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Swartzell R.R.: 1925

Swartzell R.R.: 1925

December 11, 1925. Washington, D.C. "Margaret Swartzell -- Swartzell railroad system." Not just a model train, it's a "system" -- who can tell us more? National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.


B&O Jr.

According to the July 1936 issue of Model Railroader the name of the railroad was "The B&O Jr." The article notes that Mr. Swartzell began construction of his model railroad "shortly after the end of the war."

A frustrated engineer!

According to that 1934 Popular Science article, Mr. Swartzell had attended the railroad engineering program at the U of I, Urbana-Champaign, which was one of the two most respected programs in steam locomotive design at the time (the other was Purdue--you know, the "Boilermakers"). Mr. Swartzell, it seems, had real talent. I'm sure he made excellent money in his father's real estate business, but technology must have been a hard thing to give up. Especially such a romantic technology--the call of a steam whistle still tugs at our heartstrings to this day.

I suppose it was for the best, though. Steam was essentially dead within 25 years of this photo.

End of the Line

Washington Post, Nov. 20, 1937

J.N. Swartzell's Funeral Is Set for Tomorrow

Funeral services for John N. Swartzell, retired Washington business man, will be held at 11 a. m. tomorrow at his home, 2725 Thirty-sixth place northwest. Burial will be in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Swartzell, who was 47-years-old, died Thursday at his home. He retired in 1925 from the firm of Swartzell, Rheem & Hensey because of ill health. His father, G. W. F. Swartzell, was one of the founders of the firm, which failed in 1931.

Born in Washington, Swartzell was educated at Friends School and at George Washington University, where he was a member of Theta Delta Chi.

He was a past president and honorary member of the Civitan Club, secretary of the board of managers of the Methodist Home and a director of the Columbia National Bank. He was also a past master of Temple Noyes Masonic Lodge and a member of Mount Pleasant Chapter, Royal Arch Masons.

Surviving are his wife, Mrs. Anna Drury Swartzell; a daughter, Margaret Swartzell; a sister, Mrs. C. C. Davis, and a brother, Henry R. Swartzell. All live in Washington.

A practical treatise

Early model railroaders used mechanisms from England. English models were built to 7mm = 1 foot (1:43). When the Americans compared the size of locomotives it was thought that ¼ inch = 1 foot (1:48) was close enough. The boilers were made of lead pipe solder (origin of the phrase "lead pipe modelers"). Details were cast in homemade patterns. Tin cans and old crates were used for various parts. The commercial model kits were very expensive. Railroads had their apprentices build working models of steam engines in larger scales for practice. Lindsay Publications Inc. has old books on this subject.


My great-aunts bought a tiny alligator back from their jaunt to Florida in the 1920s. Back then, those living souvenirs were all the rage. After a few months, it disappeared from its tank. They figured it would show up dessicated under a radiator within a few months.

Three years later, one of them went down to shovel coal for the stove. She heard a loud hissing and saw red eyes glowing down in a corner underneath the foundation, behind the coal cellar.

They got the fire department and the police to kill the "monster," which was now about three feet long. It had dug itself a nice warm wet hole in the dirt floor, where it survived eating rats and stray cats and squirrels.

The hide was nailed to the garage, where it still freaked me out 40 years later.


The little Girl couldn't have been more perfect for this photo! Her expression is priceless. Then there's the detail in the buildings, cars and engines. The engineer who designed this layout had the passion! If one looks under the left half of the table, one clearly sees whatlooks to be left over track. And the water tower! Very nice. There's quite a bit going on here.

Fair River Junction

Mr. Swartzell's layout was also featured in a 1929 article in Machinists Monthly Journal, the "Official Organ of the International Association of Machinists." Fortunately, that issue is available in PDF format courtesy of Georgia State University Library. (link to PDF [3.2 MB], article begins on pg. 584.) The photos in that article, poorly rendered within the PDF, are also in the LOC archives. Perhaps Dave will share them with us one day.

A few excerpts...

The "railroad" is supposed to be located in a valley of the Alleghenys, with the mountains away to the west and north. The main line stretches westward, enters a tunnel, swings around a long loop and returns, down the banks of a river, across a steel bridge, to the terminal.

In the west foreground is the roundhouse, with turntable, coal dock, oil, sand and supply house, etc. Behind it is the back shop, with two "drop-pits" for light repairs and, beside it, the freight and storage yards.

"To the east is the coach yard and the express and freight depot while the main switch tower and dispatcher's office are opposite the passenger depot, with a maze of switches and crossovers between.

The town lies beyond the main line, on the river flats, with hotel, farm houses, residences, etc. Highways run across the flats and up into the mountains.

Everything is accurately built to a scale of one-fourth of an inch to the foot.
"It is not, as has been stated, a reproduction of the B. & O. Mountain Division," Mr. Swartzell said. "It is, however, a faithful copy of B. & O. equipment located at an imaginary mountain division point which I have called 'Fair River.'"
The passenger rolling stock consists of Pullmans, day coaches, observation and chair cars, baggage, mail, express and express refrigerators and even combination mail, baggage and express cars.

The freight equipment is equally varied, but much of it is out of date and must be replaced when, as Superintendent Swartzell says, "the appropriations for maintenance of equipment permit."
"That tunnel is a problem," Swartzell confided. "It is right at the foot of a steep grade with sharp curves. "The worst wreck the division ever had occurred right inside it. You have recently written something about freak wrecks. This was a queer one.

"We sent out a solid express and baggage train and a freight right behind it, westbound. A careless baggageman left a door open and some trunks fell out on the opposite main. The freight had been swung over on the east-bound main so it hit the trunks and piled up. We had a lot of trouble picking up the wreckage and clearing the line."

Sidenote: This basement looks so typical of the row-homes in D.C: exposed brick walls and beams spanning the width of the house. One of the first things that caught my eye was the brickwork: another fine vernacular sample of "American" or "Common" bond.

Eddie Layton

A friend of mine who passed away a few years ago, Eddie Layton, was the organist at Yankee Stadium. He had a model railroad collection that he assembled over many years. It ran on a reinforced plywood panel about 12 feet by 10 feet. He lived in an apartment in Forest hills, Queens. He had it in his living room, rigged to lines that he could lower from the ceiling to the floor. Eddie was the subject of a well known Trivia question, "Who was the man that played for the Yankees, Knicks and Rangers in the same season?" The answer was of course Eddie, as he was also the organist at Madison Square Garden. Ironically he also played for the NY Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum for a few of those seasons as well.

"Every Bit of the System Hand-Built!"

If the Popular Science article is correct and this fellow built everything in the photographs himself, by hand, that's not a "piffling" achievement. It's an accomplishment that deserved every bit of recognition he received, in my opinion.

Amazing model railroad for the time.

What is most amazing about this model railroad is that it is two rail at a time when toy trains like Lionel and American Flyer were three rail. The effort that went into insulating all the wheels on all the locomotives and rolling stock is mind boggling since all the modern plastics and adhesives we have today were unknown and not available. The two major model railroad magazines, "Model Railroad Craftsman" and "Model Railoroader" go back to the early 1930's so there were not a lot of resources for Mr. Swartzell to refer to.

The Man's domain

I doubt very much that Mrs. Swartzell ventured down in the basement (or out to the garage, just as likely) to dust the train set.

Our basements over the years were cement or dirt floors where spiders and other buggly critters abounded. Obviously Mr. Swartzell cared little about dusting the odd footprint off the platform (probably had to plug and unplug from the ceiling light every time he wanted to use the trains). He probably had more interest in playing with his trains than worrying about whether or not the odd cocoon or spider eggball hung from the bottom of his tracks.


It's not as exaborate as the basement railway of two friends in the 50s whose father worked for Lionel.

I coveted the GG1, and the sound of trains going over the maze of switches in the rail yard they parked in.

J.N. Swartzell

...and from Popular Mechanics, 1925


Didn't they ever clean anything back then? Maybe they were going for an authentic rail yard look. What's that hanging from the spider web under the table? Bug? Leaf? Booger?

The system must be larger than what we see here; looks like it goes through a tunnel in the wall in that back corner.

Railroad Real Estate

From Popular Science, Oct. 1934.

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