News & Reviews June Model Railroader Hall of Fame nominees

June Model Railroader Hall of Fame nominees

By Steven Otte | May 13, 2024

Manufacturers’ innovations shaped what the hobby would become

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Though all our Model Railroader Hall of Fame nominees so far have been hobbyists, sometimes an avocation becomes a vocation. That was the case for our three June Model Railroader Hall of Fame nominees, all of whom turned an early interest in model trains into well-known businesses that are still going strong today. Irvin Athearn, Joshua Lionel Cowen, and William K. Walthers are names that modelers today will recognize. But how well do you know their contributions to the hobby?

Irvin “Irv” Athearn, 1904-1991

Black and white photo of a man in glasses wearing a suit
Irvin Athearn

Irvin Athearn started building an extensive O scale layout in his mother’s Southern California home in 1934. Several years later, though, his plans changed, and he took out an ad in Model Railroader in February 1943 to sell his accumulated collection of wheels, trucks, couplers, motors, and other parts.

The response was good enough to give Irv the idea to make selling model train parts a regular business. In April’s issue, Irv took out a half-page ad offering O scale car roofs, screen-printed metal sides, wood bodies, and other car parts.

At first, Athearn Trains in Miniature was a distributor of other manufacturers’ parts, but in 1948 the business started offering its own car kits. Athearn got into the HO scale locomotive business in 1955, with the Electro-Motive Division F7A and B units marketed under the Globe Models name.

Athearn was a leader in model technology. His company’s “blue box” car kits and locomotives were ubiquitous in hobby shops.

Irvin Athearn died on July 4, 1991, at the age of 87.

Joshua Lionel Cowen, 1877-1965

A black-and-white photo of a man standing behind a toy train layout
Joshua Lionel Cowen

The Lionel name may be synonymous with three-rail and tinplate, but it’s safe to say that the hobby of scale model railroading would look very different today were it not for Joshua Lionel Cowen.

Young Joshua Cohen (he legally changed his last name to Cowen in 1910) was interested in trains from a very young age. One account says that he built his first toy train when he was 7 years old, affixing a live steam motor to a hand-carved wooden locomotive.

The Lionel Corp. pioneered three-rail “Standard Gauge” track, which simplified wiring and eliminated short circuits. O gauge three-rail came along in 1915, and Lionel bought competitor Ives in 1928, giving it the ability to include the reversing unit in its locomotives. Other innovations, like the steam whistle, animated cars, magnetic couplers, and working accessories helped make Lionel the biggest toy manufacturer in the world by the 1950s.

Cowen sold his share of the company to distant relative Roy Cohn and retired to Florida in 1959. He died in West Palm Beach in 1965 at the age of 88.

William K. Walthers, 1892-1967

A black-and-white photo of a man holding a camera
William K. Walthers

Many modelers know William K. Walthers as the name of a Milwaukee-based manufacturer and distributor of model trains, supplies, and accessories. Fewer, though, know that the man for whom the company is named got his start writing articles for the hobby press. In 1932, Walthers self-­published what may have been the first ever model railroad how-to book, Signal and Control Manual for Model Railroaders.

When readers wrote to Walthers asking if they could buy the components he showed in his book, he took out an ad in the May 1932 The Model Maker (precursor to Railroad Model Craftsman), offering a 24-page catalog for 15 cents. By the end of the decade, Wm. K. Walthers Inc. was making its own O and HO scale locomotives, cars, and track.

But Walthers’ story is not just one of business success. Walthers was also a founding member of the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA).

Walthers handed control of the company over to his son, Bruce Walthers, in 1958, but stayed active in the hobby. He died on May 1, 1967.

Vote here

Click here to vote on this month’s nominees. The inductees into the Hall of Fame will be announced in our January 2025 issue. Inductees will be based on cumulative votes, not per month.

One thought on “June Model Railroader Hall of Fame nominees

  1. I would vote for all THREE, if it were possible. Each of these men have contributed to the hobby of railroading in immeasurable ways!!! ALL are deserving; I is a shame and an impracticable request to have to choose just one.

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