Fifty-one years ago, a Puget Sound group of model railway enthusiasts built a 2-foot-by-12-foot layout of superb realism and ingenuity that has inspired generations of hobbyists.
Meanwhile, a small Edmonds import company called Pacific Fast Mail was introducing model railroaders to a high standard of brass, handcrafted electric locomotives made in Japan.
The club layout and the import company were brought together under the same Edmonds roof at 111 Sunset Avenue. There, they became the epitome of artistic and engineering achievement for millions of hobbyists around the world. They also came to symbolize the postwar history of Edmonds, where entrepreneurs, craftsmen and artists kept alive the city’s identity even as its founding timber industry vanished and Seattle swept up surrounding towns as bedroom suburbs.
In 2011, the “Puget Junction” layout was donated to the Edmonds-South Snohomish County Historical Society by the family of Pacific Fast Mail’s last owner, Donald H. Drew. It runs today in the ground-floor train room at the Edmonds Museum.
The layout was the work of a group of hobbyists calling themselves the Puget Short Line Association. Hundreds of hours of careful work went into the painting, trees, structures and details of their “Puget Junction” HO scale model. At least four model railroad companies emerged, with this layout acting as inspiration, showcase or advertising platform. Differing versions of the layout were featured in national hobby magazines in 1959, 1960, 1966, 1990 and in 2003.
Pacific Fast Mail was largely the work of two men – William M. Ryan, who started the company in 1953, and Don Drew, who bought it in 1966 and ran it until his death in 2008.
“Puget Junction” featured a brass model of a Northern Pacific steam locomotive from Pacific Fast Mail. But it was Don Drew who brought the company and the layout together, hiring Puget Short Line Association club member and sound engineer Herb Chaudiere and installing the layout in Pacific Fast Mail’s conference room.
Don Drew kept “Puget Junction” on a platform behind drapes. He’d open the curtains for suppliers and visitors to show off the company’s latest hand-made brass locomotives running on the layout. Along one long wall, Drew had scores of exquisitely-crafted brass locomotives on glass shelves. Owning one was a prize for hobbyists all over the world.
“The first time I ever heard about Edmonds was through a Pacific Fast Mail ad in Model Railroader,” said Glenn Farley, the aviation correspondent for KING 5 television news and a model railroad enthusiast.
“Puget Junction” and Pacific Fast Mail began as separate stories in the postwar 1950s.
For children in Edmonds and across America, model trains were everywhere. World’s Greatest Hobby, a toy train manufacturing association, describes the ‘50s this way: “Toy trains are the no. 1 toys for boys, as pervasive in American culture as video games are today. Lionel for a time is the biggest toy maker in the United States. There is not a single boy who doesn’t have trains or have a friend with a train set.”
There were toys for boys, but the 1950s also saw many men begin serious scale railroad modeling. One was Bill Ryan.
Ryan grew up in the Northwest. His career took him to Detroit, where he became an executive with General Motors. Bill Ryan returned to Woodway as the sole Cadillac distributor for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
He was also a railroad buff who wanted realism in his model collection, including replicas of the locomotives that worked the timber, passenger and freight lines of the Northwest. In 1953, he opened a mail-order business from his home. He called it Pacific Fast Mail.
In 1954, Ryan and Phil Crawley, who owned Van Hobbies in Vancouver, B.C., lined up some Japanese firms to make custom-order brass trains. Among these firms was a jewelry and fine watch company called Tenshodo. Other small makers coalesced around Pacific Fast Mail’s purchasing: Fujiyama, United and Asahi Scientific Corp.
The best trains, which Ryan offered as his “crown” line, commanded luxury prices. In 1958, when the median U.S. family income was $425 a month, Pacific Fast Mail offered a model of Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” steam locomotive for $177.50.
Ryan blazed a trail several U.S. manufacturers later copied. Pacific Fast Mail developed the precision drawings and manufactured some of the parts for the locomotives, with an emphasis on the Pacific Northwest. The plans were sent to the Japanese manufacturers, who would turn the drawings into brass models for much less than the cost of getting the same work done in the United States. The quality was often better than domestic manufacturers were offering, and Ryan used that argument in testifying before Congress against tariffs on Japanese toys.
As Ryan grew his business, the members of the Puget Short Line Association were pursuing some of the same goals of realism and quality in their hobby.
Club members Guy Swanberg and Herb Chaudiere carefully photographed the detailed work of the Puget association. Chaudiere came up with the groundbreaking club’s sound system. Brian Ellerby of Woodway, who went on to found Evergreen Scale Modelers, scratch-built most of the structures, including a fish cannery (with actual fish fertilizer inside, for an aroma special effect), a nine-room hotel and the Puget Junction station. Swanberg built the saw mill. Howard Durfy, Dick Day, Bob Johnson and Bob Williams built the scenery and laid all the track rails and ties by hand. Everything but the rails and miniature spikes was made from scratch.
Model Railroader magazine ran an article about the first iteration of “Puget Junction” in May 1959. The club members then changed things around by turning the original trestle into a burned-out wreck, with temporary tracks over the water and a pile driver installing a new trestle foundation. That version was featured in Model Railroader’s February 1960 edition.
Club members started building a second layout in 1965. It’s a relatively simple design – a loop of track with a three sidings. A painted backdrop divided the layout lengthwise so that Herb Chaudiere would hide his sound effects equipment in the back.
In a few feet of track, the layout moves from a mill town on Puget Sound to rugged peaks and evergreen forests. A second set of tracks carried a short trolley line.
The layout was the cover story for the May 1966 Model Railroader, with a separate piece on the bell, whistle and steam exhaust features developed by Chaudiere.
Chaudiere put a speaker in the steam locomotive’s coal car, or tender, and fed a mix of sounds to it through electronic signals carried in the rails. He had an actual working bell and train whistle behind the layout in soundproof boxes with microphones. The soundproofing allowed him to convert the bell and whistle noise into electronic signals emanating from the locomotive. Every four revolutions of the locomotive’s driving wheels, the sound system produced a chuffing sound.
After Don Drew obtained the layout for Pacific Fast Mail, he took out the painted backdrop dividing the layout and moved it back so that the full loop of track was visible. Then he added mountains, trestles and a mine.
It’s this version of the “Puget Junction” layout that’s on display today at the Edmonds Museum.
Bill Ryan died in 1964, leaving Pacific Fast Mail to his son. In 1966, Don Drew and his father bought the company.
Don Drew was a son of the Northwest. His great grandfather, Mike Drew, settled in Port Gamble in 1861. Don’s father was a Seattle banker; his mother Demerise was a vivacious, adventurous woman who passed on to her son a love of the outdoors.
Don Drew painted, played drums, ski-bummed for a winter in Sun Valley and worked for a summer in a Colorado mine. He earned two degrees from the University of Washington, in sociology and engineering.
After serving as an Army lieutenant during the Korean War, Don spent seven years with a California avionics materials company.
But Don Drew had an affection for model trains that lasted all of his life. In 1966, he came home to combine his hobby with a paying business.
Herb Chaudiere joined him at Pacific Fast Mail. Bob Longnecker, an IBM engineer, helped Chaudiere perfect Pacific Fast Mail’s sound system for model railroads, and came west to join the company in 1971.
Pacific Fast Mail published a catalog every year, sometimes featuring covers by railroad artist Howard Fogg and the work of Mike Pearsall, a Pacific Fast Mail employee. Drew expanded into book publishing in the late 1970s, with a focus on railroad history.
Pacific Fast Mail bought the back cover of Model Railroader for its advertisements for 21 years in a row. The “Puget Junction” layout appeared in many of the catalogs and ads.
The 1979 catalog opens with a photo of a brass logging locomotive idling on the layout. The caption reads: “Dusk has fallen on the little town of Puget Junction. United’s beautifully detailed Harrington Shay, her chores done for the day, sits on the main [line]. Where’s her crew? Well, they’re having a bite to eat at the Greasy Spoon Café in the background, before heading next door to Rosy’s Place.”
Drew changed the layout’s trolley line to a narrow-gauge track leading back to the mine, and used it to feature a line of narrow-gauge brass imports.
In 1998, Drew joined with the Swamp Creek & Western train club (based in the baggage room of Amtrak’s Edmonds Station) to stage a layout at the Edmonds Museum. This layout featured O gauge trains made by Lionel rather than the smaller, HO scale brass imports of Pacific Fast Mail. Visitors could start the engines by pushing a big red button. Attendance at the museum tripled.
It was a challenge to keep the trains running, as Drew described in a May 2000 article for Classic Toy Trains. Constant running hardened the wheels of the locomotives, causing them to spin when visitors activated the system. Two pounds of lead shot were added to a diesel locomotive to keep its wheels moving forward. Locomotives needed lubrication and other servicing weekly, and the track also had to be cleaned frequently.
After a year, the 0 gauge layout was moved to the Children’s Museum in Everett.
As wages rose in Japan, and the yen strengthened against the dollar, Pacific Fast Mail’s locomotives became too expensive for many of the hobby shops that were expected to keep models in their stores so customers could look them over.
“Before the ’73 oil crisis, we could sell a brass locomotive for $50 or $65,” said Sean Drew, one of Don’s sons who worked at Pacific Fast Mail. “By the 1980s, that same locomotive would sell for $1,000.”
Don Drew turned tentatively to Korean manufacturers, but was not as pleased with the quality of work.
It was never a large company, Sean Drew said, with a work force that peaked at about 30 people in the mid-1970s and then dwindled to just Don Drew by 2003.
In a company history he wrote for Dan Glasure’s “The Brass Train Guide Book” in 2007, Don Drew grew whimsical, imagining a touch of immortality for his work.
“Perhaps 1,000 years from now, railroads will be extinct, but their place in history will be recognized, as well as remembered through these beautiful brass trains.”
Drew died a year later at the age of 79.
The brass train community is honoring Don Drew and Pacific Fast Mail at its Brass Expo 2016 show Oct. 1-2 in Chicago. Learn more at brassexpo.com.
— By Jim Landers