A.C. Gilbert Train Display 2023–24

Eli Whitney Museum

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The Gilbert Project – Holiday Trains

Nov 24, 2023 – Jan 14, 2024

The Museum's Annual Exhibition of American Flyer Trains

Thumbnail of A.C. Gilbert Train Display 2023–24 project

A Holiday Tradition Returns

Opening Day:
Friday, November 24, 10 am–3 pm

A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer Train Show

3/16” scale
At 3/16” scale, a six-foot-tall person rises a mere inch and one-eighth above the ground. Can you imagine yourself in this miniaturized world?

To help bring you into this world, we have reinvented an American Flyer 302 Steam Locomotive. The S-gauge engine has been retrofitted with a lightweight camera typically found on flying drones. This small camera gives you a first-person view from the train engineer’s seat. Those who cannot join us in person can still be a part of the fun by heading over to our website and watching the live stream footage.

Join us on Opening Day on Friday, November 24th from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Admission: Free
Donations are appreciated.

American Flyer Curator: Walter Zawalich
Principal Artist: Hunter Nesbitt Spence
Principal Model Maker: Mike Dunn

Wooden Toy Trains

Wooden Trains at the Eli Whitney Museum. To build here.
$13. Many other projects are also available to build for all ages which range from $5 – $18.

The holidays are a time of remembering. Each Thanksgiving, the Eli Whitney Museum reaches deep into New Haven’s attic to unpack and display a tradition built here more than 60 years ago. Just after World War II, The A.C. Gilbert Company introduced its American Flyer Trains. Gilbert trains — with their lively movements, their carefully crafted sound, their bright lights, the cedar scent of their smoke — won an enduring place in our collective memory. New Haven built an icon of the holidays.

The Eli Whitney Museum collects and studies the products and legacy of A.C. Gilbert and his company. Between 1909 and 1964, the Gilbert Company was the premier producer of learning toys in the world. Its showroom in New York, the Gilbert Hall of Science, was an emporium of experimental learning and a forerunner of the modern science museum. The Eli Whitney Museum’s workshops still nurture that experimental learning.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was drawn to New Haven by Yale, especially by Yale's preeminence in sports and by New Haven’s lively vaudeville scene. Gilbert won a Gold Medal for pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics. He earned living expenses performing magic on New Haven’s stages. He studied Medicine at Yale’s Sheffield Science School. His gift for magic led to a part-time, then full-time, partnership with John Petrie producing stage tricks for magicians in New Haven and New York. Riding a train to New York, Gilbert saw inspiration in the new bridges and towers. He sketched the nuts, bolts, and girders of a model steel construction system he would call the Erector Set. It caught the spirit of the age. With it, Gilbert built a company that shaped the imagination and invention of three generations of American boys.

Gilbert’s American Flyer trains were the last of his great product lines. Three thousand men and women worked at Erector Square in Fair Haven. Gilbert’s two-railed, realistically detailed locomotives were a spunky David to the industry Goliath — Lionel. The Gilbert line grew with great promise through the mid-1950s until it encountered an unconquerable future: television. Television stole time and attention. It sold disposable toys. It substituted passive entertainment for active learning. Gilbert produced trains for just 20 years.

Still American Flyer trains endure. Each year the Museum lets children run locomotives and rolling stock that their grandparents might have played with. That’s a tribute to thoughtful engineering, excellent workmanship, and Walter Zawalich. Zawalich restores and maintains the trains and who has trained Museum apprentices to assist in their care. With a few modern parts and ample ingenuity, this gifted volunteer seems to keep the trains in perpetual motion.



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