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Our holdings include hundreds of glass and film negatives/transparencies that we've scanned ourselves; in addition, many other photos on this site were extracted from reference images (high-resolution tiffs) in the Library of Congress research archive. (To query the database click here.) They are adjusted, restored and reworked by your webmaster in accordance with his aesthetic sensibilities before being downsized and turned into the jpegs you see here. All of these images (including "derivative works") are protected by copyright laws of the United States and other jurisdictions and may not be sold, reproduced or otherwise used for commercial purposes without permission.

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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Smallville: 1929

Smallville: 1929

August 5, 1929. Washington, D.C. "Miniature R.R. of John N. Swartzell." National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.

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Today's Top 5


It must have been even more impressive in color! Although today's scale material is more sophisticated, this man's work proves that imagination and hard work was and still is the basis to this "hobby." It's fun going in to the enlarged versions and looking at the detail that went into creating this layout.

Miniature weather

Scale model snow on the railroad cars and locomotives. Neat. Actually, would snow adhere to the main part of a steam loco?


That layout is filthy. Just like actual areas adjoining train tracks.

Hand laid rail

This is no "out of the box" rail layout. The ties are all individually set and the rail laid and spiked. The switches and frogs are all handmade and filed. Amazing track work, done only by the most smitten of model R.R.'ers.


As someone in the world of model railroading (I'm a 3 railer if anyone is curious) it is always enjoyable to see what the pioneers of the hobby were able to accomplish with so little to work with.

Odds also are that the switches and trackage were handlaid, and quite possibly much of the rolling stock and buildings were built from scratch.

No White Shoes, No Service

Notice the men at the right with dark shoes. Cannot sit with the other patrons!

[It's amazing what you can see here, isn't it? - Dave]

Third rail

The third rail is visible in this picture. Wherever there are gaps in the switches there are buttons or nails sticking up.. Early tinplaters modified three rail tracks like this. Another development was the outside third rail.
Three rail has the advantage of not having to insulate the
the frogs of the switches as two rail does. It also makes signaling simple. Two rail became popular as model trains became more detailed.

Does Mr. Swartzell's layout still exist?

Model train villages are such intense labors of love, but they can take up a lot of space. Was this one kept intact, perhaps transferred to another location? Or was it taken apart and stored, forgotten, in someone's attic as "Grandpa's Train Set"?

If you live on the East Coast and like model train villages, there is none better than "Roadside America," in Shartlesville, PA. (Route 78 between Allentown and Harrisburg.) From its description, you might dismiss it as corny hokum - and there is a bit of the cornball about it. But it truly is amazing. And it, like Mr. Swartzell's village, is the work of one man, essentially.

Their wives always knew where to find them.

For some amazingly accurate photos of Roadside America, try these.


Wow! There are things on this layout that rival work of the great modelers today.

One item is the forced perspective; where you model a building smaller than the rest of the structures so that it looks like it is in the distance.

Nice, but

It's missing stray dogs, a baseball game and roaming chickens.

Looks Handmade

This pic shows attention to detail that is amazing. Whats more impressive is that this train set looks like it predates the trains we had in the 50s and 60s. The engines and cars look to be handmade out of wood or something. I am impressed. Is that supposed to be snow or sand on some of the cars?


I'm duly impressed with Mr. Swartzell's modeling skills, in 1929 he couldn't purchase much (if any) scale equipment. About all he purchased commercially in this photograph is the rail.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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