December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
When he’s not taking care of a majestic marshaling of toy trains, Graham Claytor gets to play with the real thing
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.
“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.
“There’s a junction a little south of Baltimore where the Annapolis line went off to that city. Another line ran from the junction directly to Washington; it used the trolley tracks of Capital Transit down New York Avenue to the trolley terminal. And there was another line from Annapolis Junction on the B&A that crossed the old Pennsylvania Railroad at Odenton and then went on to Annapolis. Two routes to Annapolis! The direct B&A track from Baltimore is still there, unused, but the rest of that big interurban network was all pulled up in the 1930s.”
Nearby stood a Voltamp red interurban from the same line, with Washington on its destination board. It is twenty inches long, and Claytor dates it to 1914. Its clerestory roof, arched double windows, and four-wheel trucks recall the peak period of the interurban, for both toys and the real thing, before the onslaught of the automobile. I thought I detected a sigh from the man who not only runs Amtrak’s trains but has recently taken over commuter rail services for the state of Maryland. Think of the escape from all the traffic, inside and outside the Beltway, if full-scale WB&A cars like this still dashed hourly along their private rights-of-way under the singing wires.
Some electric toy trains employ overhead wires, but the ones most adults remember ran on the three-rail O gauge (1 1/4 inches wide) or standard gauge (2 1/8 inches) of Lionel, Ives, and American Flyer. Voltamp trains, however, used just two rails, with power from batteries or, after home electricity became more widespread, via a transformer. So did those of Carlisle & Finch, the first electric-train manufacturer in the United States. Touch the two rails with one hand and you can feel a slight tingle. You can also feel, quite distinctly, Claytor’s enthusiasm for Carlisle & Finch products. The firm made everything from a bouncy four-wheel trolley to the realistic locomotive No. 45 with nickel-plated boiler and side rods that actually move.
“No. 45 represents the first locomotives on the 20th Century Limited, on the New York and Albany run—over the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, to give the full name,” said Claytor with warmth. “I think it’s well proportioned, and it pulled the most handsome toy train ever made. Carlisle & Finch put out a new catalog every year from 1897 to 1915, and I’ve got ‘em all. They were an electrical supply house in Cincinnati that turned out all kinds of appliances. They made marine searchlights, and, when the First World War came, they had tremendous business. Now this is just my conclusion and I haven’t read it anywhere, but I think that they they looked around and saw that the toy-train business was getting pretty competitive, with Lionel coming on strong and Ives too, and that’s why in 1915 they quit making the trains and never went back to it. They are still the largest manufacturer of marine searchlights in the world. We had them on our ships in the war. Our new frigates all have Carlisle & Finch searchlights. So does the old Mississippi riverboat Delta Queen—big thirty-six-inch arc searchlights, to find her way at night.”
I reflected that I was listening to not just a railroad man but also a former Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense—and, in World War II, a lieutenant commander in the Navy. We exchanged the usual reminiscences. At the end he had been skipper of the destroyer escort Cecil J. Doyle and had helped rescue survivors from the cruiser Indianapolis, sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 29, 1945, only days before the war ended. It is one of the great scandals of the war that the Indianapolis, traveling alone, was not missed by any command, although long overdue. No rescue calls could have been made; the radio went out in one of the explosions. None of the planes passing overhead saw the approximately eight hundred survivors in the shark-infested water. The pilot of an Army plane did spot flares, which he reported to his base as a “naval battle” of some sort, but the base did not relay this, on the ground that the Navy must know about its own battles.
Back home, later on, with searchlights still in mind, I got down Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. XIV, and found what I was looking for. On the morning of August 2, a Navy pilot on a routine flight spotted men in the sea and sent an urgent message giving the position. Without waiting for orders, Claytor, some four hundred miles away, turned his ship and started. As Morison writes:
“Doyle, by bending on top speed (24 knots), was the first ship to arrive, about midnight 2-3 August. She recovered her first survivors at 0030 August 3. ...
“Lieutenant Commander Claytor’s dispatch . . . was the first to inform any shore command that the Indianapolis had gone down.” In a sea full of heads bobbing in the darkness, he picked up almost 100 of the 316 survivors. By searchlight.
I wrenched myself back to trains. How did Claytor get into his hobby?
“When I was nine or ten years old,” said Claytor, “about 1921 or 1922, my father got me for Christmas a Lionel standard-gauge passenger train, and for my next younger brother, who subsequently died, a slightly smaller standard-gauge freight train. We had it in the attic at home, in Roanoke, Virginia, and it was our pride and joy. Then we moved to Philadelphia, where my father’s boss’s son had a whole batch of Lionel trains from the great 1915-20 period. He was going off to Princeton. I suppose he felt too grown-up for toy trains, and he gave them all to me, everything, including some rare old items. They were in a big chest when we moved to New York, and while I was off at school my mother gave them all away.”
Terrible things like this have befallen more than one boy. This “away” period in young Claytor’s life included the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School (summa cum laude) in 1936, followed by clerking for eminent judges, a mark of distinction for graduates. Graham Claytor worked a year each for the famous federal judge Learned Hand and for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. From this he went on to Covington and Burling, the top law firm in Washington. After the war he returned and was soon a partner. No time for trains, probably, and I asked how he got back into them.
“I was courting Frances [Murray Hammond, his wife] in 1947 and 1948 and found out that she had one of the same standard-gauge Lionel trains that I had lost, given by her father when she was six.” Frances was a lady of rank—the same rank, lieutenant commander (in the Waves), as he was. This new and unquestionably electric discovery must have helped bring about their wedding in 1948. Over the phone on another occasion, Mrs. Claytor told me, “That train was my dowry.”
“That’s how I started up the collection again,” her husband said. “It was Frances who introduced me to Carlisle & Finch; I had never heard of them. Then I began to get into the collector literature and magazines and go to the big shows. The biggest now is at York, Pennsylvania, every year. I’m only after toy trains, antiques, the early stuff like the push-pulls, the floor trains, clockwork, live steam. I have foreign things too, like the fine Märklin, Bing, and other German ones. But I stop about 1940—no scale-model or HO stuff or plastic. Of course, many people love all that, but it’s come in since my period, and you need watchmaker skills to fool with HO gauge.
“Well, Ives went bust in 1929 or 1930 and Lionel bought them out. American Flyer had difficulties and was sold to A. C. Gilbert of Connecticut, the Erector Set people, but they went out of business. Lionel kept on into the 1960s, but then the boss, J. Lionel Cowen, died and a couple of highfliers got in and bankrupted the company. It was resold to General Mills and later moved to Mexico to get the costs down and meet cheaper foreign competition. Now I hear that a railroad fan named Kughn, who has made millions in constructing shopping centers, has bought it and is going to make the traditional Lionel trains, in O gauge, the way they used to be. There are other small manufacturers in standard gauge, but Lionel’s the last of the basics.”
Amtrak is a “last” also, the last and only intercity railroad in the country. When the remaining private railroad passenger services were gathered into it in 1971 by a far-from-enthusiastic Nixon administration, many critics thought it certain, if not indeed designed, to fail. Claytor, who by then was president of the Southern Railway, was still running the famous de luxe Washington-New Orleans train, the Southern Crescent, with fine sleeping and dining cars. Why was he one of the few holdouts from Amtrak?
“I thought Amtrak was going to be a disaster, and for several years it was. I said that the underlying railroads that Amtrak used would get the blame, and so I wanted to run the best passenger service in the country under our own name.”
And he did. Eventually, however, the Crescent did join Amtrak, and in 1982 Claytor himself did, as president.. Since then everything has been moving in one direction—service, equipment, routes, stations, technology, ridership—all up. By 1987 Amtrak was recovering for the first time all its “short-term avoidable costs” above the rails, as they put it. It means the costs of operating, or not operating, a train. Revenues last year were up 13 percent, to almost a billion dollars. The only thing that’s down is the subsidy, which shrinks each year and has been reduced by 35 percent since 1981. The big problem is capital, which Congress deals out like a Yankee paring cheese. For example, Amtrak could fill many more than its present 1,644 cars, far fewer than any single big private company had at its peak. But the days when Amtrak had to fight Congress for its life every year are over. Folks know a good thing when they see it.
Railroading seems to run in the Claytor blood. Besides a son in the business, Graham Claytor has a brother Robert, ten years younger, also a graduate of Harvard Law. Both of them eventually rose through railroad law departments to be presidents, of the Southern Railway in Graham’s case, of its neighbor the Norfolk & Western in Bob’s, and it was Bob who brought about the merger of the two huge companies as the Norfolk Southern. Both brothers not only ran their companies successfully but also won the hearts of railroad enthusiasts by operating frequent excursions for them behind steam engines, on occasion with the CEOs at the throttle.
All the Claytors have toy trains. “It goes way back with us,” Claytor explained. “We had a grandfather, on our mother’s side, James S. Boatwright, who was a great buff. He started out in the 1880s as dispatcher on the Savannah, Florida & Western Railroad at Savannah. It became part of the Seaboard Coast Line. His grandfather in turn was one of the incorporators of the earliest piece of what became the Southern system—the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. The famous locomotive Best Friend of Charleston ran over it when operations started in 1830.”
“Your father?” I asked.
“He was not a train buff. He was an electrical engineer, superintending the power company where we lived, in Roanoke, although that did include the electric streetcar system. Most of my friends’ fathers worked for the Norfolk & Western, which had its headquarters there, and I used to feel a little inferior because the other kids all had passes on the railroad and I just had one on the trolleys. Streetcars did play one interesting role, though, on the night I was born, in March 1912. A big snowstorm blew up in the evening, pretty well tying up the city, when my mother suddenly realized I was on the way. Our doctor used a horse and buggy—you were born at home in those days—and we were on the other side of town. And so my father ordered out a special car, with a snowplow running ahead of it, to bring the doctor to our house. As it happened, the stork beat the trolley. I guess this was my first connection with railroading.”
By now it had grown a little late. Claytor had miraculously produced pizzas, and we were at the kitchen table.
“About those grandchildren,” I began.
“Two boys,” he said, “One’s five and the other is three.”
“Have they shown any sign of the family weakness?”
“Oh yes,” he said, with the smile of a man who enjoys his life. “At three years old the first one could tell the difference between a Pacific steam engine, an Atlantic, and an American Standard. He could count the wheels and tell what they did, and point at the whistle and the safety valve and the cylinders, and everything else. Totally railroad-oriented!”