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I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A query appeared on one of the train forums and has slowly spread through several discussion groups I’m aware of, regarding a 2-rail O scale train layout, built by a hobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1967. The layout sat for 45 years, and now someone has approached a couple of hobbyists about possibly liquidating it.

Of course, lots of armchair pundits have their own ideas about what should have happened to that layout in 1967, when the builder died.

I haven’t seen any facts yet regarding the builder and his family. Predictably, one guy expressed dismay that none of the heirs carried on with finishing the layout.

Well, we don’t know the circumstances. Perhaps if I jumped on an aviation forum and outed myself as the son of a pilot and grandson of a pilot who has little to no interest in getting a pilot’s license, they would think that was a tragedy. Or I could find a coin forum and out myself as the son of a coin collector who never took up that pursuit.

But people have their differences, and fathers and sons aren’t obligated to be cookie-cutter clones of one another. I picked up some of my dad’s interests but not others. That doesn’t make him a failure or me a loser.

Without the facts, it’s all speculation. We assume the builder was married and his widow left the layout untouched in its not-quite-finished state from 1967 to 2013. All we know is that the builder died in 1967 and nobody touched it since, at least to this point. We know nothing about what relatives were in the picture.

To someone whose primary interest is operating trains, there’s something wrong with seeing a bunch of nicely hand-built trains–all of the stuff came from kits–sit unused for 45 years. Then again, these same people don’t understand people who collect vintage trains, still sealed in their original boxes, and leave them that way.

To a collector, the same sight is a gold mine. Here’s a cache of trains dating to the 1960s, 1950s, and earlier, spared from the ravages of being abused or being stored in an unconditioned garage or tool shed, stored in relatively stable temperatures with perhaps some humidity. There’s been some speculation that the motors are ravaged by corrosion, but I have some difficulties with that assumption, too. There’s lots of paper hanging on the walls, and most of it is in nice condition, including some newspaper clippings. Paper doesn’t like moisture either. The exterior of the items all looks relatively pristine too. The unpainted metal surfaces are a bit dark, but show no signs of heavy corrosion. Had it been a damp basement, I would expect the exteriors to show the ravages of time, but they don’t. Aside from the dust, the stuff looks pretty much like it did back in 1967.

I think there are a lot of people who want this stuff to be ruined, so they’re seeing what they want to see. Now, photographs can lie, but I don’t see a lot of damage. The stuff looks a lot like an estate I saw several years ago in Kirkwood that contained a lot of kit-built O scale trains.

The 50-year-old lubricants in the motors will need to be removed and replaced with modern lubricants, but having seen trains emerge from worse conditions than what I see here and run, I’m not too worried about the motors in these machines.

To a historian, it’s nice to catch a glimpse of a layout in progress from 1967. We can read about how the hobbyists did things in the past; actually seeing it isn’t an opportunity many of us get very often.

So what about the family?

Since the layout has been untouched since 1967, the builder had some survivors. For whatever reason, they didn’t take up his pursuit and continue to build and operate trains. They were under no obligation to do that. I picked up some of my dad’s interests but not others; he did the same. We all have free will.

Why the survivors let the layout sit this long before trying to liquidate it is another question, but it’s not really anyone else’s business. Dad, being a doctor, had to deal with death himself. He never let anyone finish questions that started with, “Why didn’t the surviviors…” Dad always said the survivors’ job is to survive, and deal with the loss however they need to deal with it. The deceased’s possessions are just things. They’re a lot less important than human life.

Those things didn’t suffer irreparably by sitting since 1967.

In time, someone will have a chance to go through the trains, sort them out, and get them into the hands of someone who will enjoy them.

I learned in the mid 1990s, after I lost my dad, that the only improper way to grieve is to not grieve. If leaving the unfinished layout in the basement was a way for them to keep a bit of the builder around all these years, the rest of us have no right to judge them for it. If they just couldn’t bring themselves to deal with it until now, well, here again, we don’t know what they were going through, and it’s not our place to judge them for it.

The trains are just things. The trains didn’t feel pain or suffer. They’ll be OK.

I did see a couple of rational voices in a couple of places. Both agreed that the builder spent many hours assembling these kits. He was very good at it, and wouldn’t have spent the time if it wasn’t something he enjoyed. He built the kits, and he had enough benchwork and track down that he could operate them. He didn’t have a lot of scenery, but by all appearances, he had lived to see the trains on the track, and not just build them. There were locomotives on the main lines with cars attached, and boxcars in the yard, just like a prototype modeler would have left them. He had a chance to enjoy what he’d built.

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