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The Rise of American Elevated Trains

By Hannah Davis, Spring 2019 Library Intern, Additional Research/Editing, Lori Nyce, Librarian, National Toy Train Library                Winter 2021

Readers interested in further information related to this article may contact the National Toy Train Library.

Elevated trains symbolized the ongoing struggle of the development of modern industry during the late nineteenth century. As per usual, east coast America was a few steps behind Europe. Times were indeed changing for cities along waterways, such as New York City and Philadelphia, as both workers and food began to be imported to the cities by train. By day the city transported in workers of all socioeconomic levels, and by night it was a city of the aristocrats and stragglers. To accommodate the rise of commuters, trains slowly began to pop up around the city.

However, urban political leaders initially disapproved of trains because of the danger and filth associated with steam trains as well as the massive amount of valuable land required for their use. Elevated trains had the benefit of removing traffic at the ground level, while maintaining pedestrian and commercial space. Although cities like New York benefited economically from the expansion of public transit, there were challenges to the construction of elevated railroads. In Cudahy's 2002 book, How We Got to Coney Island: The Development of Mass Transportation in Brooklyn and Kings County, the author describes some of the difficulties that Brooklyn and Kings County experienced in the development of its elevated railways. In 1878, the mayor of Brooklyn, James Howell, even considered vetoing the proposed elevated railways due to public and political opposition.

Philadelphia recognized the intrinsic blessing of elevated railways over waterways, since the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers surrounded the city. As described in the May 28, 1881 and September 16, 1882 issues of Scientific American, Philadelphia's elevated trains, constructed 33 feet above ground, bore heavy freight traffic across the city, and crossed 42.5 feet over the Schuylkill River. Broad street station, with its Filbert Street elevated railroad, handled more daily train traffic than "any other terminal station in the world" with a total of over 1,100 train movements per day. The interlocking switch systems and signal towers diminished the margin of error, increased safety, and made this the preferred method of transportation.

In response to the popularity of elevated trains, American toy train manufacturers recreated this latest phenomenon in addition to their floor trains and cars. Miniature elevated railways began as a wooden, hand-powered structure, and morphed into a machine powered cast iron structure.

 
Image Source:  United States Patent and Trademark Office, www.uspto.gov

One of the first Americans to patent a miniature elevated railway was none other than Charles C. Shepherd of New Jersey with Improvement in Toy Railways, patent no. 212,630. In the patent, C. C. Shepherd's 1879 elevated railway is "composed of [wooden] posts and connections" perpendicular to his wooden track.

The early 1890s marked the next significant turn for miniature elevated railways under the Hubley Manufacturing Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania with its cast iron, motor powered elevated railway. This small Lancastrian company was very progressive with the times, and, as noted in the September 26, 1894 issue of Electrical Review, assisted in constructing miles of trolley road for travel from Lancaster to Reading and Philadelphia.

John E. Hubley applied for and was granted three patents in 1893, the first two related to his clockwork elevated railway.

 
Image Source:  United States Patent and Trademark Office, www.uspto.gov

Hubley's first patent (no. 495,183) solidified Hubley's clockwork motors in the elevated railway. As stated in his patent, Mechanical Toy, it adapted "a clock-work motor, centrally located and attached to the underside of the center covering of circular railways, to move cars or other vehicles on different circular tracks, above, either with or against the sun, or in both directions, at the same time…. [It also provided] means to sensitively control said motor, by which the speed of such moving cars or vehicles may be regulated at pleasure."

Simply put, the motor operated like the gears of a clock. The power of the clock or train rests center of the face, but at a different level than the main face of the clock or train. The gears from below shifted the hands around the face of the clock, or in this instance, the rod moved the train around the track. After extensive use, the clock and the train were required to be rewound to work again.

 

 
Image Source:  United States Patent and Trademark Office, www.uspto.gov

Hubley's second patent for his elevated trains (no. 495,184) specified the formation of the elevated sectional circular railway, which could be single track or double track. In his patent, Sectional Circular Railway for Mechanical Toys, the elevated railway was comprised of "equal circular sections" of track that were interchangeable, supported by 4 cast iron posts, and bound to columns with 4 to 8 semi-arches.

The clockwork motor was centrally located, regulating the movement of the elevated train. Previously, circular track of this type was not made sectional and, as noted in the patent, was "inconvenient for storage, shipping, or packing."

These two combined patents formed Hubley's unique 1893 elevated railway. In a c.1893 illustrated catalog and price list, which features a clockwork elevated railway on the cover, Hubley Manufacturing Company listed six different models of elevated trains with varying sources of motor power including: clock movement, mechanical, steam, and electric. Hubley's clockwork and mechanical railways included a number 3 clockwork single track, a number 4 clockwork double track, and a number 25 mechanical trolley car on single track with trolley wire and poles. The steam elevated trains were marketed as a number 9 single track that could run for "20 to 30 minutes with one charge of water and alcohol", and a number 10 single track with a boiler that could run 60 to 90 minutes. The electric train, a number 11 single track with trolley wires and poles, ran on four cells, type K, 50 hour maximum, (known as an) Edison LaLande battery.

c. 1893 Hubley Illustrated Catalogue and Price List. 2nd edition.
 L. C. Hegarty Reprodction. Image Source:  National Toy Train Library

Every Hubley elevated railway came with its own steel track, four elevated iron posts, and assembly instructions, which the company claimed was the easiest both to set up and to tear down for storage. The circumference of the track was of 8 feet, 4 inches, and the distance from floor to track ranged from 7.5 to 8.5 inches. If the elevated railway was a non-trolley single track, it came with one iron locomotive 7.5 inches long, tender 3.5 inches long, and a passenger car 8 inches long, all-hand-painted in "black japan, yellow, vermilion, and gold" and made of malleable iron. The double track included an additional 6-inch freight car. The mechanical trolley car included the nickel trolley equipment, but no other cars.

Because the National Toy Train Library only contains a selection of Hubley catalogs, and few of these early Hubley catalogs have been digitized online, it cannot be said with certainty when Hubley ceased making their elevated railways. In a 1906 catalog, for example, the train section of their catalog only contained passenger and freight floor trains- no elevated trains whatsoever. Hubley continued producing its well-known cast iron toys and other products, and in its later years produced die-cast and plastic toys.

Other east coast American toy train companies also produced miniature elevated railways during the same time as Hubley at the turn into the twentieth century. Based on a review of catalogs from this time period, the Ives Manufacturing Company offered elevated railways from 1902 to 1907.

Unlike Hubley Manufacturing, Ives made their elevated trains out of primarily tinplate without any arches over the track. For every one-piece of their track, the railway could be supported by one of their posts, with 6-10 posts per layout. In the 1905 catalog, their elevated railway outfits for O gauge track included: number OE, a tin locomotive, tender, passenger car; number 2E, a tin locomotive, tender, baggage car, and vestibule passenger car; number 3E, a tin locomotive, tender, baggage car, and two vestibule, passenger cars; and number 11E, an iron locomotive, tender, baggage car, and vestibule passenger car.                                                         

1905 Ives Catalog
Image Source: National Toy Train Library

1905 Lionel Catalog. Don LaSpaluto Reproduction. Image Source: National Toy Train Library

The Lionel Manufacturing Company sold cast iron elevated pillars, no. 380, for use with its 2 7/8" inch gauge track. An example of their elevated railroad is pictured on the cover of the Lionel's 1905 catalog, Miniature Electric Cars, Motors, etc. for Holiday Presents and Window Display. As pictured, this "special show window display", no. 700, included an electric locomotive, trailer, 24 feet of track, a bridge, and elevated pillars. Lionel advertised this window display as affordable and easy to maintain, in contrast to other displays which used live steam or clockwork movement.  

According to Greenberg's Guide to Early American Trains, the Carlisle & Finch Company offered elevated railways for sale from 1905 to 1908. A review of catalogs from this time period confirmed this fact, although their elevated railway posts, no. 54, were listed as early as the 1904 catalog.


1908 Carlisle & Finch Catalog
Image Source: National Toy Train Library

Their no. 98 electric elevated railway, powered by four dry batteries, had 10 cast iron posts, each 10-inch-tall and 1 pound to support its 3-foot circle on a strip steel 2-inch gauge track. The elevated railway included a no. 42 trolley car. Between the track and the train, it weighed 27 pounds. The no. 54 elevated posts or columns could also be purchased separately.

It is possible that more American companies produced miniature elevated railways during this time period. That was beyond the scope of research available through the Train Collectors Association's library and online databases. Hubley, Ives, Lionel, and Carlisle & Finch were four examples of companies that made and sold miniature elevated railways east of the Mississippi River prior to World War I.

Elevated trains became the dominant, American, Mid-Atlantic, urban train in the last few years of the nineteenth century. Though they were initially despised because of their massive construction, they quickly were installed as space savers. In turn, American toy train manufacturing recreated the large elevated trains on a smaller scale.

In 1879, C.C. Shepherd of New Jersey patented his wooden elevated railway, and about a dozen years later Pennsylvania's John Hubley marketed his cast iron elevated trains with single and double track and every available motor type for the time. Other manufacturers, such as Ives, Lionel, and Carlisle & Finch, produced models of elevated trains prior to World War I.

In the end, American toy train manufacturers shifted the focus of their train production to their electric lines, as electric became more accessible to the public.

Second Decade.
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