'Tis the Season

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, December 1, 2017

No, you haven’t wandered into the Model Railroader site by accident.  What you’re looking at is in fact a model railroad, but it was built and (as of December 1976, when this photo was taken) owned by a real railroad.  Not just any railroad, either: the “mother of railroads” in the U.S., the Baltimore and Ohio (or, to its more ardent supporters, the “Best and Only”), which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was the “first steam-operated railway in the United States to be chartered as a common carrier of freight and passengers (1827)”.

It’s pictured here in the lobby of the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company, where it was displayed for many years as a Christmas/Holiday tradition, beginning in 1946.  Actually, there were two different model railroads in this service through 1961: the O scale version (pictured here), and a newer, HO scale entity; they appeared in the CG&E location in alternate years. The railroad-issued brochure for the latter provides an excellent background on both:

Back in 1936 the Baltimore and Ohio built its now famous portable O-gauge miniature railroad.  With repeated showings its popularity increased rapidly.  It was estimated that a half million people viewed it in the beautiful showrooms of the Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday period of 1948.

During World War II it was used for exhibition purposes by the United States Army to stimulate enlistments in the Transportation Corps.  It has also been used by the Army for extensive instructional purposes in the Army Transportation School at Fort Eustis, Va.

In fact, calls for it have been so numerous that only a relatively few could be answered favorably.  This is the principal reason for the B&O’s decision about a year ago that an additional miniature railroad should be built.  Another reason was the fact that few show-places were so constituted that the O-gauge model, which measures about 50 ft. long and 25 ft. wide, could be properly accommodated, with adequate space for spectators.  Hence, it was determined that the new model should be in HO gauge, which is about half the size of the O-gauge, and which also has marked additional attractiveness because of its being so small.

A “portable” model railroad occupying a 50 by 25 foot area?  The O-Scale’s brochure indicated that this was the case, and provides some additional technical detail:

This miniature system can be set up or taken down in three days.  There are more than two thousand electrical connections between the control box and the numerous sections of the platform and track.  More than one hundred relays, busily clicking, govern the signals and train control.

An article in the December 1989 issue of Model Railroader (“Cincinnati’s Trains of Christmas”) indicates that by then the layout was on long-term loan to Cincinnati Gas & Electric from CSX Transportation.  By the late 1980s, a lot of real railroad history had transpired, which needed to be reflected in the equipment being operated on the model.  The MR article indicates that while the B&O initially updated the equipment to reflect changes on the prototype railroad (this was the steam-to-diesel transition period, among other things), this policy “… was reversed during the 1950s.  The Baltimore and Ohio realized the value of the older models, both as representatives of departed prototypes and as historic entities in their own right.”

Subsequently, both the ownership and display venue have changed.  After many years downtown the railroad model was conveyed to the Cincinnati Museum Center, and displayed in its facility in what was formerly the Cincinnati Union Terminal.  Due to refurbishment of the structure the holiday tradition has been suspended in recent years; hopefully it will commence again once the work is completed.

As a native Cincinnatian, I had a certain bias towards the model of the train of the same name (headed by a P-7D Pacific, with streamlining by Olive Dennis, the B&O’s “Engineer of Service”).  My visits, which became an annual tradition, began when I was five or six.  My mother would pick me up from school, and put me on the bus headed downtown, where my father would meet me and we’d head over to the CG&E’s building on Fourth Street for a viewing.  (While there were cold war concerns in the 1950s, accompanied by “duck and cover” air-raid drills in school, apparently no one looked askance at putting a youngster on a bus by himself back then.)

While the B&O was relatively prominent in the Queen City, the O-scale model depicted, in theory, a portion of the Cumberland Division, which was terra incognita to me at that point in my life.  In reality the layout was a large loop with a yard and servicing facilities at one end, which facilitated continuous running, and the display of multiple trains.  The model featured a working B&O-style color position light system, which was an impressive touch.

Christmas was certainly something to anticipate during my childhood; the season was only made better by the B&O’s contribution to both our civic and my personal enjoyment.  It was thrilling to revisit it as an adult at the time of the photo, and find much of what I remembered from my childhood still intact.  Unfortunately, the Cincinnatian didn’t make an appearance, but the impressive rendition of the eight-car Columbian was still extant, and awaiting its turn on the 50 by 25 foot stage in the yard at lower left.  That’s either the baggage-dorm-lounge “Harpers Ferry” or “Silver Spring” at the head end of the train; by then I’d actually enjoyed riding on the latter.

At this season, a classic song wishes that our days be “merry and bright”, and that all our “Christmases be white”. I think that many of us would rank a Christmas train of some sort even higher than snow; the B&O did a fine job of meeting this requirement for me, and, I suspect, many others.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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