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Anthony Zagarino’s Greatest Find

By | April 26, 2010

A little Lionel engine with a lot of heart and loads of memories

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This Lionel no. 1655 2-4-2 Scout-type steam locomotive, which author Anthony Zagarino picked up at the famed Madison Hardware Co. in the 1980s, serves as an excellent replacement of the 1655 that he played with as a youngster in the 1950s.
I’VE BEEN IN THE TOY TRAIN HOBBY FOR MANY YEARS and have amassed an impressive collection of Lionel’s postwar F3s, Berkshires, Turbines, and other locomotives.

But which Lionel engine has the most meaning for me? None other than a little no. 1655 2-4-2 steam locomotive. It doesn’t have Magne-Traction or a smoke unit, and it wobbles a bit as it trundles down the track. But every time I look at the thing, I am flooded with childhood memories. It’s my greatest find!

Start with the background
First, a little background on the 1655. A simple “Scout” type of steam locomotive cataloged by Lionel in 1948 and ’49, it had a black-painted die-cast metal body with its cab number rubber-stamped in silver. The 1655 came with an ornamental whistle and bell, handrails, side rods, and an operating headlight.

Intended to pull a light load of cars, the 1655 featured a three-position reversing unit. Lionel upgraded the motor assembly of its predecessor (the no. 1654) to make the 1655 a better puller. It had sliders, instead of rollers, for third-rail power pick-up.

Although the 1655 isn’t given much publicity by collectors and isn’t a valued piece, it is a wiry little beast. After placing mine on level track, I can coax it to pull 10 fairly heavy postwar freight cars. In short, it does a decent job.

In its day, the 1655 made for a good starter-set engine. At any one time, you can find several models being offered on Internet auction websites at extremely reasonable prices, as the collector value is low or non-existent.

The 1655 meant Christmas
So what makes the Lionel 1655 engine so special to me? As a boy growing up in an apartment in lower Manhattan, I could make room for only a modest holiday layout each year – nothing more than a 4 x 6-foot setup in the living room next to our family’s Christmas tree. My layout came down with the tree right after the new year began.

While my family and I added to the layout occasionally, money was tight. But to me, this engine meant Christmas. My 1655 was as special as any Lionel no. 736 Berkshire. In fact, because my family didn’t have much money, until I was about 10 years old I never knew that Lionel made anything bigger than the 1655.

My father didn’t pick up this 1655 as part of a set. He probably got it second-hand for my older brother in the late 1940s. We never even had the proper no. 6654W sheet-metal “Scout” tender lettered for “Lionel Lines.” Instead, my 1655 pulled a no. 6026 tender, which my brother purchased in the early 1950s to replace our original no. 2671. Both tenders dwarfed our engine. But again, as a child, I didn’t know any better.

Later on I discovered the famed Madison Hardware Co. on 23rd St., a stone’s throw from our apartment in the West Village. In my early teens I made many trips to Madison, the greatest of Lionel’s retail outlets, but I could never afford to buy the brawnier locomotives.

Returning to toy trains and Madison Hardware

My Lionel story is typical. I fell away from the hobby during my adolescence and then came back to it in my early 20s, after I started a family. By then, the original 1655, along with all of our other Lionel cars and accessories, was long gone, having been sold by my brother when our interests changed.

Just before my first daughter was born in 1985, I felt a longing to return to the hobby. I started picking up a few pieces at local shows and hobby shops.

In early 1986 I happened to be walking up 23rd St. On my way up to Park Ave. South I ran right smack into Madison Hardware. I must have stared at the display window for a half-hour.

Finally, I stepped into the shop and was met by Carl Shaw, one of the proprietors. As you may know from articles like the one Len Carparelli wrote about Madison for the May 2010 issue of Classic Toy Trains, Carl was not one to let you browse the shop. So I left, vowing to come back with some cash the following Saturday.

This time, I met Lou Shur, who owned Madison. When I returned to the hobby I decided to get a 1655. The ones I saw at shows were pretty beat up.

I explained to Lou what I was looking for, figuring this was a long shot. He told me to hang around for a while, and he’d see what he could find.

Well, Lou was gone for quite some time, but when he returned he had an unopened rectangular corrugated box in his hands with the number “1655” stamped on the flaps of what looked like a brand new box.

Lou sliced the taped ends open and out popped the steam engine of my childhood – intact, pristine, and mint.

As my heart palpitated, I asked Lou, “How much?”

“Give me $100 and I’ll guarantee it for life” Lou responded

Without any haggling or deliberation, which you couldn’t do with Lou anyway, I paid him and took my greatest find home to show my year old daughter. I realize now that the price was way beyond the locomotive’s actual value, but it was worth every penny.

Preserving great memories
For most of us baby boomers, this hobby is not about value or money. It’s about memories – about recalling simpler times.

When I got my treasured piece home, put it on my layout, and turned up the throttle on the no. 1033 transformer, the buzzing and the ozone provided memories that were well worth the $100.

The little locomotive now sits proudly on my main display shelf. And every time I pass it, I give it a look, and it evokes a childhood memory. As far as I am concerned, the memories are worth more than the money I paid.

Thank you Lou Shur, wherever you are!

12 thoughts on “Anthony Zagarino’s Greatest Find

  1. A very interesting story. I wish that I could have made a trip to Madison Hardware in the 50s. But, here in Missouri, most of us had never even heard of Madison at that time. Thank you for a nice remembrance.

  2. I still have my lionel #1666 locomotive that i received for christmas in 1941.Santa Claus gave me the engine ,tender and caboose that year .The next year Santa brought me the baby ruth box car and the sunoco oil tanker.I was totally thrilled for what i received the first year and never realized ther was more to the set.

  3. This story describes many of us, that 1st train, and it's memories last forever! I'm a 1953 model and my 1st set at Christmas of 1960 was a 1609, the least expensive set of the time. It came with the 246 plastic steamer & magnetraction, 1130 tender, 6162 blue NYC gondola, 6476 Lehigh Valley hopper & 6057 red caboose. The original tender broke Christmas day & the engine ran alone a lot, mom returned it to the store (Ball Stores, Muncie, IN), and they gave her a 244T sloop back tender from the 1627S set. I didn't like it as well, but was told it came from a more expensive set and was satisfied.
    I ran that set to death! Did you know real bricks fit in the gondola? A 6464-900 NYC Jade Green boxcar was my 1st add on car; I had been asking foe one for what seemed a long time, I think it came the next chrismas.
    Mom always picked the great cars like the 6464-450 Great northern, 6828 P&H crane car, and more over the years. I too sold the trains in my teens, and just recently rebuilt my set and extras from e bay. I found my complete starter set in box just like mine, not as new, but very nice, and was just as happy as if I won a new diecast Hudson
    This is indeed a great hobby, and the people are just as great as the toys!

  4. Great story, I recently re-acquired my childhood Lionel set #1465 with a 2034 scout steamer. What a great little set, I get it out each Christmas, and it still runs great. The small entry level sets of that era enabled many of us to enter a life long love of toy trains. Thanks Josh Cowen.

  5. thanks for that story,really brings the memories. i too had ,and still do, have my scout engine and sheet medal tender, from 1953.

  6. Great story. I was was born in Sept of 1948, Christmas that year I received a 2026 complete set. I guess it cost my Dad a weeks pay.
    This is still one of my best running locomotives. Grab a toy today,62 years old and tell me how it works.
    Thanks lionel

  7. I really love these stories, all of them ! As a suggestion, I would like CTT to run a series with people describing their first train sets. It gives life, and a sense of history to these old models. I remember my Marx O-27 set when I was 4 or 5 years old around 1960 or '61. My mom was afraid the sparks from the wheels would start a fire, and she made me wait for dad to come home, and make sure it was safe.

  8. When we evacuate for hurricanes, my Santa Fe Twin Diesel from 1970 goes with us. All my newer, expensive, TMCC equipment gets left behind. Those pieces can be replaced, and now with Legacy versions, the replacements would be even better. But my original train can not be replaced. To me it's more valuable then all of the rest of my trains combined.

  9. GREAT-SCOT-!!! – BEAUTIFUL and thanks for finding and posting this. That is the same engine we had on our lay out c.1955. My dad gave it away in trade for a cheeper ARMY 0-4-0 diesil switcher when he could not afford to have our 1655 repaired. But I still have the REST OF THE lay out intact, including several of the peices just shown on the D-146 layout that will be the subject of the CTT online project

  10. Anthony, You were the first to "play" with your engine, indeed that is worth something! My first Lionel set had the 242 & 1060 T, with a Blue 6162 NYC gondola, a 6476 LV red hopper, & the 6057 red caboose. I ran the wheels off
    of that thing, always wanting a box car, with opening door, like my cousins Marx set had. For a birthday I got a 6464-900 Jade Green NYC boxcar that I have always loved. I traded for & received gifts of more great Lionel items as a youth. I sold my trains in my early 20's, & like many came back in the early 70's just as MPC products came out. I since have collected my 1st set again, with a good box. The quest is part of the fun! Thanks for sharing!

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