A Life Long Passion Like No Other

We arrived in Stanstead, Quebec shortly before noon on Good Friday.  After a drive that took too long as a result of excessive traffic in Ontario’s capital city and a stay at the Comfort Inn in Cornwall, we traveled through New York and Vermont, crossing back into Canada at the border of Vermont and Quebec.  We knew that Dennielle’s brothers lived in Stanstead, the border town across from Newport, Vermont, but as we left the gate at customs, the GPS indicated “Arriving at destination on right,” only 250 meters from the United States.  They weren’t kidding that they lived on the border!

For Anglophones traveling into Quebec, Stanstead is an accepting small town of 3000 that speaks both national languages with fluency.  Stanstead’s history is steeped in the granite industry, with the most durable stone of it’s kind in the world.   Settled in 1790, the stage coaches once traveled through it going between Montreal to the north and Boston to the south.  Smuggling was a major concern with the border town that a customs port was established in 1821.  The town’s website claims that many pioneers made their fortunes through smuggling.  Looking at the old pictures in one of the locally owned restaurants, you can envision the days when the streets were dirt and prohibition in the USA created an industry boom here.

Out for a walk and a tour of the town, we stopped into the Granite Central Co-op and Museum.  My brother-in-law, and film producer, Damon Cox (Instead Cinema) stopped in to show us a recent addition to the town; a model train set up and a collection of Lionel trains.  

The model train group out of Sherbrooke recently moved into town and took up residence in the Museum.  Moving a train set doesn’t sound like a large undertaking, but I have never seen anything like it before.  It’s huge, filling 700 square feet in the museum.  In moving the mountains, towns, meat packers, parks and mines to Stanstead, the display was cut into 16 pieces with the 800 wires cut, labeled, moved and reassembled in 84 days.  When you take the time, you begin to notice small details that highlight the passion these collectors and hobbyists have.  Tiny men are positioned as mountain climbers, a young boy looks over the granite bridge exit as he waits for the train, and a couple sit at a park gazebo celebrating their wedding.  This isn’t a one track set either.  Multiple trains run by remote control on different tracks, with lights, switches and sound effects.  One young man was so engaged in his own role play, it was as though he were the engineer shouting orders to other men on train, “Stop here, there are three men we need to pick up!” or “Hurry, change the switch on the line!” (See more photos at the bottom of the page.) (Watch Instead Cinema video here)

I was most interested in the collection of “O-Gauge” Lionel trains (photo above).  Damon was coming back to shoot film footage for the Stanstead En Action  the next day.  I would come along with him to talk with the owner of the Lionel trains that lined the walls of the museum, Robert Sheldon.

Robert was instrumental in bringing the model train exhibit to the Stanstead area.  His collection of Lionel trains is captivating.  Row upon row upon row were the legendary engines, cabooses and box cars.  Hundreds of them.  I was told that what I saw was just a fraction of his collection.  I looked forward to meeting this man and hearing his story.

Saturday afternoon, after Damon returned from another project he was working on, we headed over to the museum, just around the corner from his apartment.  I was introduced to Robert who readily agreed to sit with me, even though he was finishing the work for the grand opening on Tuesday.

Robert and I met in the office of the museum around a table of black granite, native to the area of course.  He is 72 years old and is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about his train collection.  The obvious had to be asked, “How many trains are on display, and how many do you have in your collection?”  There are 1621 on display in the museum.  His total collection is over 11,000 pieces with a value into the millions of dollars.

Centre train (Union Pacific) weighs 30 lbs and is fully electronic

Robert is a life-long resident of Stanstead, growing up on Rue Junction (Junction Street) where the train line ran past the family home.  Four or five times each day, the passenger and cargo trains rumbled along the iron lines where he and his sister would greet the engineers with waves and smiles.  He was born and raised to be in the world of trains.

At five years old, his father bought him a Marx tin train.  This was his introduction to model trains.  At age eight, he noticed a Lionel train running in the window of Gravlin’s, a sportsman supply store.  The store also sold the legendary trains which operated in their storefront window year round.   After watching it for some time, Robert asked his father for a Lionel train.  Far from a resounding “YES!”, he was instead told to save his pennies, especially considering the lack of care he placed on the Marx.  Not one to be discouraged, even at such a young age, Robert went out in search of a job.  He quickly found one as a pin setter at the local bowling alley.  He was now making money, $10 a week and was on his way to becoming a proud Lionel train owner.

Soon afterwards, he made his first purchase, a hopper for $4.95.  Almost a half week’s of wages.  In today’s terms, if I spent half of my weekly salary on a train, I would have some serious explaining to do to my wife.  I guess that’s not an issue when you’re just eight.

His next purchase was an engine for $25.00!  Two and a half weeks of wages.  He still needed a tender (coal car) through.  A train and a hopper would not fit together.  During a visit with family in New York, his aunt took him to a local Lionel distributor to purchase a tender.  Now he was on his way! 

At 18, Robert committed half of all his earnings to purchasing Lionel trains. Working as an apprentice in an engineering company, Robert continued his career working in the tool and die industry before moving into the granite industry in 1976.  
During the years that passed, Lionel had been putting out catalogues of all their engines and cars as a part of it’s advertising and promotional campaign.  It showed all the new models, upgrades, changes and additions.  By this time, Robert was hooked.  He was now collecting and made it his intent to purchase every product in every catalogue that came out.

The collection of Lionel train cars is as broad as it is vast.  Hours can be spent looking at the different designs from Alka Seltzer to military rocket launchers.  There are whimsical ones such as the “Instant Aliens” car, and historic ones announcing an “All Shook Up” Elvis tour.  The ones that seem to capture most people are the engines.  The raw power of a train engine, no matter the size, draws your eye immediately to it.  From $12 to $2000, Robert purchases these engines as they come up to add to his collection.

There is one engine, though, that stands out from the others.  One that is not on display.  The 100th anniversary train was made from a zinc cast and is gold plated.  The difficulty with zinc is that when mixed with any impurity, it begins to disintegrate.  There were only 75 of these zinc cast anniversary engines made in 2000.  While others were cast of a more durable and longer lasting metal, today only six of the original zinc trains remain worldwide.  

Robert bought his zinc cast train for $3750, the J1 5034 Hudson.  Only the most serious collectors have these.  Robert has been offered over $25,000 for this train.  It is in near new condition, with only signs of corrosion where the wheel meets the track, it has never been moved from it’s mooring.  The original wood base remains intact as well.  Would he sell it?  Not a chance.

There are also three engines with tenders on display sitting side by side. Each weighs a hefty 30 pounds.  Fully electronic and remote controlled, the antennas run through the hand rails on the sides of the engine.  Robert can run the bells, whistles, steam from a stack and steam from the wheels as it begins chugging along the track.  But there are no tracks set up in the museum for the O-Gauge Lionel trains.  They are too big.  The space needed simply isn’t available.

As we came to a close on our time together, Robert explained the Christmas cars.  In 1972, Lionel began giving out special Christmas designed cars to all of their distributors but they were not made available to the general public.  They continued this until 1988, and resumed the practice in 1991.  In 1992 though, the designing responsibilities changed.  The owner of the company decided that the car could be designed by a child of an employee.  The winning image would be forever immortalized on the side of the Lionel Christmas car for that year.  Robert has that one on display too.

Today, Robert’s collection seems complete, except for two of those Christmas cars.  He is missing 2009 and 2010.  When he was setting up the display at the museum, he left room for the two cars with anticipation that he would have them in time for the grand opening.  He explained to me that he is online every day in search of the missing cars.  He had found them last week and had set his bid at $300, but he was outbid at the last minute of the online auction.  Back to searching.  This will be a collection that is never complete as long as Lionel continues to build these treasures.
Everyone has a story.  Robert’s began beside the rails in the small town of Stanstead, and he remains active in his community today. (More photos below)

Photos from the 700 square foot display at the Granite Central Co-op and Museum:

Grain depot

If you look closely, you can see two men climbing the mountain side.  The lower one is wearing a blue shirt, the other a yellow one.

A boy looking over the edge for the coming trains

A couple celebrates their wedding day in the park

Meat packer in the background, people wait for the train at the station in foreground

Working to clean up beside the lines

More photos of Robert Sheldon’s O-Gauge Lionel Train Collection:

Lionel 1948
All Shook Up ELVIS
Sports Channel
Instant Aliens – just add water!

One of many engines on display

Polar Express engine – all passenger cars on display as well

Lionel freight engine

Wall of passenger cars


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