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The Penny Arcade’s Nearly-Forgotten Model Train

Fred Swanton's Bay Shore Ltd miniature train that ran along the Boardwalk from 1907 to 1915
Fred Swanton’s Bay Shore Ltd miniature train that ran along the Boardwalk from 1907 to 1915

Miniature trains, the kind you ride on, have been a popular part of the Boardwalk scene since 1907. The miniature Bay Shore Limited train, inaugurated in 1907 by Fred Swanton, chugged along the beachfront until 1915. (Now known as the “Little Puffer” that old engine still delights passengers at the San Francisco Zoo!) Between 1928 and 1937, the miniature Sun Tan Jr. took guests from the Pleasure Pier to River Park, just north of the San Lorenzo River trestle and back. From 1938 until 1945 the streamlined Zephyr-like City of Santa Cruz ran along the Boardwalk. The Kiddie Land Streamliner, painted in Southern Pacific Daylight colors, delighted young folks through the 1970s. And we’ve enjoyed the Cave Train since 1961.

The Sun Tan Jr. miniature steam train that operated 1928 to 1937
The Sun Tan Jr. miniature steam train that operated 1928 to 1937

However, the train I’m reminiscing about today was a coin-operated model train set that occupied prominent space in the Boardwalk’s Casino Arcade. I remember dropping a dime in one of its control stations and watching my train run its course.

The problem is, our archives are strangely silent about this attraction. We have no photos of it and newspaper searches have yielded no references to it. We rely mainly on the scant memories of a few Boardwalk old-timers like me, who loosely recall it. 

The "City of Santa Cruz" mini streamliner, ca. 1938
The “City of Santa Cruz” mini streamliner, ca. 1938

We don’t know when the model train display was introduced into the “Penny Arcade” as that space was known back in the day when pennies and nickels reigned supreme. One of the rare mentions of it in the archives indicates that a “6-unit Train” valued at $4,000 was in the arcade in 1960 according to an appraisal report from that year. The train set can be glimpsed in a scene from the movie “Harold and Maude” (Paramount Pictures) that was filmed at the Boardwalk in 1971. (You can visit Reel SF to learn more about the filming of the movie.) It was removed soon after, presumably to make room for glitzier and flashier money-making machines.

A glass-enclosed shield surrounded the layout. I’m guessing the enclosure occupied 300 square feet or more. Youthful gawkers watched the trains with eagle eyes, leaving hand prints on all four sides of the enclosure from dragging their fingers to follow the path of trains through the model pike. The Lionel or Lionel-like trains ran on a O-gauge 3-rail track. The vast display was a young boy’s delight. I engineered my train many times. 

I was happy to discover a description of the layout in a comment on the Internet, by a user named “onguard2shay” on the Classic Toy Trains Magazine website. Sadly, there are no replies in the comment thread to add more insight. I quote that statement here.

Paramount's Harold and Maude, 1971
Paramount’s Harold and Maude, 1971

“I remember that it had 2 loops of 3 tracks each. The tracks were labeled 1 thru 6. The throttles (1-2-3 and 4-5-6) were at each end of the layout (narrow side of the long rectangle). An ‘engineer’ could put in a dime (later a quarter) to operate a short train for a few times around the loop of track. If a ‘Red Track Signal’ was ran, a pinball machine like knock could be heard, and a light would glow on your control panel next to the message, ‘Your train is late.’ The track signals were on a timer with train detection. The layout had some Lionel operating accessories (445-Tower, 197-Rotating Radar Antenna, 26-Bumper, 30-Water Tank, 145-Automatic Gateman, 394/494-Rotary Beacon, etc.). Spurs with a lighted bumper were ‘feathered’ into the mainline to look like a switch was there off the main. I would operate The General and Turbine trains the most. Great Fun !!!”

There you have it – the best description of the layout I can find. Does this jog anyone’s memory? The display dominated the south-center of the arcade, and by its size could not be missed. Might someone reading this have photos of the attraction? If you do, and want to share, you can email them to [email protected] and drop a comment if you can add to the memory of this classic exhibit that time nearly forgot.


‘till next time –



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