By Thomas Dyrek
Since the mid-1800s, toy and model trains have been a part of everyday American life. From wooden push toys to intricate layouts with detailed electricity powered trains and automatic accessories, model railroading has grown considerably since its beginning and now holds the title of the world’s greatest hobby.
For Paul Sturtevant, however, the toys and small models were not enough. A resident of Glen Ellyn, IL, in 1928 Sturtevant constructed a large model of a steam locomotive with custom track for his son. When it was discovered that the train was large enough to ride, it became a neighborhood hit. In 1932, a Sears store owner approached Sturtevant with the idea of leasing the train to use at his store during the holiday season. Soon, more Sears owners requested trains for their stores too, and by 1940 Sturtevant had created the Miniature Train and Railroad Company.
With permission from General Motors, the MT&RC built their trains based on the streamlined diesel locomotive designs of the Electro-Motive Division of GM. The first was a model of an E unit, and soon the company was producing F units as well. Train production halted during WWII but resumed immediately after. In 1946, the “G-16” scale was introduced, which became the company’s most popular type.
In 1948, the MT&RC relocated from Sturtevant’s Glen Ellyn machine shop to a factory in Rensselaer, IN and was subsequently renamed the Miniature Train Company. The factory was located on Cullen Street in Rensselaer and would remain open until 1956 when the MTC was sold to the Allan Herschell Company. Allan Herschell continued to produce MTC trains until 1963, when the design was scrapped for a modernized Allan Herschell model.
Even so the original MTC trains continued to operate in parks and other recreational places long after production ceased. The first trains to be retired from their original railroads in the 1970s were mostly sold to new owners for preservation. However, just like real trains, some were ultimately lost to the scrapper’s torch. Of the 240 train sets built, it is estimated that there are around 70 remaining, 50 of which are operational. Among the places that currently operate MTC trains are the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, GA, Bowness Park in Calgary, AB, and several amusement parks in Wisconsin.
One of the surviving trains is number 784, built in 1955 and commissioned on May 18 of that year. The 784 was used at an amusement park in Burlington, IA for many years, but was sold to the Wright family of Lexington, IL in the early 2000s. Originally painted in the colors of the Milwaukee Road’s passenger trains, the 784 was completely restored in 2006 and received a new Milwaukee Road inspired paint scheme.
Just like other MTC trains, the 784 is powered by a Wisconsin 4-cylinder engine and is run with standard gasoline. The controls are set up almost like a real locomotive besides the horn and bell mechanisms.
The train is equipped with knuckle couplers, and cables run to the observation car to power a marker light. The complete set includes the locomotive, two coaches, and an observation car. A rotating Mars light is also equipped on the front of the locomotive, adding more realism to the train.
The railroad is named the Baird and Wieland, honoring the Wright family’s ancestors who worked for the Milwaukee Road. Track was first laid at the Wright’s Castle Gardens event venue grounds in 2005 and was extended between 2011 and 2017 to allow a wide variety of operations.
From the depot area, the track goes up a steep hill and crosses a beautiful girder bridge before descending to an S-curve. Next there is a junction with another track that leads down a large hill to a larger loop and passing siding. The mainline continues to a siding and then arrives back at the depot. In total, there is approximately 2.2 miles of active track.
Track is laid using steel rail and spikes sharing the same design as full-scale rails and spikes, but on a smaller scale. A custom track gauge that can be rolled on the rails is used to make sure the rails are aligned correctly. Switches are controlled just like the real ones, but instead of lock are secured with zip ties.
The B&W’s roster also includes a small work train that was custom built for the B&W in 2005, and a spare set of MTC F units painted in the Santa Fe warbonnet scheme. Originally operated at Coney Island, the Santa Fe set (number 805) includes a rare F7B unit to accompany the A unit. The locomotives have not been used in several years and are currently for sale. Until they are sold, they are used for demonstrations during seminars about the B&W and MTC presented during Castle Gardens’ Train Days, held on select weekends in the summer.
Out of all the railroads in the world that presently use MTC equipment, the Baird and Wieland is most definitely one of the best operations. With well built and maintained track, equipment kept in pristine condition, and a group of dedicated caretakers, the B&W is certainly one of the best miniature railroads in the world.
The B&W is open for rides several times throughout the year, and you can find these dates and more information about Castle Gardens at www.castlegardens.us.
Paul Sturtevant died in 1987 and the Rensselaer factory was demolished years ago. But thanks to the current owners of surviving MTC equipment, Sturtevant and his creation can be remembered in more than just old documents and photographs. Fifty-five years after the last G-16 was completed, the public is still enjoying the sights and sounds of Sturtevant’s trains throughout the country. A few months ago, I visited the B&W and was waiting for the 784 to leave the station. A passenger asked me if I knew where the train came from. I pointed to a builder stamp on the locomotive.