If you were a kid, you may well have enjoyed a miniature train ride somewhere in the Chicago area. They were in amusement parks, zoos, and kiddieland. You might have ridden the “Hiawatha” at Hollywood Kiddieland at Devon and McCormick in Chicago’s far north side, or the Kiddieland in Melrose Park at North Avenue and River Road. There was a train at Brookfield zoo, one in Adventureland in Addison.
If you are really old like me, you may remember the train in Lincoln Park zoo or the two really iconic trains, the Chief and the Scout at Riverview amusement park at Belmont and Western.
Back in the day before World War II there were about 100 major amusement parks nationwide like Riverview, but by the 1950s that number swelled to over 700. The very earliest miniature trains in these parks were often modeled after steam engines.
A kiddeland, beginning in the 1950’swas a subset of the amusement park, usually smaller in size, with fewer and smaller rides and of course the train. A kiddeland was affordable and took well advantage of the baby boom. Whether you rode train at the zoo, an amusement park or a Kiddieland, the miniature park train along with the Ferris wheel were the two most popular rides.
Beginning in the 1940s, streamlined miniature trains appeared to the delight of baby boomers and then modeled after diesel engines. Most were built by the MTC (Miniature Train Company) and NAD (the National Amusement Devices Company). They were reliably built and designed to last for many years.
Meet Paul Allen Sturtevant, born March 19, 1898, who became the largest builder of amusement park trains He was a a skilled engineer, a pioneer aviator and the inventor of the torque wrench. In 1928 in his PA Sturtevant engineering laboratory located in Glen Ellyn Illinois, he constructed a large model of a steam locomotive with custom track for his son at a cost of $15,000
Actually the earliest miniature trains were primarily for inside department stores. In 1932, Sears Roebuck at State Street & Van Buren approached Paul Sturtevant with the idea of leasing a train to use inside their store during the Christmas holiday season. It was so popular that they would soon have three trains and 11,000 feet of track. Other department stores followed suit and there was as many as 400 indoor leased trains across the country. His indoor trains were a 12” track gauge called the G-12.
In 1935 P,A Sturtevant Co. became the Miniature Train and Railroad Company and 1940 moved the company to Addison Illinois . Train production was temporarily halted during WWII while he made small parts for the war effort, but train manufacturing resumed immediately after , producing 75 G-12 trains a year.
He then began building an outdoor park train, the classy G-16. upon the larger 16” track gauge. He obtained permission from General Motors the use design of the diesel locomotive built by the it’s Electro-Motive Division . In 1946 he introduced his 1/5 scale diesel streamliner design and it became MTC’s most popular model. One of the first G-16’s was tested in Chicago’s Fairyland Park then at 3938 S. Harlem and then sold it to a zoo in Cleveland Ohio. Another first MTC train went to Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
In1948 Paul relocated his Glen Ellyn Illinois machine shop to a large factory located on Cullen Street on the north end of Rensselaer, IN and was renamed the Miniature Train Company. There they built the trains, had a 700 foot test track and also built automatic block signals and crossing devices.
The MTC trains were typically powered by a Wisconsin 4-cylinder engine which used standard gasoline. The controls are set up almost like a real locomotive besides the horn and bell mechanisms. The complete consist included the locomotive, a varying number of coaches that held about 12 people each, and an observation car. A very cool rotating Mars light was located on the front of the locomotive, The A and B engine units were 10 feet long and each weighed 1800 pounds. Trains ran at a recommended maximum speed of 12 mph .
trains were sold between $3600 all the way up to $18,000.
Paul Allen Sturtevant had competition. the National Amusement Devices (NAD ) of Dayton, Ohio. Was founded in 1919 by Aurel Vaszin as the Dayton Fun House company He designed and built a 24 inch gauge miniature train that could be either gasoline or electric powered. He embraced the idea of electric powered trains, as safer and less polluting.
Their most popular and recognizable model was the “Century Flyer“, From the 1940s to the 1960s, NAD also built some full-size rollercoasters, but was sold in April 1973 and renamed International Amusement Devices Inc, based out of Sandusky, Ohio who specialized in park design and brokering rides.. Aurel Vaszin died in 1979.
the MTC plant was sold in November 1956 to the Allan Herschel company of Tonawanda New York who specialized in many amusement rides, particularly carousels and roller coasters. Allan Herschell continued to build the G-12 and G-16 MTC trains until 1963, when the design was scrapped for their own S-16, a 16” gauge train. 41 S-16 were built. Later Herschel built 49 of the larger S-24 Iron Horse, the big brother of the popular S-16 but on a 24” gauge . The last S-24 was shipped on September 29, 1970.
In 1970 Allan Hershell company was then sold to the Chance Manufacturing Company of Wichita Kansas who back in 1961 had begun its new C.P. Huntington train. Available in 20 or 24 inch gauge, the new train was wider, more powerful and could carry more passengers per trip. Hershell’s Iron Horse and the CPH carried the same number of passengers, but the CPH was slightly smaller and less expensive to produce. In the Summer of 1998, Chance Manufacturing sold its 300th C.P. Huntington train which has become the park standard throughout the United States and much of the world with some 8 – 12 units sold annually.
A few miniature train operations suffered with accidents and liability problems and had to cease operation. Nancy Jones age 57 died in October 1995 falling off a train at Old Indiana amusement park. Over the years, like real trains, many were scrapped. Of the hundreds of train sets built, is estimated there are only about 70 remaining, 50 of which are operational.
We need to thank Paul Sturtevant for pioneering the wonderful miniature train that we so loved to ride as a kid.
Paul Allen Sturtevant died August 7, 1987 in Fort Myers Florida at age 89. He is buried in Mount Emblem Cemetery in Elmhurst Illinois.
Please add your comments as to where or how you enjoyed riding a miniature train! All aboard!