Lou Hertz: Toy Train Genius

July 10, 2021

I can still see the letter from "L.H. Hertz" addressed to me in the mail pile when I got home from school. I wondered why a legend in toy train collecting would write to a 16-year-old kid. Although Hertz was not a member of the Train Collectors Association, he had seen my want ad in a TCA newsletter. I answered him; he wrote back. The letters are long lost.

One night many years later I got a phone call in response to another ad about Ives trains. The caller never identified himself, but I'm sure it was Hertz. We talked about Ives for 15 minutes. There was some feedback on the line, probably caused by an amplifying device on Hertz' end. He was hard-of-hearing.

Reading Louis Heilbronner Hertz' work, I, as many others, I'm sure, assumed that Hertz, who started writing prolifically about toy trains in 1935, was born around 1900. His output of the 1930s and '40s was so grown-up, so literary. When Hertz died in 1994, I was shocked to learn that he was actually born in 1922. He was 13 to 23 years old when he wrote erudite articles, built up a magazine and published three books, all the while befriending the Forcheimer Brothers of Dorfan Trains, William Ogden Coleman of American Flyer and Joshua Lionel Cowen.

The Ives Family, when 18-year-old Hertz showed up at their Connecticut farm around 1940 asking about the defunct Ives toy-train company, were flattered and gracious, but probably cast wondering glances at each other.

Hertz must have been sensitive about his youth for he lied about his age, claiming in 1936 that he was 19(1). When serious publisher Charles Penn wanted to hire Hertz to edit a new magazine, Penn had to apply to 16-year-old Hertz' father for permission.(2)

Lou Hertz was a New Yorker. Two addresses associated with him are an apartment on Riverside Drive near Hamilton Grange and a Victorian house with Tudor touches on the Scarsdale/Hartsdale border.

Lee Ridgeman Centinela Valley Railroad

Lee Ridgeman, founder of Model Railroader's Digest, hoped that subscribers would pay $5.00 to have their train layouts pictured on its cover.

He appears to have been a prodigy, perhaps made so by disability. In his 1977 autobiographical interview, he reveals that his legs were paralyzed for about a year when he was a kid. (3) As a pre-schooler, he learned to read from an Ives train catalog. Elementary school found him delivering treatises to the other kiddies.

Birth of a hobby

Millennials of the 2020s who fill their work cubicles with Legos and other childhood toys probably would have been, in the 1930s, set down as looney and then sent home with severance. But back then, despite the sharp demarcation between childhood and adulthood, many men who had, as boys, played with the electric trains of the early 1900s, were forever under the spell of miniature railroading. As adults they could call it "Model Railroading," a new art made respectable by lifelike exhibits at the Chicago and New York World's Fairs and by two new serious magazines, Charles Penn's [Railroad] Model Craftsman, and A.C. Kalmbach's Model Railroader.

While he is mostly associated with Charles Penn publications, thirteen-year-old Hertz' first article about "tinplate," as toy trains were called, was published in Model Railroader in 1935. Forty years later, around the U.S. Bicentennial, Hertz again wrote a couple articles for Model Railroader and for early issues of Kalmbach's Classic Toy Trains launched a few years before his death.

This essay is about Hertz' early efforts in developing the hobby and his roles in shoestring toy-train publications. Said shoestrings broke very quickly.

The realistic scale models of the 1930s, such as those furnished by Edwin P. Alexander, were very expensive. Most model railroaders worked with trains originally made as toys, perhaps altering the playthings to look more like models. An Ohio electrician named Delbert Henninger, whose career included wiring silent movie theaters for "talkies," was a master at making toy locomotives look (somewhat) more like the real ones.

Men interested in toy and model trains began finding and corresponding with each other. One was a Californian, Lee Ridgeman, who operated the Centinela Valley Railroad, an impressive (for the time), large layout of altered toys, collectors items and homemade structures.

Edwin P. Alexander Modelmaker

Professional modelmaker, author, founder of the Train Collectors Association, Edwin P. Alexander in his workshop around 1940. Alexander built models for the 1939 New York World's Fair and later for the Smithsonian/B&O Railroad Museum.

In 1936 Ridgeman typed a couple of his letters in a newsletter format (4). He was encouraged to turn it into a magazine. Model Railroader's Digest was born.

Ridgeman reproduced the third issue by having his wife typewrite about 15 copies of each(5). That one production may have sufficed for Mrs. Ridgeman for Vol. 1, No. 4, the 4-page May 1, 1936 issue was professionally printed at a cost of $20.00.

In that issue Lou Hertz' byline was on "The Antique Collector and Historian," "the first column ever devoted to obsolete tinplate equipment." The June issue of MRD led with Hertz' description of his Hartsdale Central Railroad, a "Christmas" layout that sprawled all over the Hertz' Riverside Dr. apartment. The same number also included the first of many pieces by the talkie-movie electrician Delbert Henninger on what became his "Seneca Union Lines." The September MRD listed Mrs. S.R. Heilbronner, Hertz' grandmother, as a booster.

The MRD of October included an announcement, with rates for advertising, by Hertz of a Standard Catalog of American Tinplate Motive Power, first edition, $2.00. This is a project that Hertz had been working on from childhood, using illustrations from toy train catalogs. However he quickly realized that such a compilation would be far from comprehensive. While the standard catalog never materialized in book form, it was an early concept of the number lists and price guides that train collector clubs and publishers issued decades later.

Like all early toy train magazines and books, the Model Railroader's Digest was very gray with text and short on illustrations. Much of its column space was given over to subscribers describing their layouts. In those times (and indeed, until the advent of desktop publishing) it was expensive to process photos for printing.

As sources of information about toy trains, early publications are not very useful. They are filled with inaccuracies, speculation and instructions that make even less sense than modern how-to's with illustrations. It took decades of a growing number of collectors exchanging information and building an "economy of collecting" for truly informative material about toy trains to emerge.

"You know, sometimes I think I ought to write an article entitled "Terrible Mistakes I've made...," Hertz said in 1977 (6), Some of the errors I made forty years ago are still picked up and repeated by people who think that because something is printed, it must be so!"

Lee Ridgeman claimed that he was not interested in making money on Model Railroader's Digest nor was he a magazine promoter. While he got want ads at 25 cents each and even display ads from American Flyer and The Model Railroad Shop, Ridgeman was out of the picture by 1937. Vol. II, No. 1 of that year is headlined with "Lee Ridgeman Relinquishes The Reins of M.R.D."

Professionally laid out and printed on quality gloss paper, MRD was now in the hands of Dudley M. Olney and 15-year-old Hertz, himself. It contained more display ads including one placed by "Richard Maerklin," the American representative of the famous German company, advertising the venerable firm's new and sensational HO trains.

But only two issues of MRD were published in 1937. Hertz reappeared in 1938 as managing editor (still in his minority) of Charles Penn's new Miniature Railroading. Over the next 13 years, Hertz wrote a column, "Along The Tinplate Track" for Penn's [Railroad] Model Craftsman.

Meanwhile in May, 1939, Model Railroader's Digest was revived with Hertz as sole publisher and editor.

Whatever its profitability, MRD's content flourished under Hertz until it was discontinued in 1941. There were illustrations on almost every page and more display ads to pay for them. Sections of Hertz' Standard Catalog of American Tinplate Motive Power were inserted for cutting out and three-hole-punching in a binder. Readers were introduced to collectors and operators who became famous in the hobby such as John A. Markham of Windsor, Ont. and Edwin P. Alexander who ran ads touting his model store at 13 E. 40th St. near Times Square.

Many of the want ads in MRD were placed by Hertz himself. He occasionally published his own articles under the pseudonyms of "Walter Nafford" of "R.D. Colvin."

Riding The Tinplate Rails

In 1944, during World War II and its paper shortage, Charles Penn published Hertz' first major book, Riding The Tinplate Rails. In later decades this and other out-of-print Hertz books about tinplate commanded high prices. It's likely that profiteers/thieves checked Hertz books out of public libraries, pretended to lose them, made retribution by paying the cover prices and then made a profit by selling the books for $50, $75, $100.

The Hertz-book bubble was burst by modern publications containing more accurate information and most importantly, lots of photographs, moreover in full color. Like all early tinplate publications, Riding The Tinplate Rails has an illustration/text ratio heavy on the latter.

Some of the content is also downright silly, particularly in the chapter "Publicity and Satire." Hertz reports that the Errol Flynn/Olivia De Havilland 1938 movie Four's A Crowd disappointed tinplaters because it did not treat model railroading in a serious manner. In 1944, the nitpicking train nerd had become established among the hobby's personality types.

In another chapter Hertz writes of a "Model Railroad Museum [to be] established." Like his catalog of tinplate motive power, such a concept, the TCA's Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, PA, materialized decades later, but Hertz, not being a member of the TCA, was not involved in its establishment.

Riding The Tinplate Rails' final chapter is "On The Trail of The Ives Company" in which Hertz' recounts his trips to Connecticut to interview Ives Family members and others connected to the famous American toymaker. He got Harry Ives' daughter, Virginia to take him through the old Ives factory on Holland Ave. in Bridgeport. Hertz' research resulted in Messrs. Ives of Bridgeport published in 1950.

Probably his best book, Messrs. Ives of Bridgeport is a good human-interest story about the people involved in a toymaking operation and their adherence to values of a higher plane than profit.

Magazine bubble

In the early 1950s, with the post-World-War-II boom in full swing, with people having more money for hobbies and space in new suburban tract housing to indulge them, electric trains reached their peak of popularity. The two major American manufacturers, Lionel and American Flyer, jumped through hoops, sometimes very degrading for company personnel, to get their trains featured on the most popular TV programs such as I Love Lucy and The Jackie Gleason Show.

1950-51 saw at least three new toy train magazines spring up like rye. None lasted beyond 1954.

Issued out of Philadelphia, Electric Trains was the most short-lived. Its publisher, Fox Schulman Enterprises, brought in Hertz as publisher and editor of the last two of its only six issues. Two other collectors who became well-known in the future, Don La Spaluto and Harry P. Albrecht, already staffed Electric Trains as Editorial Advisors.

Lou Hertz 1941 Model Builder

Hertz in 1941 posing with a Lionel trolley from the 1910s. Even before World War II, this 8-wheel car was a prized and highly sought-after rarity.

An issue featuring Walt Disney's outdoor railroad included a photo of Disney animator Ward Kimball who shared his genius in toy tran publications many times over in years to come. Mentioned editorially were long-time Tampa, FL, hobby dealer, Chester Holley and train club leader John Marron.

But Electric Trains lacked focus. It tried to be all things to all types of readers: kids, adult hobbyists, train collectors, HO operators, the hobby trade, each a very different readership. The magazine touted a "Don Blake's Railroaders' Club" represented by the drawing of an engineer, first depicted as a strapping young man, then as an older avuncular guy in overalls.

Whoever the hell "Don Blake" was (another Hertz pseudonym?), he kept apologizing for not being able to keep up the with the correspondence of his engineer's club. The magazine's final number came out in April 1952 entitled Hobby Railroading, The Magazine of Electric Trains. It included a spread on the Bridgeport Model Train Show, organized in part by Hertz, whereat Virginia Ives Cook presented prizes to little kids who had likely never heard of Ives Trains.

Lou Hertz Koouis H. Hertz

Lou Hertz, at about 15, with his impressive collection in 1937. He had already been writing articles about toy trains for a couple years.

The great mystery

Why did Hertz, the father of train collecting, never join the Train Collectors Association? He did join the Toy Train Operating Society, a smaller club with a largely West-Coast membership.

Various vague answers have been offered over the years: Hertz thought the TCA advocated restoring trains; Hertz thought he should have a place of honor in the organization.

I suspect that Hertz abstained from the TCA because of his involvement with the older Standard Gauge Association, in which he served as treasurer. In addition to loyalty, he likely assented to SGA's attitudes and culture as expressed in an extreme manner by SGA president, a real "pill" (as my mother would call such types), named George Brink.

A retired Army colonel (probably from World War I) called the miscreants to order with "a voice capable of directing a full regiment on a parade ground."

Early train collectors tended to be men of a generation who wore coats and ties to meetings. At some gatherings they even sang glee songs as customary when "good fellows get together." Trading trains was secondary to socializing and exchanging information. Indeed many would only literally trade, exchanging one piece for another, no cash involved. Assembling just to buy and sell was looked upon as vulgar. Non-hobby-shop-owning "wheelers and dealers" in toy trains were not highly regarded, if welcome at all. Well into the 1970s there was grumbling among veteran collectors about those who joined clubs to aggressively pursue profit.

Indeed, in 1969 the Train Collectors Association suspended a member for one year for offering cash payments to hobby shops if they called him about old trains they took in.(7)

Ward Kimball Trains

From an Electric Trains feature on Walt Disney's miniature railroad. At right is animator Ward Kimball who poured his Disney earnings and Firehouse Five Plus Two recording royalties into a world-famous train collection that included real locomotives and cars.

Started in 1947, the Standard Gauge Association was, in its initial ten years, a correspondence/trading club consisting of many members associated with the early days of collecting, including Edwin P. Alexander. The SGA had no formal "train meets" and no publications save a directory of members.

As published in that directory, the by-laws declared that the SGA was open only to operators of "Standard Gauge" (as named by Lionel), with a width of two and one-eighth inches. Also allowed to join were those who operated on track only two inches wide, "provided the wheel treads are wide enough to stay on [the slightly wider] Standard gauge track." This excluded the many collectors who did not collect Standard Gauge. Most toy train collectors, in fact, collect O gauge.

The SGA's by-laws also admonished members not to annoy Honorary Members (mostly real-railroad executives) with questions. Yes, the train guy who thinks others have nothing other to do than talk trains was around then.

The by-laws further set Life Membership at two dollars. Even in the 1950s, long before organizations discovered the folly of offering life memberships and of exempting senior citizens from dues, that bespoke a bad business plan.

In 1954 Ed Alexander, along with a hobby-shop owner, Bill Krames, called the first meeting of their proposed Train Collectors Association, open to collectors of all types of trains, even those with merely an interest. The gathering took place in Alexander's sheep barn cum train museum in Yardley, PA.

Alexander and Krames likely used the SGA's directory to invite attendees. That use is probably why SGA president Brink accused the TCA (unnamed in his editorial rant) of "unscrupulous methods of getting members by deliberately misinforming people that the SGA had gone out of existence..." (8)

Brink described the unnamed persons who executed those "unscrupulous methods" as "some people who look on everything with an eye as to how they can exploit it to use it to gain prestige and power." "Ouch!" Bill Krames and Ed Alexander probably said.

In his rant, fuddy-duddy Brink let out that he had moved house (during which time SGA administration had halted) and that potential applicants interested in SGA could not get any information and therefore "guessed [SGA] was out of business." Well, wouldn't unanswered inquiries give that impression? What about the membership restriction to Standard Gauge collectors only?

"...[D]uring this trying period," Brink wrote, "most of our officers and members were loyal to SGA."

Was Lou Hertz one of these, loyal to the point that he never joined the TCA as so many other SGA members did?

Virginia Ives Cook Harry Candee Ives

At the Hertz-organized Bridgeport Model Train Show in 1952: Virginia Ives Cook, daughter of Ives Trains last president, Harry Candee Ives, hands out prizes to juvenile entrants.

Trading trains by mail carries a number of risks, moreso in those old days before reference guides, description standards and cheaply, easily shared photos. A collector buying a "Lionel 250" off a mail list might unwrap a cheap, common engine instead of the big Hiawatha steamer of the same number he was expecting. What do "good condition" and "mint" mean? If you want to see how varied (and unrealistic) sellers' opinions are, just read descriptions on eBay. Trains poorly packed for shipping was a common complaint.

For these reasons, most collectors preferred trading trains in person rather than by mail. The Train Collectors Association, with its in-person meetings, grew rapidly, drawing many members who also belonged to the SGA. In a few years Alexander's and Krames' establishment, with the aid of Louis J. Redman, who acted for decades in permanent administrative roles, offered a decent quarterly magazine with photos inside, not just on the cover.

In 1957 SGA members demanded that their hitherto correspondence club also have meetings and a periodical publication. Leadership met at a firehouse in Tarrytown, NY. This resulted in SGA "open[ing] the throttle" as the cover story on its maiden newsletter, the Spring 1958 SGA Journal, proclaimed. The association was now open to collectors of all types of trains. Meetings would be held. The first was at the Elk's Lodge in Pompton Lakes, NJ. It was attended by 150.

The entire run of SGA Journals, not more than several issues, were typewritten (by John Marron's wife, Peggy), poor-offset-quality print-jobs with one very screeny photo on the cover. Their publication was often delayed.

Wreck at Hershey

Member conduct at the SGA's Nov. 1, 1959 "Fall Fellowship" meeting in Hershey, PA had George Brink again in high dudgeon furiously pounding the keys of his typewriter.(9)

Many members present at Hershey committed the egregious offense of continuing to trade trains instead of quietly attending the business meeting or the playing of movies and audiotapes while they were in progress. A retired Army colonel (probably from World War I) called the miscreants to order with "a voice capable of directing a full regiment on a parade ground."(10)

"The SGA," fumed Brink, "was not provide a market square were members could buy and sell. Such activities are and always must remain secondary to the real purposes of the SGA which are to sponsor fellowship and the exchange of useful information...." etc.(11)

Brink was joined in his recrimination by Gerald A. Robinson, a Gramercy Park dentist who left this world as a renowned expert on Ives: "Attendees further packed up and left at 3 p.m. while "members who had travelled long distances to attend continued to arrive to find the hall dark and empty several hours after everyone else had folded their tents and departed."(12)

How long did these people think train meets should go on?

It appears that after the "lamentable" meet at Hershey with an army colonel ordering people around and the subsequent editorial hissy fits, George Brink announced his retirement. Another key officer, John Marron left, shortly becoming president of the TCA. The Standard Gauge Association truly went out of business.

A singular event

But let us step back to spring of 1959. The SGA's high-point, along with that of Lou Hertz' prominence in the train collecting hobby, had come on May 23, 1959 at an SGA meeting engineered by Hertz at the old Ives factory on Holland Ave. in Bridgeport, CT.

Hertz' initial ambition was to install a bronze plaque commemorating Ives on a wall of the 1907 Ives building which, in 1959, housed a textile company. He met with the fabric firm's owner and Mayflower Descendant, H[arold]. Burling Narramore, presenting Narramore with an autographed copy of Messrs. Ives of Bridgeport. This writer now possesses that very copy.

H. Burling Narramore not only gave permission to install the plaque, he invited the SGA to have its meeting at the factory for the unveiling.

In the history of train collecting the Ives plaque dedication is a singular event. It is likely the only assembly of train collectors that ever opened with a prayer. After Hertz led The Pledge of Allegiance, an invocation was given by Rev. Dalmar S. Markle of St. George's Episcopal Church who prayed:

"Let us pray Almighty God our Heavenly Father, we beseech thee, to send thy blessing upon this assemblage. Make us mindful of the joys brought into the lives of so many by those who once upon a time labored in this place. Create in us likewise a desire to do within our power all things needful to establish in the hearts of men and among the nations of the earth, peace, joy and happiness. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen."

Present were members of the Ives Family who guided attendees around the factory, former Ives employees who brought stories and Ives toys they had saved, current and former mayors of Bridgeport. While her brother Royal stood by, Miss Alice Ives, daughter of Edward R. Ives who founded the company in 1868, pulled aside a red, white and blue covering to reveal the 75-pound, 20"x30" plaque.

Lou Hetz John Marron Standard Gauge Association

First of the ill-fated Standard Gauge Association's poorly-produced journals. Cantankerous president George Brink is seated second from the left; Hertz is seated third. Standing between the two is John Marron who went on to become president of the Train Collectors Association.

So the plaque was installed on the Ives factory wall, but the cast-bronze rectangle was not fully paid for. After some appeal to the membership, money was found in the club treasury to satisfy the balance due.

Thirty-seven years later, just before the old Ives factory building was demolished, the building's owner sold the plaque to The Ives Train Society. TITS (founded by teenage boys in New York in 1934) loaned the plaque to the TCA's National Toy Train Museum where it can be seen today.

The Train Collectors Association, which Lou Hertz refused to join, for whatever reason, published the tinplate "catalog" he conceived, established the toy train museum he dreamed of. And now that museum shelters his Ives plaque.


(1)Model Railroaders Digest, Vol. I No. 8, Sept. 1936, p. 4. in Hertz' answer to a questionnaire sent out to all MRD subscribers.

(2)Hertz, Louis H., "Hertz Talks At Last," The Collector, Vol. I, American Flyer Collectors Club, Pittsburgh, PA, 1977.


(4)Redman, Lou, "Roster of Tinplate Magazines, The Train Collectors Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, April 1973.

(5)Model Railroader's Digest, Vol. II, No. 1, Feb 1937.

(6)Hertz, Louis H., "Hertz Talks At Last," The Collector, Vol. I, American Flyer Collectors Club, Pittsburgh, PA, 1977.

(7)Train Collectors Association, Membership Newsletter, July 1969. The member was Allison M. Cox.

(8)Brink, George E., "The History of The Standard Gauge Association," SGA Journal, Summer 1958.

(9)Brink, George E., President's Message, SGA Journal, Vol. II, No 7.



(12)Id. Into the 1980s, the Train Collectors Association also required meet attendees to stop trading, sit down, be quiet and pay attention to business meetings, i.e., listen to self-important mouth-runners run their mouths. This practice was particularly despised at the heavily attended TCA Eastern Division meet at the York, PA, Fairgrounds. It is now ancient history as the business meeting is a parallel event for those interested in attending. The problem of sellers bolting early was solved by a requirement on pain of being banned from future selling that sellers must keep trains on tables until 2 pm.

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