Walt Disney's Love of Trains: Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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I have always had a fascination with vintage trains, especially growing up in Glendale, California, where I could spend time on the weekends at a special section of Griffith Park called Travel Town, an outdoor museum to preserve and celebrate Southern California railroads, with actual vehicles that people could physically explore.

In October 2011, I wrote and narrated a short video for Walt Disney World to promote their excellent Behind the Steam tour that focused on Walt Disney's Love of Steam Trains.

If you love the story of Walt and trains, then I strongly recommend Walt Disney's Railroad Story: The Small-Scale Fascination That Led to a Full-Scale Kingdom by Michael Broggie  and The Disneyland Railroad: A Complete History in Words and Pictures by Steven DeGaetano.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Railroad Magazine, October 1965, titled "I Have Always Loved Trains" by Walt Disney that I don't think many people have ever seen:

"I suppose I've always been in love with trains. As a small boy living on a farm near Marceline, Missouri, I had a unique claim to fame: my Uncle Mike was engineer on the Santa Fe's accommodation train that ran between Marceline and Fort Madison. That was something to brag about to my schoolmates at a time when railroads loomed large in the scheme of things and steam engines were formidable and exciting.

"We fellows would marvel at the tall stacked engines that pulled into and out of the depot opposite the park where we played, huffing with steam and trailing nebulous smoke plumes. One day in about 1909, when I was 7 or 8 years old and full of nerve, my buddies dared me to climb into the cab of one of them that stood there, temporarily deserted, and pull the whistle cord. I did so, but as soon as the whistle shrieked, I quickly climbed down in a panic and ran like the dickens.

"In 1917, when I was 15, my father sold the newspaper route and that summer I looked around for some way to earn money until high school reopened in the fall. My brother, Roy, who had been employed by the Fred Harvey system as a news butcher on Santa Fe trains, selling magazines, peanuts, candy, apples, soft drinks, cigars and so on, suggested that I apply for a similar job.

"I did so and was hired for two months. I felt very important wearing a neat blue serge uniform with brass buttons, a peaked cap, and a shiny badge in my lapel. As the train rolled into one station after another I stood beside the conductor on the car steps to enjoy the envious stares of youngsters waiting on the platform.

"But my first day's business, on the Missouri Pacific, was a fiasco. We ran from Kansas City to Jefferson City. Our train pulled out at 4 a.m. with two commuter coaches added to its usual consist. The day being hot, I soon sold out my supply of soda pop to the commuters.

"I didn't know until it was too late that the two commuter cars would be detached at Lee Summit. They were gone before I could collect the empty bottles. Inasmuch as my margin of profit lay in the bottle refunds, I realized with dismay that I was wiped out.

"Undaunted, I continued plying my trade on passenger trains not only of the Missouri Pacific but also of the Kansas City Southern and the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas, commonly known as the 'Katy.' It was quite an adventure for a kid who hitherto had rarely been away from home.

"I liked especially the MP run between Kansas City and Downs, Kansas. It took six hours, because we'd stop at every station en route and we often pushed boxcars out of the way to clear the track. During the journey I sometimes went to the baggage car and supplied the baggage man with cigars or chewing tobacco and then I'd climb over the tender into the engine cab to do the same for the engineer and fireman. They'd let me ride the cab with them for a while-and what a thrill that was!

"The train would stop overnight at Downs before taking on coal and water for the return trip. One night I decided to walk around the town to look it over. Wandering down the main street, I was window-shopping when a policeman asked what I was doing there and where I had come from. I said I was the news butcher on the train, but I had to accompany him back to the train and unlock my merchandise hamper in order to prove it.

"My railroad career was brief, exciting, and unprofitable. Too many people were eager to take advantage of a young businessman like myself. The suppliers, for example, would fill my hamper with rotten fruit. This drew so many flies that the conductor would make me dump it out, and I was stuck with the cost. Besides, I was only 15 and I ate up most of my profits. So I quit at the end of that summer with losses that absorbed the $30 bond I had posted when I took the job.

"That ended my experience with trains, except as a passenger, until years later when I decided to build my own railroad. I knew another fellow living in Beverly Hills who had built a midget railroad and I determined to build one of my own to keep my mind busy and off studio problems. [Korkis Note: This was his backyard Carolwood Pacific which will be covered in detail next week.]

"Then Disneyland Park came along. I had the excitement of creating an honest-to-goodness railroad—well, 5/8ths scale anyway—the Disneyland and Santa Fe. We built the two larger engines, Nos. 1 and 2, at the studio from the same plans I had used for the midget train. Later, in Southern lumber mills, we found two old chassis, with wheels, on which we built two more locomotives, Nos. 3 and 4. The latter was made to look as much as possible like the old Montezuma No. 1 of the Denver and Rio Grande.

"What happened to the Carolwood Pacific train? I still have it. I'm going to get it repainted and displayed in a glass case at the Disneyland and Santa Fe station. That's only right, since it spawned the busy little railroad here in Disneyland and somehow is tied up emotionally with my boyhood experience as a news butcher. Yes, in one way or another I have always loved trains."

That's a pretty nice overview by Walt himself but even he was restricted by space so many interesting things got left out from the story.

Here are a few additions:

When Walt was young, train travel was the primary means of travel across the United States for both people and freight and there was a great sense of romance surrounding it. Eventually, a train would take Walt from Kansas City to Los Angeles and, later, another train trip from New York to Hollywood would spark the birth of Mickey Mouse.

I grew up in Glendale not far from San Fernando Road where, as I was going to sleep at nigh,t I could hear the Southern Pacific trains rumbling down the nearby tracks. So I understand how Walt, as a young boy, would hear similar sounds and wonder where those trains were heading and what they were carrying to those faraway and unfamiliar locations.

Walt's Uncle Mike Martin was an operating engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad and his route took him from Fort Madison through Marceline (where he sometimes stopped) and on to Kansas City.

Martin would sometimes walk or hitch a ride to the Disney farm when he stopped in Marceline and spent time on the front porch regaling Walt and his older brother Roy with tales of a life on the rails. It was Martin who first told Walt the story of Casey Jones the legendary engineer. To make these stories even more memorable, Martin would bring a sack of hard candy for the boys to enjoy as he was talking.

Sometimes Walt's father, Elias would join in and share stories. Elias had worked as a machinist and later a carpenter for the Union Pacific and had helped install track from Ellis, Kansas to Denver Colorado. His favorite story was recounting how he met Buffalo Bill Cody who was shooting buffalo to provide meat for the hungry crews building the railroad.

Roy had been quite successful as a "new butch" or "news butcher." He had a box strapped around his neck and he walked through the passenger cars selling fresh fruit, candy, bottled soda, newspapers and tobacco products like cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

Roy worked for the prestigious Fred Harvey Company (depicted in the 1946 Judy Garland musical The Harvey Girls) that created restaurants specifically to service train passengers. Walt worked for a rival company, Van Noy Railway News and Hotel Company, for two months in the summer of 1917, prior to starting McKinley High School in Chicago where he would only spend only one year before volunteering for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps and being sent to France.

Roy posted the $30 bond necessary for the news butcher job and, because of Walt's poor business sense, including snacking on his own sodas and candy that were meant to be sold, that bond was forfeit to cover losses at the end of the two months. Walt was able to convince the engineers and firemen in the cabs that he wanted to be an engineer like his Uncle Mike, so they taught him all the procedures, occasionally allowing him to operate the various valves and levers.

Another interesting adventure Walt had at age 15 was in Pueblo, Colorado, where the train had a layover. A traveling salesman recommended that Walt look up a special hotel in the town. When Walt located it, the fancy Victorian exterior, dark red curtains with gold fringe in the windows and other elaborate touches including an interior crystal chandelier and gold piano, made him feel that it might be too expensive for him to stay there overnight.

A large friendly woman met him in the lobby, offered him a beer and asked what she could do to make him happy. Looking around, Walt saw young women in fancy dresses and makeup chatting away and laughter coming from upstairs. When he saw a woman in a state of undress coming down the stairs with a man, he realized this may not be a hotel at all and he quickly returned to the train depot.

The Lionel Company had been saved from bankruptcy in 1934 by producing a Mickey Mouse Handcar. It was such a popular toy that more than a million of them were sold in the first three years. The grateful owners of the company offered to supply Walt with all the model railroad equipment he might want.

In the late 1930s, Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney had a large HO scale layout in his basement that Walt would come by and play with for hours. In 1947, Walt asked for three complete railroad sets with tracks, engines, cars, buildings, and landscaping, which he delivered as Christmas gifts to his sister's young son, his niece's son, and his brother Herbert's grandson. Walt, of course, got a set for himself and ordered another one that he set up in a room adjacent to his studio office.

Walt purchased models for his elaborate layout that he built from kits and painted himself. He was a frequent customer at a local train store and one day when the owner asked how large a layout Walt intended to build, Walt replied that it would never be finished.

Chicago Railroad Fair 1948

The promotional brochure for the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair, celebrating 100 years of railroad progress from 1848 to 1948 proclaimed: "In Chicago this summer, the Chicago Railroad Fair graphically retraces this parallel history of railroading and the nation to give America its first great outdoor exposition since the war."

Many books casually mention that this railroad fair was one of Walt's inspirations for Disneyland.

Disney Legend Ward Kimball told interviewer Walter Wagner the following for the book You Must Remember This (Putnam Publishing Group 1975):

"Walt's doctor told him to slow down, that it was dangerous for him to work that hard. It was bad for his heart. The doctor told him to relax and get away from it all.

'Damn it,' he said to me one day after a physical checkup, 'you have more fun than anybody I know. How would you like to go back to the Chicago Railroad Fair with me?'

"That was 1948. I couldn't believe it at first. Walt taking a vacation and doing nothing except trying to enjoy himself. He never took a vacation. Every time he went to Europe, it was to figure out some deal. Now he was going to take a week off, and he was inviting me to go with him to the Railroad Fair. It was his first and only vacation as far as I know.

"Going to that fair was great for me because I'd have Walt's company and because railroading was my hobby. We had a ball in Chicago. The fair was the history of America through railroading. They had all these famous locomotives like the DeWitt Clinton and the Tom Thumb. When they heard [Walt] was there, it was carte blanche. We could do anything we wanted.

"So, we'd go down in the morning and they let us run the steam locomotives around the three or four miles of track they had there. Running the DeWitt Clinton was one of the greatest thrills of my life. It was like shaking hands with George Washington.

"It was a great nostalgic week for Walt, and he was a man who loved nostalgia before it became fashionable."

In truth, it was Disney Studios nurse Hazel George who had read about the fair, and knowing Walt's love of railroading and American history suggested he visit the event to relieve his building stress from his concerns about financial challenges.


Walt Disney drives the train at Disneyland

Walt did not want to go alone, but he knew his wife Lillian would not be interested in attending, especially during the August heat. Once again, it was George who suggested Kimball because of his interest in vintage railroading and his exuberant behavior that she hoped would raise Walt's spirits.

The Chicago Railroad Fair was an event organized to celebrate and commemorate 100 years of railroad history west of Chicago (the birthplace of Walt Disney), with Lake Michigan as a backdrop for all the activities.

A 450-foot-long stage (larger than a football field) had been built. Different gauges of track had been installed to accommodate presentations of all the trains.

It is often referred to as "the last great railroad fair" with 39 railroad companies participating. In addition to being the last great assembly of some classic original (and replica) railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the Fair held other activities and events.

Major Lennox Lohr was the official host for the fair because he was also in charge of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry sponsoring the event. He wanted Walt to get VIP treatment. Walt and Kimball were allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the fair.

Walt even got a chance to perform a bit part in one of the performances of "Wheels A Rolling," a pageant featuring a variety of scenes about how the railroads helped build America. Walt, in stovepipe hat and frock coat, pantomimed the role of a passenger disembarking a train and being served a meal by the famous Harvey Girls.

The entire show included 12 scenes, plus prologue and epilogue, a live-action extravaganza that depicted the history of railroading from 1673 to 1949 in front of a 6,000-seat theater.

This epic presentation included everything from a restaging of Abraham Lincoln's funeral coach (which, according to Kimball, brought tears to Walt's eyes) to the U.S. Cavalry racing alongside a classic steam engine barreling westward, to the Burlington's Pioneer Zephyr (that raced non-stop 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, 4 minutes—a record set in 1934 that still stood more than a decade later).

However, this show was just one part of the "50 acres of thrills, drama, action" with a free firework display every night at 10:30 p.m following the last performance of "Wheels A Rolling."

A sight-seeing train circled the exterior of the area and made stops at a re-creation of New Orleans with its French Quarter, as well as Gold Gulch (a frontier town of the Gold Rush days with an authentic Main Street with shops, eateries and an Opera House) and a re-creation of a spouting Old Faithful Geyser.

Other exhibits included a 35-foot tall robot of Paul Bunyan who talked and moved, and a new form of three-dimensional movies called Vitarama featuring five different screen simultaneously depicting the railroads of America.

On the trip back to California, Walt and Ward stopped at Greenfield Village for two days. It also had a train that circled the perimeter of the venue, as well as examples of model steam driven engines.

On August 31, 1948, just days after returning from the Chicago Railroad Fair, Walt sent a memo to Dick Kelsey, one of the Disney Studio production designers, outlining his ideas for a little Mickey Mouse Park to be built across the street from the Burbank studio. It would include a small train station and a train that went around the area.

Next time, I explore some stories of the Carolwood Pacific and the Disneyland and Santa Fe Railroad.