Gory & Defeated? Never!
December 20, 2009 1:07 PM   Subscribe

It's getting close to Christmas, and for many people that involves putting a train set running around the tree. Seasonal displays of elaborate layouts are popular as well this time of year. One man had the ultimate train set.

His name was John Whitby Allen, and in the middle decades of the 20th century, he built what might have been the greatest model railroad of all time-so popular that fans keep memorial sites for it a half-century later. Put on your engineer hat and come see the Gorre & Daphetid Railroad.

John Allen had a puckish sense of humor, and little details show up in almost every photograph. He created a wonderful world, to include such whimsy as a complete subway station, with a train you could hear coming, but never arrived; and an 0-4-0 stegasaurus locomotive.

Not content with scratchbuilding almost every locomotive and building on the layout, he insisted on prototypical operation - to which end he built a hotbox detecting car - which had a ball bearing riding on a rocker-shaped set of upwardly curved rails inside an otherwise normal-appearing boxcar. If one operated a train so roughly that the steel bearing rolled off the end of the track inside, it completed a circuit to light a light underneath the train- to shame the hapless engineer for all to see.

Sadly, John Allen died in 1973 of a myocardial infarction. Two weeks later, his wonderful railroad empire burned to the ground. Fortunately, there were photos and slides salvaged from the wreckage.
posted by pjern (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome, thanks.
posted by marxchivist at 1:23 PM on December 20, 2009

Really cool.
posted by brundlefly at 1:42 PM on December 20, 2009

That's really neat. As a kid in the 70s I subscribed to Model Railroader and remember pictures like this, or even these exact pictures, which fired my imagination. I never knew there was one person who basically pioneered a lot of the techniques which later become standard. I tried to duplicate it but didn't have the money or skill. Now that I'm older, I don't have the patience or energy (or probably skill). One thing for sure, the pictures of HO scale models are much better than in person. Sort of like special effects in movies.
posted by stbalbach at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2009

I first heard about Allen's work in Sam Posey's book playing with trains. It had heavily influenced Posey's layout, but this is the first I've seen pictures. Thanks!
posted by drezdn at 2:21 PM on December 20, 2009

Sounds awesome, but all gdlines.com links are dead.
posted by DU at 2:27 PM on December 20, 2009

I think we killed the site...
posted by pjern at 2:30 PM on December 20, 2009

Amazing. gdlines.com is working fine for me. My god.
posted by mwhybark at 3:11 PM on December 20, 2009

doesn't work for me.
posted by Maias at 3:12 PM on December 20, 2009

Uh...and now it works for me. Probably a number of connections thing.
posted by DU at 3:55 PM on December 20, 2009

I am SUCH an idiot!
I had one of those "O" scale Lionel trains as a kid. Complete with the engine that puffed smoke, the tender with whistle, the "secret" boxcar that fired a missile, the crane car, coal car with dumping station, etc.
It was given to my parents for me by a rich lady in the neighborhood. She said her son, (named Peter Lynch! The Peter Lynch??!? I'll never know.) went away to college and had no use for it anymore.
Twenty years (?) later I sold the set.
Probably worth a fortune now.
posted by Drasher at 4:10 PM on December 20, 2009

Model trains are pretty awesome, there's a huge village at a local mall every Christmas for the kiddies with all kinds of models. However, I never understood the point of the train around the tree...you can't get to the presents!

Suitably, my son and I are watching, for the umpteenth time, a Thomas DVD (pre CGI). Say what you will about the silliness of the plots/creepiness of trains with faces, the models they use are spectacularly detailed.
posted by emjaybee at 4:22 PM on December 20, 2009

Thanks for the post. Before John Allen model railroads were just scale operations of a working railroad. Switching cars, clearing the track for the "Limited", etc. were the important things. John Allen motivated many to make their layout look good also.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 4:37 PM on December 20, 2009

I would love to see this town in the autumn.
posted by scruss at 5:25 PM on December 20, 2009

Totally Want. What better use for our basement?
posted by bearwife at 5:30 PM on December 20, 2009

I've got a G scale running around the tree (better for standing up to presents and foot traffic).
Unfortunately, since the cat got electro-shocked last year, it can't run unattended anymore,

Still awesome, though LGB stuff is supremely expensive!
posted by madajb at 5:35 PM on December 20, 2009

In the late 1970s the train station in Copenhagen (I think) had a huge model train layout in the waiting room. You could put a coin in the slot and the trains would run - I think you could even choose which trains according to which slot you put the money in. Toy trains in a real railroad station was hilarious and awesome - does anybody know if it's still there?
posted by Quietgal at 6:29 PM on December 20, 2009

I grew up with the same Model Railroader magazines stbalbach did. I have other hobbies now, but for a long time I admired Allen like few other folks.
posted by maxwelton at 7:20 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing these pictures in model rail mags back in the 70's too. I so wanted to have room to build something like that.
posted by arse_hat at 8:38 PM on December 20, 2009

does anybody know if it's still there?

This one?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:54 PM on December 21, 2009

I'll be darned, C_D! I don't remember the details of the layout, but that big glass case and the kiddie-height setup looks about right. (I googled for it before posting, honest, but no luck.) Anyway, glad to see that a fond childhood memory is still around. Parents: don't waste time and money dragging your kids to highbrow cultural destinations, they're only going to remember the toy trains.
posted by Quietgal at 2:44 PM on December 21, 2009

My sprawling childhood trainset memories are of of this one.
posted by mwhybark at 9:28 PM on December 21, 2009

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