“King of the Toy Train World”
For more than one hundred years, Lionel trains have been a favorite toy. Originally founded in New York City in 1900 by inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen, the company now resides in Michigan.
Cowen designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy but as a display for selling toys. Demand soon turned the train into a toy.
It was at this time that Cowen’s superior marketing abilities made their impact. Cowen is responsible for linking toy trains to the Christmas season. It was Cowen’s idea to include toy trains as part of crèche displays. Later, incredible showroom and department store displays would leave every young boy wanting toy trains for Christmas, and toy trains remain popular Christmas gifts today. Colorful annual catalogs also enticed buyers.
By the 1920s, Lionel was the king of the toy train world. It was during this period that Lionel produced some of their most beautiful trains. The locomotives and rolling stock were highly detailed.
Lionel ceased toy production during World War II and manufactured items for national defense.
“A Real Estate Developer Who Loved Toy Trains”
In 1971, Lionel moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan, but the company experienced hard times. In 1986, Richard P. Kughn, a real estate developer in Detroit who loved toy trains from the time he was seven years old, bought Lionel Trains. The sales and quality of the trains improved dramatically.
Kughn once talked about his passion for toy trains. “I was walking home from school on trash day. There was a trash barrel out in front of a house with a train sticking out on top. I didn’t know much about trains or toy trains at the time, but it intrigued me so I pulled all the pieces out, including the tracks and the transformer. I took it home, and my dad helped me clean it up. We worked on it and put it on the ping-pong table in the basement, and it ran.”
Kughn said “If you’re happy in what you’re doing, in creating, putting things together, watching things happen in front of your eyes because of your efforts, it makes you smile. . .and time goes by rapidly when you play with toy trains—that’s happiness.”
In 1995, Kughn sold the company. Today, it is located in Chesterfield, Michigan.
Seeking Michigan would like to thank the following for consultation on the photo above:
Peter Magoun, Trains and Things Hobbies, Traverse City, Michigan
Mark Cowles, Lansing Area N-Trak Model Railroad Club
Various members of the National Model Railroad Association
You can click to visit Lionel Trains, and here’s a blast from the past – The Wonderful World of Trains from Lionel Trains.