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George Flaherty’s Greatest Find

By | February 8, 2010

One Flyer locomotive teaches him lessons about another

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An American Flyer no. 350 Royal Blue steam locomotive and tender like this combination all but leaped into George Flaherty’s arms back in 1972 at a landfill in Wisconsin. They were part of his greatest find – which taught him some very valuable lessons about toy trains and how to study and appreciate them today.
OVER THE PAST DECADE OR SO that I have been a part of the toy train hobby, I have attended many train shows and met other train lovers. And I’ve come to realize that there are hundreds of us that don’t know enough about the value and rarity of different O and S gauge trains. We may not even be aware that there are reference books.

I was a part of this group. I had not memorized the numbers of vintage locomotives, cars, and accessories, and the existence of Greenberg guides was unknown to me. So I was prone to making mistakes. As you’ll read here, my greatest find ended up being an “oops,” but I have since learned a great deal. My subscription to Classic Toy Trains was my first real step in getting up to speed.

Let’s go back to 1951

Before getting into much detail about my greatest find and how it helped me learn a few important lessons about collecting vintage American Flyer trains, let’s go back to 1951 when, at the ripe age of seven, I got my first set.

For my birthday that year, my parents presented me with an S gauge set as well as a 4 x 8-foot layout with track already mounted on a sheet of plywood. Even better, there were many terrific accessories, including the American Flyer nos. 583 electromagnetic crane, 596 water tower, and 771 operating stockyard.

The American Flyer layout was probably not new, but that didn’t matter to me. I thought it was great and must have spent hundreds of hours playing with it. The freight train my parents gave me was led by a no. 312 4-4-2 Atlantic steamer and tender. I ran it endlessly around the loop of two-rail S gauge track. In the meantime, I built bridges out of Erector Set parts and loading stations for freight.

After 9 years of adding to my layout – on every birthday and Christmas and by earning money mowing lawns in my hometown of Albany, Wis., I took it down and packed everything away in boxes for later. By now I was 16, and the 312 was completely worn out. Girls had become my favorite gauge to play with!

Skip to 1972 and a landfill

Now let’s jump ahead to 1972, when I was a ripe old 28 years old. I had taken a load of stuff to the local landfill and, before leaving, was sweeping out the trailer I used. A pickup truck pulled in behind me, and the owner stepped out.

I noticed that in his hands he held a boxed American Flyer train set. I don’t know why, but just as the guy began to throw it I ran out the back of the trailer and went high-stepping through the slime and trash. I caught the box – with the grace of a wide receiver on the Green Bay Packers – before it hit the ground!

“You can have that if you want,” the fellow called out. Then he added, “But the locomotive doesn’t work.” Then, before I knew it, he was driving away.

I inspected my treasure, and memories came flooding back to me. The box contained an American Flyer no. 350 Royal Blue 4-6-2 Pacific and tender, along with three freight cars: nos. 631 Texas & Pacific gondola, 633 Baltimore & Ohio boxcar, and 630 Reading caboose with a light. I later learned this was set no. 48T.

Everything in the set, including the track and the transformer, looked very nice. The only problem was a broken wire inside the locomotive, which explained why the guy throwing it out had said that it didn’t work. Otherwise, it was perfect.

Now jump up to 1992

I drove home with this cool American Flyer train set, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. I had retrieved my boyhood Flyer trains and accessories from my parents’ home a long time before. However, my wife wouldn’t put up with my playing with old toy trains, so I had never set up anything. Instead, I tucked away the Royal Blue set with what had been mine and forgot about it for 20 years.

Okay, now we’re up to 1992, and I was then pushing 50. I was working as a tool-room machinist in Monroe, Wis., and had about a million dollars’ worth of machinery at my disposal – plus lots of spare time. I decided that my spare time could be put to good use if I started restoring my old American Flyer trains.

Even I knew that restoring those vintage trains would hurt their value. I wanted to run them at this point and not look at them or pack them up again.

After redoing several pieces of rolling stock and the operating accessories, I decided to start on my original 312 steam locomotive and tender. Then I realized that I needed some parts to finish restoring my Atlantic and get it running again.

Since the Royal Blue had never been a favorite of mine and had a 4-6-2 wheel arrangement (and no smoke or choo-choo), I decided that it would be a perfect “organ donor” for my 312. I used everything: bearings, axles, wheels, and side rods. Before long, all that remained of the Royal Blue was its bare chassis.

Learning a tough lesson

About the time I was completing the restoration of my 312, my foreman at the tool room walked over. Was I in trouble for using work time and company equipment on my trains? No, but he was sure unhappy about what I had done.

“I thought you were making a mistake,” the foreman told me. Then he handed me a copy of Greenberg’s Guide to American Flyer S Gauge (which I didn’t know about) and pointed out that the 350 was worth more than the 312.

Heck, I didn’t know that the foreman was interested in old toy trains. With the guidebook, he tried to get me to see I had made a big mistake with the 350.

Well, maybe. You see, it’s now 2010 and I’m about to build my first S gauge layout since I played with the one I received at my seventh birthday. I fixed up a room for the trains and bought a stack of lumber to build the benchwork.

My beautiful 312 steamer is sitting on my workbench, and I can almost hear it calling, “Build faster – lay track.” In one of the drawers, next to the jars filled with parts, is the blue-painted tender that came with the Royal Blue. It’s silent, but seeing it reminds me that I need to do some reading before acting.

So my greatest find is the Royal Blue set that a guy was ready to toss out almost 40 years ago. Too bad that it had to teach me a valuable lesson about what old trains can be worth. But maybe that’s why it was such a great find – it taught me the importance of reading and learning in order to enjoy my train even more.

25 thoughts on “George Flaherty’s Greatest Find

  1. Nice article- Being a gal I was never lucky enough to get a train set myself….was the 'gender thing' in those days. I probably would have thought I went to heaven with a great find in a landfill. Especially with such a beautiful find as that. These days I enjoy bringing well worn pre-war O gauge back to life and running them on a pre-war era layout. Guides and reference books are worth the money spent on them and have saved me from a quite a few accidental mistakes.

  2. My first train was a Royal Blue. My dad got it for me I think in 1959 or 60, for Christmas. I still have it. I hope to have a track up soon and see hot it runs !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Jim

  3. Great story. Reminds me of myself. Finds like that don't happen
    any more. I never see trains at yard sales. Well, I think I will go down to the dump and spend a few hours.

  4. My first train, in 1949 was the Royal Blue, as part of the 48T set. Over the years it got misplaced. But I have since collected all the Royal Blue's …O's and S's…also the Red circus train and the two silver passenger versions of that same engine…I'm currently building an "O" scale layout and hoping to run the 1940 version on my layout.
    Lets keep intouch.

  5. I did that sort of thing as George did, but it was only a $12 flat car that I painted/ turned into a 50cent flat car, before I learned about "The Guide Book".

  6. My two brothers and I received the Royal Blue for Christmas in either 1948 or 49. Our dad passed away in 1950 and Mom re-married several years later a man with four boys. The royal blue went through all seven of us. About twenty-five years ago my late molther ask me if I wanted our old trains and I took them and put them away in a closet. After I retired from the US Air Force and took another job I never had time to mess with them.
    About two years ago I met a fellow at a Greenberg train show in Virginia Beach. Fred is an "S" gage collector/dealer. He also repairs them. He fixed-up my old Royal Blue and PRR 312 engines and cars. Brought a tear to my eye first time they went around the track. I would never part with them. This artical gave me some great back-ground information on the Royal Blue. Thank you.

  7. Great article – it seems we all have stories like this one. Not all end happily but we keep on moving forward with the hope of the next great find.

  8. My first electric train set was a royal blue American Flyer,but was the 'O' gauge version, manufactured shortly after world war two. My dad later told me it was old stock but he never told me where he bought it. If I remember right it had a white box car, green gondola and red caboose. It had a power track uncoupler with two rails that popped up and lifted the old hook couplers. Spent many hours of play until I sold it to a neighbor.

  9. The article sounds just like me now. I am 62 have had my old Lionel 4-6-4 train set from 1956 and am trying to decide how to set it up and make it work as a hobbie and for my grand kids . I am finding out that it is hard to find good " O " gauge equipment . Also I have an old 60 watt transformer which works but needs more get up and go so trying to figure out how to possible change it to a DCC , and to get some more animated rolling stock etc to start completeing my set up .
    My uncle " Jim " loved trains and made a lot of buildings by hand which are very detailed and not all the same scale 1:43 I believe but I still want to use them
    If any suggestions how to find stock that doesn't cost a arm and a leg and how to change to a DCC power unit just right me a note and forward to me through the magazine
    Am frustrated but loving it

  10. I found a complete Aristocraft G gauge set including track and transformer buried in trash in a barn out in the country in Tenn.
    Took it home cleaned it up and ran perfect.

  11. I think I will keep a sharp eye the next time i'm at the local landfill. I guess people throw away about most anything. Tks.

  12. I received a 48T set for Christmas in 1948. It still has a special place in my heart and on my shelves. I run it every Christmas. It was one of the only toys that my grandmother ever bought me, she was very strict. The train went up with the Christmas tree and came down with the tree. I was only allowed to play with it over that period of time. As a result it is still in pretty good condition. There are a couple cars that sustained some damage but I repaired them rather buy new ones. That makes it "the set" that I received December 25th, 1948.

  13. I got two O gauge train sets at an auction and would like to know if anyone knows thier value. They are 246 and 490 Lionel sets with 4 cars each plus the coal tenders. They are 3 rail. Please reply to obiewan@hughes.net with any info you can give me. Thanks so much.

    Dan

  14. Nice story. What a lucky find! I wonder how many classic trains were not saved from the landfill. I'm glad at least one was. Please get those trains up and running. That is what they were built for!

  15. Too bad. I'm currently trying to build a Royal Blue 556 from donor parts. I've been accumulating pieces from whatever source to try to compile a complete engine. I need to stumble onto one of your great finds. Where is that landfill?

  16. Great Flyer story!
    I had a similar experance. I lived next to a cemetary. It was the only place I could ride my bike. I was 14 I think. I had ridden into the older part of the cemetary one day. The was a spot where the cemetary workers dumped the old flowers and grass clippings. I saw a pick up pulling away from the dump spot, ad being curious, I rode over to take a look. I spotted a couple boxes, and went down to take a look. I found a Rock Island 6464 boxcar,LV hopper,SF B unit,a Prewar 657 Caboose,a coffin (eriery!) whistle tender, and a 2419 work caboose that missing the trucks and one toolbox. These would go great with Dad's Lionel. I couldn't ride home fast enough, but not before I triple checked to make sure I didn't miss anything else.

    Dave

  17. How could you wreck up a complete 48 T bullet nose Royal Blue.
    better rectify that..
    Interseting lionel has owned Flyer so many years and hasnt made the 350 probably the best seller flyer had,or any of its variations,the chrome one or circus??????
    Typical of lionel.look how they are killing K-Line..

  18. I remember my first Lionel set bought with paper rout money back in the early 50's—(51)– When I enlisted in the Navy in '55, all the aquired equipment was put in the trash–After 4 years in service, on my return home, learned all the equipment was gone— After getting married in '59, I started in HO–Also in 1/4" scale—Hard to take is putting it mildly—I built a North Shore car and two hacks and one 0-4-0 Shifter while on board the Tin Can, USS Douglas Fox 779, between '55 and '59—-They are all still running great—-Still very active in this GREAT hobby !!!

  19. Great article. I never throw anything out. I have train parts and tracks that I've collected over the years and keep telling myself that I will need them someday….someday hasn't come yet. Still, I feel that if I throw out these relics of years gone by, I'm getting rid of the era in which I grew up, an era in which I have such fond memories and recollections. And the memories are all I have anymore. So I keep on fixing up old engines and cars. Maybe my grandson will feel like I did one of these days…and try to hold onto some memories of his grandfather.

  20. That is a great story and brings memories to mind of my own American Flyer set that was a Christmas giftf rom my Grandfather in the late fifities. Much of it I have picked up from storage from my boyhood home in Milwaukee. I would love to restore it to working order. I don't care much for the monetary value as this was a gift from my Grandfather who is long been deceased. It has much more sentimental value for me.

  21. i have a american flyer engine & 7 cars & all the track the engine
    is the wheels in front & back i have had it set up & running was
    wondering what the set would be worth thanks my e mail ad. is
    galen33@live.com

  22. There was an article in Classic Toy Trains about custom detailing a Flyer Royal Blue. Can anyone tell me wht issue it was in.
    Art

  23. George, great story, but the 1972 part was a great SAVE, not a find! 😉 That was a beautiful engine.

    As others have pointed out, many of our dear mothers have tossed some of our most precious childhood memories, from Lionel & AF trains to Hot Wheels diecast cars. Sigh….

    I've often wondered how many treasured and rare trains have been buried in the bottom of our landfills and dumps. It boggles the mind!

    Coincidently, I just returned from Maryland yesterday with a rental car trunkload of my late father's trains. I now have his modest collection of Lionel standard, O & O27 trains, as well as a pair of AF engines (Silver Bullet & a Hudson) with cars. Thankfully, my sister knew what they met to me and saved them until I visited from Florida.

    They may or may not run again, but no matter – they'll be throughly cleaned and polished, and be displayed on the wall of my home office (aka "The Dump" per my wife!)

  24. I just have started subscribing to CTT magazine.

    I grew up with Lionel and got my first set in about 1954. It was a 2037 steamer (027)with 4 freight cars. In 1955 or 56 I traded the engine in at the local Lionel dealer in Birmigham, AL as deposit on a new O guage Illinois Central streamliner 2363 and dummy which I still have. (Cost $40.00 less $15 allowed on my old engine.) I took very good care of my trains and the Ill Central still looks like new. Years later I regretted trading in my 2037 until recently when I discovered the Ill Central was worth much, much more
    than the old steamer. Now at age 64 I have opened the boxes of all my old trains which include an operating cattle car, a ZW transformer (both like new), the freight cars from my first 027 set, the Ill Central and an old pre-war tin plate lionel set (bullet style steamer with about 4 tin plate cars).
    Lately I have gone nuts ordering vintage trains from ebay including: 1950-51 Hudson steamer 2046 with whistling tender; American Flyer 322 Hudson steamer and 5 series 600 passenger cars, 5 modern Lionel/AF freight cars; a new in the box Lionel Great Northern3100 and the freight cars. The entire 2nd story of my house will be devoted to Lionel, American Flyer and one HO scale layouts. It is good that I don't have a wife. She would not put up with all of this. I must admit that buying trains off ebay is addictive. I must stop for now before I go broke. I have tons of nice AF track and switch tracks. My old Lionel 72 O guage track is pretty shot. I would appreciate suggestions on what type of track to use for the Lionel,e.g., Fast Track, MTH, etc. I want realism but I also want good magnetism. I have read the article from CTT about track. It was good but almost overwhelming.

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