The San Jose Comet Rides Again

In my folks basement I saw a couple of boxes perched atop some shelves, beguilingly labeled “trains”.  Asked Dad, and he said that when he was little Grandpa Joe bought a series of train sets for the kids to play with, and they somehow ended up in his basement.  He was very surprised to find the train set there.

This was relevant to my interests, so I took the boxes home, and yesterday me and the boys unpacked everything.  First impression is that these weren’t well cared for.  These old Lionel train sets are incredibly durable and they had to be, for they appear to have taken a lot of abuse over the decades.  Paint scratched, lights burned out, some cars working well and others not doing much at all.  They were also jerry rigged, and there were wires soldered, taped together, so forth.

The boys were quick to add their own distinctive touches to the artifacts.  This happened tonight after (probably) Joe dropped the big locomotive on a concrete patio.  That’s the front wheel.


General conditions were a funny contrast to how things were packed – carefully, lovingly even.  Tracks, cars and other items were all wrapped up in the June 27, 1983 edition of the San Jose Mercury News.  This was the year that Grandma and Grandpa packed up their San Jose lives and moved into the American Towers Apartments in Salt Lake City.  They never got the train out again, but looks like they could not bear the thought of parting with it.

There was lots of stuff in there.


One thing I didn’t notice was any instructions.  Toys today are a lot simpler than they used to be.  We already have a little toy train, it has exactly one button, and the remote a simple lever to push forward and back.  In this case we basically were setting up an electrical grid, powering a variety of motors and devices in sequence, with everything modulated from a central device.  Packed with the train set were big heavy transformers, four of them – three more than a train set needs.


Had to pick and choose.  The big one is the size of a football and weighs fifteen pounds.  I chose it because it was actually made by the same company what made the cars and tracks – Lionel, and because it was the only one that actually did anything when I plugged it in, and also because look at the thing, it’s magnificent.  Like a cross between an old shoe shine machine and a wifi antenna.


Those dials on each side are showing all the voltage level options – so apparently it was up to me to give the train just enough juice, or – or what?  Trip a circuit breaker?  Cause an explosion visible from space?  Some orientation was necessary.  While unpacking, I did notice a little booklet wadded up, filling a gap.

Oh good, I thought, the instructions.  Well, that’s not what it was:


Blast.  This was the program for a ceremony to dedicate a new community theater for the city, in whose creation Grandma and Grandpa proved instrumental.  Here’s photos of both from the inside.1 2

Delightful, but not what was needed here.  Since I don’t have an associate’s degree in Electrical Engineering, that would perhaps have been the end of it but for Mr. Internet.  Online I found a manual for the biggest transformer of the bunch.  It was…kind of useful.  It did tell me how to hook things up, and also provided this helpful diagram of a “typical” model track layout:


Even if we had the parts, our first effort was going to be very easy-does-it in comparison.  Like how about a circle.  Did you know that some early locomotives were just engines on circular tracks that went around and around and around?  So we were tracing the scientific developments of the Industrial Revolution in our own backyard.

So we got a track together, and found that with our current setup, only three cars would do anything.  Happily, the big engine still moves even without its front wheels or the display would not be an exciting one.  Robust design, durable product, &c.  You know that these train sets are more or less handmade?  I see letters and numbers drawn on their undersides with a crude handheld engraver.

Here’s our result:

Another one when it’s dark.  Ellie thinks the whistle is funny.

I hope this does Grandpa proud.  You know, it should never be a daunting challenge to do family history research.  To me, having an experience that you know your ancestors also had is as much “genealogy” as digging through dry and dusty tomes in some library.  Though far apart in time, we can still connect with them.



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