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Houston Tinplate Operators Society - Lionel, Trains, Layouts: Newsletter

Newsletter: March 1998

In this issue:


by Walt Sklenar

Most model railroaders spend time planning, building and operating their own train empire. Our layouts may even become the focus for gatherings with family or friends. We often fantasize about having more space to expand our layout - some of us remember growing up in the north where basements are the rule. Imagine, if you will,a toy train layout with 8 miles (not scale miles, either) of track, a 1-mile long walkway in which to view your trains, the ability to run up to 125 trains at the same time, over 300 bridges, several thousand buildings, mountains up to 40' tall! No...this is not a dream...this is Northlandz.

While visiting my mom in New Jersey last Thanksgiving, my wife, 5-year-old daughter and I drove to what may well be the ultimate toy train layout. Northlandz is located near Flemington, New Jersey, about 1 1/4 hour drive time from both New York City and Philadelphia. The first word of advise regards when to visit: go there on a weekday when public schools are in session. The big mistake we made was to go there the day after Thanksgiving. Wrong!!! The crowds were unbelievable (it turned out they had over 6,000 visitors during the 3 days after Thanksgiving - double their expectations). We decided to make a second attempt to view Northlandz the following Monday. Right!!! We essentially had the place to ourselves.

The architect for this HO model railroad masterpiece is Bruce Williams. He was involved in model railroading for over 20 years before he started Northlandz. In the early '70s he was running a hobby shop and had the precursor to Northlandz in the basement of his newly built home. Encouragement from friends got him to add a second wing, then a third, fourth and finally a fifth to expand his layout. It was at this point that Bruce believed he had built the world's largest model railroad (but 1/15th the size of Northlandz!!).

He started having two open houses annually, attracting up to 1,500 visitors each day. His insurance company, however, was not receptive of this arrangement, and forced him to shut down these shows. His desire to give the public the opportunity to see a model railroad on this grand scale led in 1990 to the purchase of 16 acres of land on which Northlandz now exists. Northlandz opened on December 18, 1996.

The scenery details show just what a labor of love this is.Take Atlas Canyon (named for the company that donated the 8 miles of track), for example. Imagine a mountain with 40' of relief and 80' long, along which trains run at various levels along the canyon side. The scenery is a thin Hydrocal shell over chicken wire followed by more Hydrocal - 100,000 pounds of Hydrocal have been mixed to create the scenery base. Add to this the paint, scenic materials, half a million trees, thousands of buildings of varying have the setting in which an HO sized engineer or passenger would love to be on a train!

Bruce also has a knack for the humorous when it comes to scenery. Take the Ski High Miniature Golf Course. On one hole is the "World's Highest Outhouse", perched in such a way as to evoke constipation in all but the bravest soles!

The railroad substructure is essentially a 2 x 4 framework similar to that of an A-frame house. Plywood roadbed is supported by horizontal 2 x 4 joists.

In my opinion, one of the most impressive aspects of the scenery is the variety and detail of the bridgework. The longest spans included a triple spiral, triple-track trestle and a 37 foot long double cantilever span known as the Firth of Forth Bridge. These, and many other bridges, are made from balsa wood. Some of the bridges are also kitbashed.

The layout is powered by a bank of 125 MRC TECH II Powermaster 2400 transformers. These are housed in a centralized control room, usually manned by one operator. Communication by walkie talkie enables roamers to handle trains in distress.

There is also a single-level 70' x 20' O gauge and G-gauge layout, still in the process of completion, near the middle of the tour. There is also a doll museum and the La Peep Dollhouse (94 rooms). During the tour, you continually hear music from a 2,000 pipe organ.

A second piece of advise regards taking pictures. Flash is not allowed, so for best results bring a tripod and plenty of high speed film (200 to 400 ASA).

Words cannot justify this marvelous toy train display. If you are anywhere near western NJ, take the time and enjoy!!


After having several weeks to digest the new Lionel catalogs, just what items did HTOS members find to be the most desirable from their collecting and operating viewpoints? In an informal pole, 13 HTOS members were asked for their top three buys. Here are those results:

  • Locomotive Backshop - 4 buyers.
  • Steam Service Siding, Traditional Culvert Loader, Aquarium Car, Phantom Locomotive, Custom Series GP-9, and the 6464 Boxcar Set Series #7 - 2 buyers each.
  • Galveston Wharf Box Car, Hot Box Detector, MainLine Cantilever Signal, Veranda Turbine, Santa Fe FT set, Flatcar w/ '57 Chevy, NYC Mohawk Steamer, Erie PA A Unit, Upgrades for Command Control, Electro-coupler and Railsounds - 1 buyer each.
Note: Four of the 13 members polled said they did not purchase anything from these catalogs.


by Jim Herron

After attending a party last year given by members of our train club in which they prepared dishes from recipes found in railroad cookbooks, I thought it might be interesting to talk about railroad cuisine. Surprisingly, there are a number of books on the subject. Four of which I'll be writing about are: Dinner in the Diner, by Will E. Hollister; Dining by Rail, the History and Recipes of America's Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine, by James D. Porterfield; Chesapeake and Ohio Dining Car Recipes, compiled by E. Sterling "Tod" Hanger, Jr. and; The Harvey House Cookbook, Memories of Dining Along the Santa Fe Railroad, by George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin (my favorite).

It was impossible to find a decent meal on a rail trip west of the Mississippi before 1876. There were no dining cars and the average length of time for stops was twenty minutes to replenish the locomotive's water supply at "tank towns." The offerings were frequently slim to none. That was changed by the man who did a great deal to civilize the American West-Fredrick Henry Harvey. His Harvey Houses provided good food and charming service by Harvey Girls all cross the Santa Fe Railroad line until the advent of the dining car. Some eating houses were known to be quite good. Station eating houses, especially those along the western railroads, were glorified by travel journalists. The eating house experience survived for nearly sixty years.

A sample Fred Harvey dinner menu from 1888 included the following, all for the price of 75 cents! Blue Point Oysters on the Halfshell, Whitefish Filets with Madeira Sauce, Potatoes Francaise, Young Capon with Hollandaise Sauce, Roast Sirloin of Beef Au Jus, Pork with Applesauce, Stuffed Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes, Boiled Sweet Potatoes, Sugar Corn, Salmi of Duck, Queen Olives, Baked Veal Pie, Charlotte of Peaches with Cognac Sauce, Prairie Chicken with Current Jelly, Sugar Cured Ham, Pickled Lamb's Tongue, Lobster Salad, Beets, Celery, French Slaw, Apple Pie, Cold Chattily Custard, Mince Pie, Cakes, Ice Cream, Bananas, Oranges, Grapes, Edam and Roquefort Cheese, Water Crackers, and French Coffee.

Eventually, as railroad technology improved and as mechanical and power advances enabled increased train speeds and longer operating distances, pressure on the railroads mounted to find some method for providing meals on the train itself. The successful evolution of dining cars gradually (but sometimes abruptly) caused the demise of the track side eating establishments. In 1868 George Pullman (of sleeping car fame) rolled a luxurious new car out of his shop that was dedicated exclusively to preparing and serving food to passengers. Chicago gets the credit for being the inaugural point of dining car service. The technological evolution of dining cars and their acceptance as a fact of life by the railroads was more or less complete by the end of the nineteenth century.

A sample menu from the Pullman Dining Car "Alhambra" leaving New York on January 18, 1888, included all of the following for $1.00: Mock Turtle Soup, Consomme Victoria, Salmon a la Chamborg, Parisienne Potatoes, Boiled Beef Tongue, Boiled Chicken with Egg Sauce, Roast Been with Browned Potatoes, Roast Leg of South Down Mutton with Currant Jelly, Young Turkey with Cranberry Sauce, Fricendeau of Veal a la Richelieu, Salmi of Duck a la Jardiniere, Banana Fritters with Port Wine Sauce, Roast Saddle of Antelope with Currant Jelly, Lobster with Mayonnaise, Lettuce Salad, Spanish Olives, Celery, Chow Chow, Pickled Onions, Girkins, Boiled and Mashed Potatoes, Baked Sweet Potatoes, Stewed Tomatoes, Squash, French Peas, Succotash, Mince Pie, Apple Pie, Coconut Pudding, Fruit, Cakes, Ice Cream, Roquefort and Edam Cheese, Bent's Crackers, Cafe Noir.

The practice of offering a fixed price to cover an entire meal was known as the American Plan. This did not, however, last long. Rising costs, especially as World War I approached, made this approach-also known as table d'hote-impractical. By 1916 dining on most American trains was from an a la carte menu.

A sample menu from the Los Angeles Limited in 1943 reflects the scaled-back approach to food service: Shrimp Cocktail or Chilled Tomato Juice or Onion Soup Au Gratin with entree selections of Broiled Halibut ($1.20), Omelette with Fruit ($1.15), Beef Casserole ($1.40) or Roast Loin of Pork with Apple Sauce ($1.35), Potatoes O'Brien, Seasonable Vegetables, Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with French Dressing, Raisin Bran Muffins, Grapenut Custard Pudding, Kadota Figs, Ice Cream, Roquefort Cheese, Coffee, Tea, Milk and Cocoa.


by Walt Sklenar

MTH Electric Trains 1998 Volume II catalog made it to retailers in early February. Contained within the 75 pages are several new items in both the RailKing and Premier Lines, as well as more roadnames in engines and rolling stock previously issued by MTH. Here's a quick look at what's new and potentially highest collective wise.

In the RailKing Line, perhaps the hottest piece is the 4-6-4 NYC Commodore Vanderbilt Hudson. Following in the footsteps of other RailKing streamlined steamers, this should be a winner. Another motorized unit sure to draw attention is the Doodlebug - "essentially a cross between a loco and passenger car" - lettered for the B & O and Santa Fe. Other RailKing engines include the Pennsy GG-1 in green and brown 5-stripe livery and the F3 AA set in Santa Fe 'warbonnet' paint. RailKing rolling stock includes three Auto Transport Flat Cars (one w/ ERTL Fire Cars, a second w/ ERTL '60 Corvettes, and finally ERTL '59 Checker Cabs). A new design is the double deck Auto Carrier Flat Car w/ ERTL '49 Ford Coupes and '52 Cadillacs.

In the Premier Line, the hottest item has to be the UP Veranda Turbine. Even before catalogs reached the consumer market, retailers were hit with orders thanks to the MTH ad in the March issue of Classic Toy Trains. For the first time, Blue Comet fans will have a highly-detailed, die-cast O-scale version of this famous G-3 Pacific 4-6-2 locomotive (available with a matching scale Madison Passenger Set). Available for the first time is a powered F3 B-unit for most roadnames - a total of 16 - since MTH introduced their F3 sets in 1994 (only exceptions being the L & N and Santa Fe from last year). New in the MTH Premier Line freight cars is the Jordan Spreader in UP and Pennsy colors, which can be run either closed or open (to take care of that next blizzard on your pike).

The MTH Tinplate Traditions features the #441 Weigh Scale. This reproduction of one of the rarest of prewar accessories features a working scale inside the weight house. The latest operating accessory is Mel's Drive-In Diner, featuring interior illumination, digital sounds, lighted signs and 2 die-cast ERTL cars. New layout accessories include a Telephone Pole Set, Banjo Signal and Operating Traffic Lights. The MTH Rite-Trax System is adding O-31 Switches, an Uncoupling Section, 0-72 Curved Section and an Adaptor Track Section (for O gauge tubular track) to make it a more versatile track system.

Check out all the engines, rolling stock, accessories and train sets in this latest attempt to put a second mortgage on your home. Deadline for ordering is March 15th.

My Classic Car Toy Box, formerly Eastwood Automobilia, is offering a Lionel Hot Air Balloon. Made from die-cast metal, the 6" tall Lionel balloon is also a bank. Logo includes the famous Circle-L and Lenny the Lion. Also offered in their latest catalog is a 1937 Ford Hershey Tractor Trailer in 1:43 scale, featuring graphics from that era.

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