Six Whistle Stops in the Walt Disney Story
Railroads run through the heart of the Disney story.
Locomotives are omnipresent throughout Walt Disney’s work. They appear in his animated shorts, feature films, and throughout his parks. They were a source of fascination and relaxation for the workaholic, entrepreneur. Disney’s backyard model trains served as a source of refuge for Walt amidst the chaos of running an entertainment empire.
Next week, we’ll explore the world of Walt Disney World’s trains, but for now let’s take a tour of the whistle stops and railroads that shaped the life and career of Walt Disney.
- The Family Business
Walt’s father Elias worked a wide variety of jobs over the years, including time spent as a railroad machinist. Elias also helped build the Union Pacific rail through the State of Colorado. Walt’s uncle Mike Martin worked as an engineer on the Santa Fe railroad and frequently regaled the young Disney with stories of his life on the rails.
- Marceline, Missouri
Though born in Chicago in 1901, Walt’s hometown is typically identified as Marceline, Missouri. The Disney family moved to Marceline in 1906. The family only remained in town for four years, but the time had a profound affect on the young Walt Disney. The town later served as the inspiration for Main Street U.S.A in Disneyland.
The town sprang into existence in 1888 as part of the Santa Fe Railroad’s growth. It served as a division point on the rail running from Kansas City to Chicago. Even the town’s name had ties to the railroad. A director for the Santa Fe Railroad had a wife named Marcelina. The name Marceline was adopted at his request.
- The News Butcher
In 1916, a young Walt Disney started a brief career as a news butcher for the Van Noyes Interstate News Company, selling newspapers and sweets on on the Missouri Pacific, Kansas City Southern, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroads. His first trip took him from Kansas City to Jefferson City. During his brief tenure as a railroad employee, Disney explored the cities he passed through. He had a variety of misadventures both on and off the trains and left the job after a few months.
- Grizzly Flats Railroad
In 1937, Disney animator Ward Kimball purchased a narrow-gauge passenger coach and placed it in his backyard. The acquisition was the first of many, leading Kimball to build a fully functioning railroad on his property in San Gabriel, California. He dubbed it the Grizzly Flats Railroad, the first full sized backyard railroad in the United States.
Kimball held regular “steam-ups” or gatherings on the Grizzly Flats Railroad. Walt Disney frequented the events and, in 1945, was given the chance to take the controls of Kimball’s train the “Emma Nevada”. The experience inspired Walt to create the Disneyland railroad, the forerunner to the Walt Disney World Railroad.
- The Carolwood Pacific Railroad
The Carolwood Pacific Railroad was Walt Disney’s ⅛ scale miniature railroad. It ran in the backyard of his Carolwood Drive home. The locomotive bore the name “Lilly Belle” in honor of Disney’s wife Lillian. In total, the track ran 2,615 feet, including a tunnel that ran beneath Lillian’s flower bed.
The control center for the Carolwood Pacific lay in a large barn, which was later saved by Diane Disney Miller and relocated by the Carolwood Foundation. Today, fans of Disney can visit the barn at Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
- The Birth of an Icon
In 1928, Walt Disney travelled to New York City to petition his film distributor Charles Mintz for money, only to learn that the majority of his animation staff had abandoned him to work directly for Mintz. At the same time, he learned that he did not control the rights to his primary character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. They were owned by Universal Pictures.
Disney described it as, “a time when the business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb, and disaster seemed right around the corner”. He boarded the train to return to Los Angeles. What happened next has become the stuff of Disney legend (and perhaps some of it is a bit apocryphal. Walt was, after all, a consummate storyteller and business man and the story has a tint of that Disney magic). According to Walt, “I was coming back after this meeting in New York, and Mrs. Disney was with me, and it was on the train—in those days, you know, it was three days over, three days from New York… well, I’d fooled around a lot with little mice, and they were always cute characters, and they hadn’t been overdone in the picture field. They’d been used but never featured. So, well, I decided it would be a mouse… Well, that’s how it came about… I had (his name) ‘Mortimer’ first and my wife shook her head, and then I tried ‘Mickey’ and she nodded the other way and that was it.”