Model train set connects family across four generations

When Ken McNelly received his first model train in 1947, it was just a toy. Today, it’s a treasured family heirloom, a valuable antique, and a reminder of his father.

During the holiday season, you can often find McNelly running model train exhibits as a member of the Tidewater division of the Atlantic Coast “S” Gaugers club. This year, the club set up several train sets in Downtown Norfolk as part of the “Holidays in the City” initiative.

The club, established in 2000, focuses on American Flyer S gauge trains and newer S gauge manufacturers. The “S” signifies the size of the group’s preferred models, which are 64 times smaller than the trains they emulate.

“Our family has been into trains since I was a little guy,” said McNelly. “My dad worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had a brother that was an engineer and another brother that was a conductor.”

Even though Lionel was a big name at the time, McNelly’s father, who worked in supply and maintenance for the railroad, chose a set made by A.C. Gilbert because it provided the most realistic two-track experience.

“Lionel trains always had three tracks, but my dad told us railroads don’t have three tracks, they have two. So he bought the A.C. Gilbert American Flyer train,” McNelly said. “I still have it and it works fine. It will outrun anything. The old ones built by A.C. Gilbert were the best, no getting around it.”

The old model train engines of the past were incredibly well-built, but part of the fun is tinkering with them, said McNally.

“We enjoy repairing them as much as we do running them. We do a little bit of maintenance — oil every now and then or fixing wires,” he said. “Some of our members have nice, big elaborate layouts and collect valuable trains.”

Though he doesn’t do much collecting, his original train has become a valuable piece over the years.

“When my dad bought the American Flyer in 1947 he paid around $27 for it. Today, it’s worth $400,” said McNelly.

The American Flyer set, which includes an engine, boxcar, and caboose, is now an important pass-down item within the family, said McNelly.

“My dad gave us a little rule: the first grandson gets the train. So now we pass the train down,” he said. “I told all my kids, and now my daughter will pass it down to her kids.”

Many children enjoy model trains, especially when they have the opportunity to interact with the different parts, but it’s more common to see adults, particularly men, take up model trains as a hobby, according to McNelly.

“When families come out to see the exhibits, it’s usually dad that doesn’t want to leave,” he said. “I think what interests people is that real trains are big metal heavy things. The entire train industry built America.”

Since opening the Norfolk train exhibit a few weeks ago, McNelly estimates several hundred people have come to visit, and expects many more to return throughout the holidays.

“On the weekends the whole room is full,” he said. “It’s the biggest, most thrilling thing to see both children and adults run the trains or push the buttons for the accessories, and get the biggest smiles on their faces.”

Learn more about the Atlantic Coast S Gaugers at


Pohl may be reached at

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