Fathers, Sons, and Trains

—Scott Williamson photo

Fathers, Sons, and Trains

June 2024“Thanks, Dad!”

How often have we uttered that phrase? It’s simple, but the underlying feelings are hard to put into words. Especially this month, when Father’s Day is observed. But a case can be made that it could be every month.

How many stories in this magazine begin with the layout builder noting how his or her love of railroads began with a first Lionel set from Santa and his helper, Dad? I was exposed to the proverbial Lionel early, too. My father, Robert Williamson, often had a sleepless Christmas Eve, because on December 24 there was no visible train layout in our basement. But on Christmas morning there was a complete Lionel setup on a green plywood base, with a two-track main line, a town, an industrial area and a small Christmas tree in the middle.

What magic filled the air with steam locomotive whistles and the rumble of trains running in opposite directions, seemingly ready to spring from those 3-rail tracks and take flight. But they never did, because there were milk cans to be deposited on a platform; logs to be pushed off flat cars; and “coal” to be dumped and then reloaded. And, like Santa, it disappeared after the holidays until next year.

My dad had an HO scale layout for as long as I can remember. Born and living in Pittsburgh, Pa., for much of his life, he was a Pennsy man through and through. After a job transfer took us to Michigan, he remained steadfast to his PRR roots. I was more interested in slot cars, but found “his” hobby mildly interesting.

Then, on semester break from college, I glanced at what was called my father’s “reading area.” There were a number of model railroad magazines laying around, but none of the covers warranted a second glance. That is, until I spied a Railroad Model Craftsman with a full color cover featuring the Virginian & Ohio Railroad. This was part of the multi-part series authored by W. Allen McClelland about how he designed, built, and operated his pioneering proto-freelanced model railroad. I picked it up and couldn’t stop reading. It was an “Aha!” moment. “Do you have any more of these?” I asked my dad. “Sure. There’s more in there. Help yourself.” And did I! “So this is what model railroading is about,” I thought. I was hooked.

I started paying more attention as my dad worked on his trains and the railroad and learned by asking questions and then getting hands-on instruction. We aren’t born knowing how to solder, but with some coaxing — and a lot of melted ties and some burned fingers — I learned how.

Dad gave me hints on many aspects of building a layout, like not joining flextrack on a curve without first soldering the straight pieces and then bending it. And since I wasn’t modeling a woebegone branch line, a yardstick could help keeping track straight while it was held down with spikes.

At Michigan State University, a friend got me to tag along to a meeting, and I joined the fledgling MSU Railroad Club. Our dream was to get the massive Berkshire on display on the MSU campus running again. A pie-in-the-sky dream for a bunch of college kids turned into Project 1225. Against all odds, the locomotive was restored to working order, and eventually moved off-campus.

My dad joined Project 1225 as a donor, and enjoyed my tales of spending afternoons inside the tender scraping scale. Fast-forward to 1993 when the successor Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Mich., began offering the “Engineer for an Hour” program. For his 80th birthday, my dad fulfilled a lifelong dream. He studied what he’d be doing, and on his day a group of family and friends watched as he “oiled ‘round” with expert assistance and checked over the simmering steed. He nimbly climbed the steps, settled himself on the right-hand seatbox, and gave two tugs on the whistle cord. Setting the bell to ring, he cracked open the throttle. Soon my dad and 1225 were underway.

I’d settled into life with a job and my own family, and my own model railroad. Operation became my passion. My dad hadn’t done that kind of model railroading, so when he’d visit I’d invite him to an operating session. He told me he enjoyed those sessions running trains with me more than he’d ever done by himself. Full circle? I like to think so.

My dad wore two bandanas the day he was on 1225 — one blue and one red — and presented them to my brother and me when he marked off from his short stint as an engineer. He passed away in 1999 at age 86. Giving his eulogy, I did pretty well until I mentioned, and held up, my bandana. And then I used it to wipe the tears, thinking of the wonderful memories we shared.

“Thanks, Dad.”

—Scott Williamson

June 2024This article appeared in the June 2024 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Subscribe Today!

This article was posted on: May 16, 2024