with only $40 in his pocket, Walt set off from Missouri for Hollywood. With success came setbacks. Walt lost the rights to his first animated star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Determined not to give up, he started sketching an idea that would later become the beloved Mickey Mouse."

On a train.  Like Lincoln's Gettysburg address!  Big Smile

"During the summer of 1949, Walt and Ward attended the Chicago Railroad Fair. There Walt saw full scale historic trains in pageants with performers in period costumes. He walked through recreated “lands” including an “old New Orleans,” and enjoyed a spectacular fireworks show over Lake Michigan in the evening. Many of these Railroad Fair experiences would help shape what would become Disneyland. After seeing Animator Ollie Johnston’s backyard steam railroad, Walt decided he had to have one of his own. By Christmas of 1949, Walt’s hand-built miniature steam train, the Lilly Belle, was completed and running at the Studio. By the late spring of 1950, it was running along more than 2,500 feet of track around the Disney family’s new home in Holmby Hills."

So, yes, Walt Disney's love of trains is a lot like it was with most of us: something clicked at an early age and it stuck.  But just like my dad, who, as one of the older children in the house was sent to live on his aunt's farm when his younger siblings were born, never had what we might think of as "a childhood".  Walt was always working.  (And perpetually strapped for cash!  Laugh)  So, no.  He wouldn't have spent money on a train for himself...... until he had become restless (read: bored) which all accounts say he was by late 1947.

Also, there's no evidence the Lionel set came from the 47 catalog.  But it sounded like a good place to start.  Wink


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Posted by Flintlock76 on Saturday, January 12, 2019 8:32 PM

That shot of a 17 year old Walt Disney in front of the ambulance (wonder who drew that Doughboy caricature on the canvas?) always impressed me.

Maybe he's 17, maybe he's a Red Cross volunteer, maybe he's an ambulance driver, but he's one soldierly-looking young man!  

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Posted by rtraincollector on Saturday, January 12, 2019 10:30 PM

He was in the Army then

Life's hard, even harder if your stupid  John Wayne

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Posted by Trinity River Bottoms Boomer on Monday, January 14, 2019 5:08 PM

For those of us who want something bigger than Lionel but can't afford backyard riding trains we now have Large Scale to play with.  What LGB started has progressed to many other manufacturers who offer trains in all eras.  Hartland Locomotive Works in LaPorte, Indiana and Piko in Sonneberg, Tueringen, Germany, both offer affordable quality large scale products for indoor and outdoor use.

Regardless what kind of toy trains you prefer, one thing remains, simply said: Model Railroading is Fun!   


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Posted by RJSMITHINDY on Saturday, January 19, 2019 6:59 PM

Getting back to your original post Becky, with 1947 being a plausible starting point, I would suspect that the operating accessories were of interest to Mr. Disney. Set 2131WS is headed by the impressive 726 Berkshire and includes the operating milk car and a work car with an operating crane. Surely this set had some serious consideration at least?  He surely wanted a passenger set as well. The 2126WS with the 671 locomotive and an impressive passenger consist may have had primary consideration as well. All speculation of course, but these are my guesses.

- Rob

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Posted by Penny Trains on Saturday, January 19, 2019 8:09 PM

That would be my guess as well!  Big Smile

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Posted by Flintlock76 on Sunday, January 20, 2019 10:27 AM

One thing's for certain, Walt could have afforded the best top-of-the-line sets Lionel had, and then some.  If I was in his position that's what I would have done.

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Posted by Jones1945 on Monday, January 21, 2019 9:14 AM


One thing's for certain, Walt could have afforded the best top-of-the-line sets Lionel had, and then some.  If I was in his position that's what I would have done.

I suspect Mr. Disney had a secret room of a 1000 sqft layout of Lionel's trains inside his beautiful house in L.A. Spin the globe and the door will open. Wink

Great effort by the way, Becky!

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Posted by Penny Trains on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 7:13 PM

One thing's for certain, Walt could have afforded the best top-of-the-line sets Lionel had, and then some.

Well, it's complicated.  But in a nutshell Walt paid himself and his top animators very well and the rest.....not so much.  It's what led to this:

Perhaps the catalyst, the ember that started the blaze of 41 was when one of the prime animators got punished for helping a "lower" department get their work done.

This is probably the biggest factor for Walt's boredom with film making and why he wound up in front of a Lionel salesman in 1947.  He became and remained till his death an informant for the FBI.

Big Smile  I'm Cuckoo For Choo Choo Stuffs!  Big Smile

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Posted by Flintlock76 on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 11:07 AM

Oh well.  Obviously everything wasn't always "supercalifragilisticexpealidocious" in "The Magic Kingdom."

PS:  Took me THREE tries to get "that word" right and even now I'm not sure.

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