Tracking Irony Across Lionel Trains History

The historian’s craft always requires probing the past for significance. Making sense of bygone events obliges investigators to guard against irrelevance and superstition. We historians aren’t numerologists or astrologers, and so we sort out ironies and coincidences from meaningful events.

Sometimes, though, I confess, the quirks of history prove impossible to resist noticing.

I’ll note three instances: On July 21, 1861, the Battle of Bull Run, the first great clash of the Civil War, began in the front yard of a wholesale grocer and sugar-broker named Wilmer McLean—a cannonball crashed through his kitchen fireplace that morning. Four years later McLean was living in a small Virginia town called Appomattox Courthouse, and there on April 9, 1865, in McLean’s parlor as it happened, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the North’s Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The war, McLean said, began in his front yard and ended in his parlor. In a similar but forgotten coincidence, the first and last casualties of the construction of the giant Hoover Dam included a federal surveyor named J.G. Tierney, who plunged into the Colorado River and drowned in 1922. Thirteen years later to the day, Patrick Tierney, the man’s son, fell from an intake tower and also drowned. Thirteen!

The history of the perennially popular Lionel trains offers a third ironic coincidence; I beg the reader’s indulgence in the story that takes some time in the telling.

Lionel Train Advertisement, November, 1950, Courtesy of Fair UseElectric trains originated with a classic American tinkerer, a talented inventor of electrical gadgets named Joshua Lionel Cowen. In 1901, the battery-operated, scale-model electric trains Cowen devised as a storefront window display attracted so many customers that, by the following year, he had become a toy train manufacturer. Cowen soon convinced department stores to ring their large focal Christmas trees with train layouts upon which ran Lionel locomotives, miniature coal carriers and cattle cars, timber carriers, tankers and little cabooses. Over the next decades the Lionel Train became a staple of Christmas. Imagining a miniature world and assembling its transportation system on living room carpets became an important feature of the play between dads and their sons. By 1953 the Lionel Corporation had become the largest toy manufacturer in the world.

But six years later the toy train company, threatened from within and without, was traveling a rough road. Joshua Cowen and his son Lawrence were locked in a custody fight over control of the firm, and slot cars were taking market share from model trains. During the summer of 1959 a syndicate of investors headed by Cowen’s grand nephew, the famous Washington attorney Roy Cohn, began buying up company shares. By October, Cohn and his associates had taken over the company. This, incidentally, was the same Cold Warrior Roy Cohn who became an implacable enemy of the American Left after prosecuting the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and after joining Joe McCarthy in what has been called the “Second Red Scare.” Cohn prominently represented McCarthy as chief counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings that became notorious when the Senator persisted in the false claim that a long list of traitors had infiltrated the United States State Department.

After the fortunes of the Lionel Corporation declined precipitously over the next four years of Cohn’s leadership a proxy fight in 1963 forced him from company control. Cohn continued a successful legal career, however, representing diverse clients that included mafia bosses, the Archdiocese of New York, and the New York Yankees. He also became a confidant of the FBI’s lifelong director, J. Edgar Hoover. Still, the combative Cohn had his own legal problems with tax authorities and bar associations. Federal prosecutors charged Cohn with witness-tampering, perjury, fraud, and other crimes. The controversial lawyer lost his license to practice law a month before his death from AIDS in 1986.

Because of the theme we’re following here, irony and coincidence, it becomes relevant to note that the in the 1960s Cohn joined the John Birch Society, an anti-immigrant, anti-communist group that opposed the United Nations, Federal Reserve System, and municipal water fluoridation. Critics from the right and the left called the John Birch Society “ultraconservative.”

But let’s return to the part of the story that involves toy trains and another famous personage. In the mid 1990s, minority ownership of the Lionel Corporation passed to a model-train enthusiast, the star of the 60s folk-rock group Buffalo Springfield, and a guitarist and singer who augmented the close harmony of the supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Neil Young was so dedicated to Lionel that he built a very large and elaborate model “train barn” to help him connect with his son Ben who, afflicted with cerebral palsy and unable to speak, had since birth been a quadriplegic. Play with the model train layout became the way that father and son communicated.

Young was no absentee stockholder in the toy company. In fact, the musician became so involved with the firm that he hatched an idea for Lionel RailSounds—effects that reproduce on the model train layout a realistic symphony of screeches, thuds, and rumbles taken from New York City’s earsplitting subway system. Young also helped prototype and design the Lionel LEGACY Control System, an empowering handheld remote which could manage a large miniature train world even if the engineer, like Young’s son Ben, happened to use a wheelchair. In 2012 the gentle rocker published an autobiography aptly called Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream in which he described how sharing the building of the train layout with his son as one of the happiest times of his life.

And so here is the irony and the punch line. Young has also become famous for the causes he has supported—the peace and environmental movements, the struggle against apartheid, and organizations such as Farm Aid and Greenpeace. These commitments lay at the opposite end of the political spectrum from his predecessor, former Lionel owner Roy Cohn.