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Iron Horse Historian

A railroad runs through Don Beems' passion for the past.

 

Don Beems runs his hand along a classic black model-train locomotive, one of many on the shelves in his store, Western Stationers on Bullard Street in Silver City.

"This here is G scale. HO, that stands for 'Half O.' The Lionel is O gauge," he says, pointing out a Lionel model train on the shelf. "And that's just a few, really. You know there used to be 30 or 40 different sizes of model trains. Eventually they consolidated."


Don Beems, who will be showing off his model train collection for Silver City's annual Lighted Christmas Parade on Nov. 24, displays a new book about local train history.
(Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

The way he points out a detail here and there, runs his hand along a piece of track or a train car, has the feel of a man showing off pictures of his grandkids.

"I specialized in S scale for a while," he goes on. "I had a bunch of American trains called the American Flyers."

Currently, Beems has about 20 locomotives and 150 to 175 cars. The G scale, mostly what he owns these days, is built to the scale of about 129th the size of a real train. A collector since high school, Beems says at the height of his collecting days he owned some 60 locomotives and over 400 cars.

"Mine were operator quality. That means they were functional, that I was putting them on tracks and running them. They weren't up on a shelf," he says. Most of these trains, up on the shelves in his store, are for sale. Some, however, are special collectors' items, he says with a wink, explaining, "Well, there are some you just never sell."

This month, on the afternoon of Silver City's Lighted Christmas Parade, Saturday, Nov. 24, Beems will once again set up and display more than a dozen model trains in the warehouse space next door to his store. Models will range in sizes, going all the way down to the smallest electric model train in existence, a Z scale.

He pulls out a small box with tiny tracks and a locomotive about an inch and a half long. "There it is, and people can't believe it but it really runs. You know, the smaller they are the more expensive they get," he says with a laugh, noting that this tiny train costs about $250.

Beems has been a downtown fixture for quite some time, having owned Western Stationers for 33 years and managed it for six years prior. And if you've known him for any time at all, you also know he's something of a train fanatic. For years, he had a genuine Rock Island caboose parked in back of his store.

"It was built as a boxcar around 1920, and converted to a caboose in 1943 because they needed more cabooses for the troop trains during World War II," he says, rattling off the dates as easily as, well, maybe his grandkids' birthdays. Beems got the caboose — which was owned by the Lavin family and parked at one of their McDonald's restaurants — for free, if he would pay to have it moved. That cost him a couple thousand dollars, and then there was the matter of replacing the roof and repainting the boxcar. The restored train proudly sat at the back of his store's parking lot for years, until it made the journey just over a year ago to Columbus, where it is now displayed outside the Columbus Historical Society's museum.

Sharing the history of an area, particularly through its train history, is a passion of Beems'. And this is why he's excited to be showing off a copy of a new book he's just gotten in, Silver City Narrow Gauge, by former local Duane Ericson. The book, complete with maps and pictures, tells the tale of the local narrow-gauge train that operated from 1900 to 1907.

The train ran from the Silver City smelter across Boston Hill — "You can see remnants of the tracks by the senior citizen center," Beems notes — then across Chloride Flats, around W Mountain, and finally up to Pinos Altos. "It was supposed to go all the way to Mogollon," Beems says, tracing his finger along a map in the book, "but it never made it because of the tough terrain."

Beems flips through the book's pages, pointing out details and historical curiosities like a locomotive that got its block knocked off somehow and was retrofitted with posts and a canvas top.

Ericson's train book was due to be out this past February but just saw its first printing in July. "Well, at least we'll have it for the holidays this way," Beems says. "Well, we will when I get my reorder. We're selling the thing like hotcakes. I think a lot of people are interested in the local history, and this is a really interesting piece of that," he says. "And people just love trains, you know?"

— Donna Clayton Lawder

 

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