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January 2007

Miniature Steam Railways' 0-4-0

by Marc Horovitz

Denver, where I live, currently languishes under two or three feet of snow, so this Locomotive of the Month will be examined indoors, and not run.

The company
Miniature Steam Railways (MSR) is a little-know American manufacturer. It existed in the 1980s and early 1990s under the leadership if Jim Wilson of Dallas, Texas. Jim was both a steam fan and a toy-train enthusiast. He was, I feel. something of a genius at taking existing parts from different companies, and combining them into entirely new products.

While I knew Jim, I didn't know him well, and so do not have a lot of background information. I met him a few times when he visited Denver. One of his early products (though not produced commercially) was a live-steam Stirling-style 2-2-2 in N scale (1:160), inspired by the micro-miniature work of Australian, Arthur Sherwood, with whom he corresponded. This he brought to my studio one day in 1983. Jim had scratchbuilt an entire train set, including the locomotive and tender, three freight cars, and a loop track that he had made, all packaged in a beautiful presentation box. He set up the track on one of my work tables. The boiler was 3/8" in diameter by 1-3/4" long. The tender served as both the alcohol tank and the burner. A wick tube extended forward from the front wall of the tender into the cab of the engine, putting the fire in the general proximity of the backhead.

Once the fire was lit, steam came up in about a minute. After giving it a nudge, the train ran smoothly for an astonishing 20 minutes or so, powered by one single-acting oscillator. The spring for the oscillator came from a lock tumbler, to give you an idea of its size. Jim had considered producing these sets for sale but, as far as I know, never did. I wonder where the original is today.

Jim had a friend, Terry Shirley, who I believe was also involved in Miniature Steam Railways. I tried to contact him before this review, but couldn't find him.

The train
Anyway, Jim was interested in producing an American-style steam railway system similar to that of Mamod’s in Britain. The commercial product that finally bore the name "Miniature Steam Railways" was an amalgam of ideas and parts. Technologically, it was a Mamod locomotive, using a Mamod boiler, smokebox, backhead, and other parts. The cylinders were made in the USA by Jensen. The safety valve appears to be Wilesco, as does the whistle. The sheet-metal work is original. I don't know who made the drivers. The pilot, I believe, is a toy-train reproduction part.

In addition to the locomotive, MSR came out with some rolling stock. The pieces I have on hand include tank cars in two different liveries, and a charming, manually operated crane and boom car. These, I believe, are mostly original, although some parts, including the very un-American buffers, were acquired from other steam-toy companies. MSR also produced at least three examples of a steam roller that used Wilesco cylinders mounted vertically on one side, Shay style. Jim was also developing a diesel-outline locomotive that was to run on a Stirling hot-air engine. I know that he had at least one working prototype.

Shortly after I received my train (I don't recall exactly when), I received a call from Terry Shirley telling me that Jim had died at the breakfast table of a massive heart attack one morning. He was only in his mid 50s. We have been deprived of an ingenious, creative, and industrious manufacturer. It would have been fascinating to see what he would have come up with had he been given the chance. (If anyone knows more about Jim Wilson, his history, or his products, I would like to hear from you. Please e-mail me at bannerworks@comcast.net.)

Builder Miniature Steam Railways (USA)
Date built 1990
Gauge 1 (45 mm)
Scale 16mm (nominal)
Boiler Pot
Fittings Safety valve, whistle
Fuel Dry pellets
Blow-off pressure 10 psi
Cylinders Two, double-acting oscillators
Reversing gear Rotary valve
Lubricator None
Weight 3 pounds, 4 ounces (loco and tender)
Dimensions Length over all (loco and tender), 15-1/4"; width, 3-1/2"; height, 5"
The engine doesn't vary much, one side from the other. On the left side is a dummy compressor, a rather crude toy-train-reproduction casting. Dummy air tanks ride under the running boards on both sides. The tender is a simple sheet-metal wrapper on a flat-car chassis. It features brass hand rails and wheels that, if they are not Mamod, are very Mamod-like.
Left: The backhead is obviously of Mamod origin, with the typical water glass and "MAX" and "MIN" designations. The whistle chain drops through the cab roof, a nice touch. Also from Mamod is the fuel tray (above), intended to burn solid Esbit pellets, referred to by the British as camel dung.
Right: The locomotive is controlled in the same way as a Mamod engine, via a lever on the pilot that operates a rotary valve, which functions as both throttle and reverser. Details include a toy-train headlight, a number plate, a cast pilot, and pilot-beam supports. The coupler is a basic hook and loop. Below: The company's decal.
The locomotive is powered by a pair of double-acting oscillators in the best Mamod tradition. The provenance of the cylinders is unknown, but they bear a strong resemblance to Jensens. Likewise, where did the spoked wheels come from? Toy-train reproduction parts, perhaps.
The underside offers no surprises. The cylinders are packed out, as per Mamod, suggesting that the locomotive might have been offered in gauge 0 as well. The rotary reversing valve can be seen at the left end, between the cylinders. The tender couplers are attached to one another by the long spring. There's about 3/4" of slack, with both couplers fully extended, which would make for an interesting ride.
These attractive tank cars were produced for the engine to haul. One of them has the same coupler-spring-coupler arrangement as the tender, but the other does not (variations already!). Construction is simple sheet metal, with cast springs, axle boxes, and a tank hatch that I think I've seen somewhere before. On each axle box is the letter "W" (for Wilson?).
Above: This charming crane with its attendant boom car was another product from Miniature Steam Railways. It is made from simple shapes, but actually functions and it oozes character. Below: The boom is raised by the expedient of hooking the end of its chain into different holes in the roof. The crane swivels on its flat-car base. A turned-down Mamod driver supplies the crank for the hook.
Here's why we're indoors this time. The lump in the lower right of the photo is an engine house. The viaduct, upon which most of the pictures are usually taken, stands 18" or more off the ground in better times.

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