When Lionel founder Joshua Lionel Cowen's immigrant family arrived in New York after the Civil War, the railroads were literally America's engines of progress. The "Golden Spike" meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines in 1869 unified the continent and signaled the birth of a world power. Cowen was born in 1877, just before Edison's first electric light. He grew up with real trains, amid dizzying change.
Around the time he founded Lionel in 1900, passenger lines like the peerless Twentieth Century Limited symbolized American technology and sophistication.
Cowen was already a successful inventor when he created his first toy train. But The Electric Express and its offspring soon became a sacred mission, and Cowen would spend a lifetime stoking America's imagination with the romance of the rails. He told boys that Lionels would prepare them for adulthood. Soon Dads too were encouraged to join Youngsters in model train enthusiasm, to further father-son bonding.
With growing prosperity, Lionels layouts cropped up in more living rooms, especially at Christmas. Before mid-century, railroads were our economic lifeblood, as well as cultural icons -- but it was not to last.
And when Americans started driving to suburbia and flying cross-country, they stopped buying Lionel trains. By the 1960s, freight lines were being scrapped, and fathers and sons were on opposite sides of the "generation gap." That decade saw the tragic demise of New York's Pennsylvania Station, the retirement of The Twentieth Century Limited, and the passing of Joshua Lionel Cowen.
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