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Washington's "Junior National Limited" (Part 1)

This streamlined articulated trainset consisting of a scaled down version of a modern (circa 1950’s) General Motors “E” series diesel-electric locomotive, followed by two coaches and an observation car, operated by Washington’s East 50 Drive-In as the “Junior National Limited” was a model G-12 “The Streamliner” manufactured in the early 1950’s by the Miniature Train Company of Rensselaer, Indiana.

During the years following World War II, 1946-1960, America enjoyed a time of great prosperity. Returning servicemen were anxious to get back to their lives and careers. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the “GI Bill,” afforded the returning servicemen access to low-cost loans for farm and home mortgages, including small business startups. With secure employment, guaranteed loans, and the prospect of a bright future, many fled the city for the suburbs and rural areas where they settled down to raise their families.

A phenomenon occurring during this same period was the rapid increase of Drive-In Theatres across the nation. The concept had been introduced at a few locations during the early years of the 20th century. The “drive in movie theatre” as it was known, with the fan shaped parking lot and rows of raised inclines to allow for each vehicle to have a clear view of the screen, was patented in 1933. Due to the economic conditions of the Great Depression, and the onset of war, the growth of Drive-In theatres remained stagnant until after 1945.

Drive-In theatres offered many advantages over conventional movie theatres, especially for families with children. They afforded lower ticket prices per person than indoor theaters and were often located nearer the thriving suburbs and rural areas than the indoor movie houses in the cities. They promoted themselves as a family-friendly movie venue, allowing families to view the movie from the privacy of their own car “regardless of how noisy the children are.”

As a result of their popularity, Drive-In theatre numbers in the U.S. are reported to have increased from 155 in 1947 to over 4100 in 1951. Capitalizing on their growing reputation for family entertainment, they soon were catering to children, and began installing playground equipment such as merry-go-rounds, swings, slides, teeter-totters. and more for the children to entertain themselves under the supervision of their parents before dusk and the start of the feature(s).

In addition to the normal playground equipment, many drive-ins added small amusement park style “kiddie” rides – including pony rides, airplane rides, boat rides, carousels, and miniature train rides. The rides were usually free to all and operated by qualified employees. As a gesture of community goodwill, often local theatre operators would accommodate requests for use of their playground and amusement rides (operated by employees) to host private events such as children’s birthday parties. Washington’s East-50 Drive-In was no exception.

According to Boxoffice magazine - which billed itself as “The Pulse of the Motion Picture Industry” - by the mid 1950’s, scaled down motorized trains were the most popular rides with Drive-In theatre customers, both young and old. A leading manufacturer of these small trains was The Miniature Train Company of Rensselaer, Indiana. This company had grown from a small train built in the backyard of a Chicago area hobbyist for his son, into a business having sold or leased over 600 train sets by 1954. The MTC G-12 sets were designed to be portable if desired, with an option of a specially fitted trailer that could handle both the train and the track sections.

Miniature Train Company ad circa 1950

Following WWII, the nation’s railroads spent millions of dollars streamlining and modernizing their passenger equipment which had seen heavy use during the war and was in dire need of updating. Recognizing the importance of public relations, many railroads conducted publicity campaigns when one of their new or newly refurbished, streamlined passenger trains were put into service. They were also happy to cooperate with various manufacturers of small scale trains of all sizes as can be seen in the following image.

Painting color chart provided to the Miniature Train Company

by the Public Relations Department of the B&O RR 2-21-1950

Enlargement of lower left corner of the B&O color chart.

By 1952, MTC advertising depicted their scaled down locomotives and accompanying trainsets alongside the General Motors locomotives from which they were based. Judging by the ad below, there is little doubt that B&O’s cooperation was appreciated by the Miniature Train Company. MTC also produced train sets painted to resemble other railroad’s crack streamliners of the post-war era.

1952 Ad for Miniature Train Company trains.

Washington’s East 50 Drive-In was opened in 1950. By the end of its second season in 1951, A.J. “Kal” Kalberer, the local manager of the Switow theaters, indicates “that many new improvements and added attractions for both adults and children are being planned for the 1952 season.” Exact dates are unclear, but by the early 1950’s, the Switow theater group had acquired a Miniature Train Company model G-12 “Streamliner” trainset consisting of a locomotive and three cars capable of accommodating 14 passengers.

These train sets were designed to be portable, with all equipment and track fitting onto “a two wheeled automobile trailer” and towed by an ordinary automobile of the time. It was promoted by its builder as being able to be assembled by one man in less than 90 minutes and disassembled and loaded for transport in less than 60. Former local employees remember the train as being rotated among three different Drive-In theatres owned by the Switow family at the time.

Exactly when the miniature train became a permanent fixture of the East 50 Drive-In playground, joining the popular monkey circus and the standard playground equipment, has not been determined, however; newspaper ads featuring “free train rides” began appearing regularly late in the 1954 season.

By the Spring of 1955, the train was being billed as the “Junior National Limited” both in local East 50 evening newspaper advertisements, and also on a sign which hung above the gate at the entrance of the ride. A circuit of track over 450 feet long, taking riders around the back of the screen (highway side) passing by hot spotlights, through a “tunnel” just below the front of the screen and returning to the playground station was the route of the train. A permanent structure, doubling as a railroad tunnel, was constructed just below the large screen to protect and store the train when not in use.

At the time, Washington was still very much a railroad town. Considering the current Baltimore and Ohio Railroad shops had for generations operated a large locomotive and railcar construction and maintenance facility locally, it is no surprise that according to reports “When the train was delivered, it was sent to the railroad shops and painted … and decorated by the railroad personnel at no cost to the theatre.” B&O’s famous National Limited, a luxury train operating daily between New York City and St. Louis, along with other B&O trains with names such as The Diplomat and The Metropolitan, made their daily stops here.

Locomotive at East 50 after repainting by B&O.

The storage “tunnel” is under construction in the background.

When the miniature train was outshopped by the local railroad carshop, and returned to the Drive-In, it had become the “Junior National Limited,” decorated with the same paints and finishes B&O used on its real life namesake, with the railroad even supplying extra paint for touchup when needed. The “station” sign at the gate to the ride was also supplied by the railroad.

East 50’s opening night in 1955 was officially “B&O Night,” recognizing the cooperation between the local railroad shops and the Drive-In, and was said to be a success. According to one reviewer “the cooperative venture is a nice promotion for the railroad and the patrons like the tie-up… because it (the railroad) is such a familiar part of their lives.”

Washington Daily Times East 50 Drive In ad 4/16/55 with B&O logo.

Train depicted in advertisement above is representative

of the model and not the actual repainted train.

Local railroad managers A.S. Waller left, Superintendent B&O St. Louis Division and

Ray Garrigus right, General Foreman of Shops, pose with Wayne Mitchell (center)

as the Junior National Limited’s “engineer” at the East 50 on B&O Night in 1955.

A.J. “Kal” Kalberer operating the train with grandson Blaine on his lap circa 1955.

Blaine Kalberer at the throttle near the end of the train’s days at the East 50 Drive-In.

The Junior National Limited operated for a quarter of a century at the East 50 Drive In, entertaining grown ups and children alike. “Fact is,” Kal Kalberer states, being quoted in a trade magazine of the day, “we have to fight the grownups off! However, we always make it a point of letting a mother ride with a very small child."

Left: The “Station Sign” for the entrance to the Junior National Limited train at the East 50 Drive In. It is blurred yet “B&O” can be made out above “Junior National Limited.”

By the early 1980’s times had changed and the Junior National Limited was in danger of passing into history, just as its namesake had done over 15 years earlier. The train would be donated by Blaine Kalberer and the theatre owners at the time, Kerasotes, in the memory of his grandfather, Kal, to the City of Washington. It will be operated by volunteers under supervision of park management. In June of 1982 the little train started its life’s second chapter, continuing to entertain children of the area. Stay tuned…

A closer look at the details of the train’s service life at the park and its story will be detailed in chapter two.

My sincere gratitude is extended to Blaine Kalberer, former Theatre Manager, Bruce Smith, Daviess County Historian, Rick Chambon of Washington’s Carnegie Library, Kip Kelly, Park Superintendent City of Washington and Dan Zink of the B&O Historical Society for their cooperation, information and personal experiences they provided.

This article was compiled by Chris Palmer of the Daviess County Historian Team.

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1 Comment

Jun 28

Very interesting! Well written article.

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