Baby Boomer Memories: All aboard for Peter's Choo Choo
A favorite baby boomer attraction in the early 1950s was a kiddie train called Peter's Choo Choo that was located near Balance Rock in Lanesborough.
The train ride was owned by the late Herman Clement, operator of Clement's Dairy and one of the founders of the future Dairy Center. He named the train for his young son, Peter, and ran it from 1950 to 1956.
The 12-inch-gauge train was a steam locomotive fueled with coal and modeled after real trains with exact proportions. The engine had four small "pilot" wheels, four larger driver wheels and no trailing wheels. This wheel configuration, known as 4-4-0, was popular in early railroading in this country.
In addition to the engine, the coal tender had a seat on top for the engineer and then four passenger coaches. Peter's Choo Choo ran on 540 feet of portable "snap" track that was bolted to full-size railroad ties cut in half. The coaches, which held up to eight children, were constructed out of steel, and had windows stenciled on the side to give the appearance of passenger cars. The seats were designed for children under 12, though adults could fit in them with some discomfort.
Herman bought the train from the Ottaway Amusement Co. of Wichita, Kan. The company's founder, Lester Ottaway, and his two sons began building 12-inch-gauge steam-powered trains in their shop in 1940, and by 1945 had built five locomotives from scratch.
Ottaway trains gained popularity in small amusement parks, and a total of 89 Ottaways were built through 1954 — including Peter's Choo Choo. Herman, his brother and oldest son, Ron, drove to Kansas to pick up the train and coaches back in 1949. The cost of Peter's Choo Choo was $5,000 and as Herman would tell people, "it cost more than two new Cadillacs!"
Herman set up the train on next to his house on Balance Rock Road, where it went through the woods in a circle. A ride cost 9 cents for children and 20 cents for adults, and the train did three laps at 8 to 10 mph. There was a large wooden sign standing across the road from the train, which was, simply worded "Peter's Choo Choo."
It had on it a shadow picture of a train engine reminiscent of the train on a Monopoly game's railroad deeds. Herman also had a refreshment stand selling hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, popcorn, frosts, coffee, soda and milkshakes made with Clement's Dairy products. The station's boarding area, refreshment stand and any other train items are long gone.
In 1956, after many successful summers, Herman sold the ride. This might have been in part due to the negative publicity over the train tipping over when some very hefty adult riders shifted their weight on a turn.
Clement sold the ride to local amusement ride operators Jules and Art Gillette, who operated it briefly at Onota Lake's Burbank Park. Art then moved it to his Carson City western-themed park in the Catskills. The train proved too small for the park so he sold it to another nearby park.
Over the years it changed hands many times and was "missing in action" for decades. Several years ago, I located Peter's Choo Choo. It is now in California, where a hobbyist has totally restored it for private use.
In later years Herman Clement looked back on his selling the train ride and felt getting rid of Peter's Choo Choo was one of his biggest mistakes, perhaps because of the joy it gave so many of us kids in the '50s.
One interesting fact is that in 1950 the Ottoways sold their company to a relative, Harold Chance, who founded Chance Rides. Today this company is one of the world's largest amusement ride manufacturers. Chance continued making the 4-4-0 model until 1955, but then designed a newer, larger train called the C P Huntington.
Chance Rides has made over 400 of these with a western-style design and they can be found in most amusement parks and zoos. These trains were first operated by gasoline, but now available with solar-battery power, i.e., with zero emissions. Herman Clement might be shocked that a new engine could cost him $200,000 and each coach up to $60,000 — a bit more than Peter's Choo Choo and several Cadillacs!
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.