The Fessenden School Train Club


By the 1950s, Mr. Brown (Art Department) had reluctantly applied his talents to the back wall and one of the side walls of the train room. He had painted a background that included clouds, mountains, trees, houses, and a lake.

Then, on August 31, 1953, the Train Club's layout, with its picturesque background, became national news when the photograph below appeared in the Education section of Newsweek. 1953 was Fessenden's 50th anniversary, and Newsweek featured an article about the school, including the Train Club.

The article caught the eye of a retired civil engineer who used to have an extensive model train layout in England. His layout was no longer in existence; however, he had kept the hand-made drawbridge from the layout. When he saw the two small drawbridges in the photo (above), he called the school and offered to donate his large drawbridge to the Train Club. Naturally, the Train Club accepted the offer.

The drawbridge was indeed large, measuring four feet long. This presented a problem, since there was no place in the layout where such a bridge could be installed. It was decided that the train room should be enlarged and that an extension to the layout should be constructed to accommodate the bridge and some other rather cool stuff.

Train Room before enlarging

Train Room after enlarging
(New table shown in red)

Soon, the new additions were under construction. The train room wall was moved roughly two feet, a new table was built, and a new town, switching yards area, and control panel were constructed.

The drawbridge, itself, required significant modifications. The bridge had originally been designed with an outside third rail and an above-table counterbalance system (lead weight). The bridge was redesigned with a center third rail and a hidden counterweight suspended below the table. In the photograph above, Chris Plumley '47 (that's me) is working on the counterweight modifications.

The bridge's rack-and-pinion drive system, which had been constructed in the early 1900s by the bridge builder, had to be completely redesigned. The bridge required a new motor and gearbox assembly, and new electronic control system. Fred (Sandy) Sears '46 designed and built most of the equipment, and then the two of us installed the bridge in the layout. In the photo below, Sandy is making final adjustments to the motor and gearbox.

It should be noted that not everything went smoothly with this effort. The prototype electronic control system had a fatal flaw that caused it to self destruct.

The finished product—town, switching yards, control panel, and bridge—provided an exciting new capability for the layout. Mainline trains could be run through the yards and over the bridge, or the yards could be used for assembling trains. If desired, the mainline tracks through the yards could be controlled from the main control panel rather than from the switching yards control panel.

The expansion of the train room gave us an excellent opportunity to install a large window in the new wall. The window provided visitors with an unobstructed view of the entire layout.

By the time the new drawbridge had been installed, the small drawbridges had been eliminated, and the main control panel had been moved from the middle of the layout to one corner of the layout. Also, the main control panel had been redesigned to make it more user friendly.

By moving the control panel to the corner of the layout, the operators could see the entire layout without turning around. Previously, when the control panel was in the middle of the layout (shown in several previous photos), the operators had to keep turning around to see where the trains were.

The track layout was designed to allow four trains to be run independently and simultaneously. The redesigned main control panel had two built-in Lionel transformers (one at each end of the panel), each capable of running the four trains. Control of any train could be switched to either transformer. The control panel also had a color-coded map of the entire layout with the track switch controls mounted on the map.

The photo below of the train layout and the newly relocated main control panel appeared in the 43rd edition of the annual Handbook of Private Schools, published by Porter Sargent in Boston.

One of many interesting construction projects in the 1950s involved the elimination of a dangerous crossover. There had been many train crashes at the crossover, because it was located just outside two tunnel entrances. (The crossover can be seen in the upper left corner of the above photo from the Handbook of Private Schools.) The boys may have enjoyed the train wrecks, but I didn't enjoy having to repair the damaged equipment. The solution to the problem was to raise one of the tracks so that it passed above the other.

The first step was to tear down the mountain to expose the track that had to be raised. (The crossover can be seen on the right in the photo below.)

Then the crossover was removed, and one of the tracks approaching it was elevated.

Finally, when the tracks were in their proper positions, the mountain was reconstructed.

Note that the engine on the upper level of track in the above photo is not a Lionel engine. It is a Swiss engine, built to operate on either 3-rail O gauge track or 2-rail track with overhead power pickup. The engine has a pantograph at each end.

One of the more significant improvements during the 1950s was the installation of a new main control panel. The old Lionel transformers were falling apart, so a new control panel was designed that used heavy-duty industrial components. Similar to the previous main control panel, the new control panel had dual speed controls for the four main tracks and a color-coded map of the entire layout. Any train could be operated from either end of the control panel.

By September 1956, the bugs had been worked out of the drawbridge mechanism, the new control panels were in operation, and the new sidings were operational.

The Train Club's fall sign-up meeting attracted a large number of boys. The tall train conductor in the rear is me, and the guy in the engineer's cap is Sandy Sears.

Following the meeting, the Train Club members went to the train room, where Hart Fessenden (Headmaster) ceremoniously lowered the bridge to officially open the Club. As the bridge finished lowering, it automatically locked in the down position, and the first train automatically crossed the bridge.

Other changes made during the 1950s included a complete rebuild of the town at the rear of the layout. An aerial tramway was added, trackless trolleys ran on the streets, operating traffic lights were installed, and a new loop of track routed trains through the back of the town.

By the end of the 1950s, the train room was being used during the school year by the Train Club members and during the summer months by the Fessenden Day Camp. To the casual observer, everything seemed to be running well; however, there were serious reliability problems with the main part of the layout. These problems would be addressed as we moved into the 1960s.