- Historic Sites
When he’s not taking care of a majestic marshaling of toy trains, Graham Claytor gets to play with the real thing
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
The spare and vigorous gentleman on the opposite page, William Graham Claytor, Jr., superintending the departure of a local out of South Sun-Porch Station, D.C., at his brick house in Georgetown, is the only man in Washington, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, who runs two big passenger railroads. His other layout is the twenty-five thousand miles, more or less, of Amtrak, with headquarters a few miles away at the newly restored Union Station. There, with great gusto and success, Claytor is propelling this country’s remaining passenger-railroad service into the future. At home, with his toy-train collection, he lingers happily in the atmosphere of the past, the great days of railroading, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This is not model railroading, not realistic trains stamped out to scale in metal or plastic, HO gauge and the like. Toy collectors go in for aging tin plate, cast iron, brass, and wood, for bright colors and simplified shapes designed for the imaginative eye of a child. Quite often the affection lingers for life. It can be disguised, if one is embarrassed, by talk about folk art and the charm of the exaggerated forms. Claytor simply enjoys collecting, tinkering a bit, and operating trains.
He was moonlighting at the Claytor lines one weekend in January this year when I called. It was well after Christmas, but tracks of various gauges, some with overhead wires, still ran all over the large sun-porch floor. Mrs. Claytor was away. Traffic was heavy in and around the furniture, and signals were blinking.
It must be great, I suggested, to have no competition, no unions, no ICC, no FRA, no DOT, no White House trying to close you down. Claytor said nothing. “Well,” I said, “what about Mrs. Claytor and all this track? When does she institute abandonment proceedings?” He smiled. “We have a rule,” he replied, “that it can stay down for a reasonable period after Christmas.” He pronounced reasonable with lawyerly emphasis; the law is his basic profession. “In the past I have managed to interpret that as the first part of February, at least. This year I have a green board until early March if I want, because she’s going to be in Florida. The deal was made when I had my lay-out in the attic and she began to collect dollhouses. They take up a lot of room. She wanted the attic, so I traded for trackage rights down here once a year.”
Had he ever considered the big garden out behind?
“You have to set up a pretty permanent track outdoors, and I did have a Buddy ’L’ live steamer operating in the lower garden for the whole time our kids were growing up. Then I got so busy that I couldn’t keep up the maintenance on the right-of-way. I tore it up twelve or thirteen years ago. The kids are grown now and my son has children, up in Buffalo, New York. The Buddy ’L’ has gone up there.”
There was a brief interruption when the train jumped a switch. Claytor replaced it on the track nonchalantly. “Tracks tend to slip a bit here.”
I pursued the Buddy “L.”
“Those are big, heavy toy trains, three and a quarter inches between the rails, that little children can ride on outdoors. They have heavy steel rails and ties, heavy open cars, and a model of a light Pacific locomotive up ahead. The engine is forty inches long. They were produced by the Moline Pressed Steel Corporation in Illinois, along with similarly made toy trucks, steam shovels, and fire engines.” Claytor speaks very precisely on machinery.
And the propulsion?
“Oh, you pushed, but I put a boiler and live steam in one engine.”
Abashed at the thought of that task, I asked about the name. “Buddy ’L’ was the nickname of the son of the head of the company, a fellow named Lundahl. There’s a lot of that in toy trains. Lionel was the name of the man who founded that big company, Joshua Lionel Cowen. Hansaned on the side of that Voltamp parlor car is for Hans and Ed Fultz, who ran the Voltamp Electric Manufacturing Company of Baltimore. Of course, Voltamp is another put-together name. It was a big company in the early 1900s, and trains and trolleys were just their sideline.”
Claytor shut off the power, stranding the South Sun-Porch local behind some furniture, and led me on a tour. I noted at least eight rooms lined with shelves displaying trains of all makes, foreign and domestic, not counting more veteran rolling stock in hallways and stairwells. We came to a glistening electric steeple-cab locomotive, lettered WB&A, and I recognized the legendary interurban line that once linked Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis.
Some toy trains used overhead wires, but most adults remember three-rail O-gauge track.
“Voltamp made this too. I have several of them. Mining and tunnel engines. All in Baltimore & Ohio livery. I re-painted and re-lettered this one and added an old Voltamp trolley pole to make it look like a trolley switcher.”
You’re not supposed to paint antiques, but Claytor obviously mourns for the WB&A.