I’ve noticed over the years that many people can point to the exact moment in time that their relationship with trains (models or full size) began, and I'm no exception. I had two encounters with the real thing around the age of five that forever cemented my involvement with them, and both were quite terrifying.
That's me (about 9) at the Logan Southern Model RR Club in Souderton, PA
My first encounter happened at the fabled 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is a magnificent structure built in the early 1930s by the Pennsylvania Railroad. It's still one of the busiest Amtrak stations in the country, and it's a must see for train fans, history buffs, or even aspiring architects who happen to find themselves in the area. And, you can see it in the beginning of the Harrison Ford movie “Witness”. Sorry, I'm digressing. The point is it's an enormous, breathtaking structure, especially when you're 5 years old. My family and I were there because we were on our way to Orlando for our annual, prerequisite vacation. I'm not sure if it still holds true today, but back in the 70s you were (probably) required by Pennsylvania state law to go to Florida for a vacation at least once a year, because everyone did.
To board trains at “30th Street” that are headed south towards Washington DC, you had to go down one of several flights of stairs to get to the tracks, which ran underneath the station. It's quite a dramatic transformation, to go from the palatial surroundings upstairs, to a dirty and very dimly lit netherworld. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it became painful to look off into the distance where the sunlight was coming through at the end of the platforms, so I simply stared at my shoes unaware of what was about to happen. Then I heard my dad say, "Here it comes!"
I looked up and suddenly, emerging from the blinding sunlight, there was this dark monster. It was a ghostly, almost organic shape. As it got closer the realization hit me that I couldn't hear it, but I could feel it. The platform was vibrating beneath my feet. The dust on the platform began to swirl. People who were standing close to the track took a few steps back. I took a few steps back. Then, Dad spoke again, "Good, we got a GG1".
McCormick RR Park, Scottsdale, AZ 1987 "Tuck in your shirt & get a haircut!"
Now, at the time I didn't know what a GG1 was, but my concern was eased (slightly) because dad was actually happy about the monster coming towards us. It was at that point that I finally noticed a sound, a bell. A very loud bell. As I reached up to cover my ears, another realization hit me; this thing was coming fast. Before I knew what was happening it was right next to us. I had to brace myself against the blast of air that hit me as the locomotive displaced the atmosphere around it. Attempting to study it as it went by, there was only one thing that stood out to me. My reading skills weren't completely up to par yet, but I knew what those giant letters spelled - AMTRAK. As quickly as it had approached it was now moving off into the distance. In its place was a seemingly endless string of shiny silver passenger cars. Reassuringly, they were filled with people. Apparently, they had also encountered this same monster and survived. Miraculously, I had survived as well.
I honestly don't remember anything else about that particular trip, other than having a long discussion with Dad about what a GG1 was. I was now standing on the edge of a lifelong obsession. I just needed one more nudge to push me over.
My second encounter happened right after we got back from the Florida trip. I asked dad if we could go train watching. He said, “We’ll go catch the ore train when it comes through, that’ll knock your socks off.” Wait, what? My socks? And so, later that day (with tape on my socks), we walked to the station.
Perkasie Station, mid 1970s
My family lived in a little town called Perkasie, about 30 miles north of Philadelphia. It sat along the Reading Railroad’s Bethlehem Branch Line and, at the time, still saw a fair amount of traffic. There were daily mixed-freight and commuter trains (Budd RDCs), the latter of which my dad frequently used to get to-and-from work in Philly. Several times a week there would be a trainload of iron ore being moved from the port in Philadelphia to the steel mill in Bethlehem. These were very heavy trains and required a lot of power to move them. The tracks were on a slight hill as they went north through Perkasie, as well. This is the one I was about to experience.
From our house you took Market Street to get to the “down-town” area where the station was. This was your quintessential small-town in rural Pennsylvania. Brick houses, friendly neighbor’s waving as you walk by, birds singing, gentle breeze, the whole nine yards. We even had a five-and-dime, Lesher’s. The most prominent feature to me, though, was the railroad crossbuck. I could see it from the moment we left the house, and it was starting to loom large as we approached the track. Just a few moments later, I’m standing right in front of it.
I looked to my left. I can see the tracks going straight into the distance and curving south as they reach Sellersville, the neighboring town. I look to my right. The two tracks almost immediately come together into one and curve north, disappearing behind some trees. Dad said, “Go to the right.” We walked a few hundred feet down to where the track started to bend, turned around, and waited. At this point I started to get nervous, because from where we were standing, I could see straight down the track. We didn’t have to wait long.
The first thing I saw was a light, which appeared out of nowhere well in the distance. Then I became very aware of the silence. All the birds had stopped singing, as if they knew a predator was near. As the light got closer, I was struck with fear. The cyclops was approaching, and we were just standing there, waiting to be eaten. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the bell on the crossbucks. Next, the bells were joined by a deep rumble coming from the diesel locomotives. In fact, I felt it before I heard it. Then the coup de gras, the horn. By that point, dad had put his hands over my ears, I assumed it was so my head wouldn’t explode. I didn’t know anything could be that loud. Just as my senses were about to overload, it got worse. The ground was actually trembling under me, as if an earthquake was happening.
My life flashed before me (which didn’t take long, I was 5) and I said my goodbyes. Fortunately, it started turning. A wall of green and yellow rolled by, then an endless sea of black hopper cars. Two smells hit me: diesel exhaust and rust from the iron ore. We were no longer living in a peaceful little town. A monster had taken over.
Then, another flash of yellow and green. It was the caboose. A man standing on the back of it waved to us, as if to say, “It’s okay, it’s all over now.”
As quickly as it had arrived, it was gone. Things were different for me though. I was officially a train buff.
That's me with the beautiful Santa Fe 4-8-4 on display in Kingman, AZ.
So, that's what got me interested in trains. But I know what you're asking, "Where'd you get the idea for the mugs?"
One quiet afternoon, I was looking at the coffee mug sitting on my desk. It was a Lehigh & New England mug featuring the "fried egg" logo. I just stared at it thinking, "Could I make something more interesting to look at?"
Now, don't get me wrong. I love the Lehigh & New England (might be my favorite RR), but most train mugs are either just a herald or a picture of a train. There must be another option...
As luck would have it, the shell of an Atlas O-scale F9 just happened to be sitting next to the LNE mug. I glanced back and forth between that cylindrical nose and the coffee mug, when I realized, "The front of an EMD F-unit sure is shaped a lot like a coffee mug." I thought back to my Dad's hand-me-down HO-scale boxcars that were literally just a block of wood with a very detailed drawing on the sides of it. "Don't just put a picture of a locomotive on it, make the mug LOOK like a locomotive!" The seed had been planted and work soon began.
Every mug is an original illustration, done start to finish by me personally. I have 40 years of model railroading under my belt, so I'm a stickler for details. For example, if you look at the Milwaukee Road Erie-Built design, the nose-door handle is hanging down slightly. In every picture I could find of that engine, the handle is hanging the same way, and it was the only one of the 14 they owned that appears to have been that way. It may just be a coffee mug, but if you're a die-hard fan of a particular railroad, you tend to notice those details. They're a small part of each locomotive's distinct character.
As for the operation, it's just myself and a couple of trusty volunteers running it from a spare room in sunny Arizona. The final production work for the mugs is done by a local print shop in Phoenix.
Thank you again for your interest. Have a look around, and please Contact Me if you have any questions.
- Allan at RailroadMode.com