A Different look at Disney...

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Part one in this series (Origins) is available via this link.

Walt Disney, as a life-long rail fan, knew about handcars. In fact, in 1934, he teamed up with the Lionel Electric Train Company, then in receivership, to produce the Mickey and Minnie handcar. Selling for $1.00, the wild success of the Mickey handcar helped Lionel emerge from bankruptcy as a healthy company.

Complete with a loop of track, this wind-up handcar, which sold for a single dollar during the Great Depression, helped Lionel survive the rough times.


This wasn't Walt's only dealing with Lionel trains. In the late 1940s, he had a Lionel train layout built for one of his nephews. That layout, in Walt's office before Christmas, drew in several curious Studio employees, such as Ward Kimball. It was then that Disney discovered that others beside him were into trains. And, as the story goes, that interest in trains led directly to the development of Disneyland, and, of course, the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad.

Lionel continues the Mickey handcar tradition to this day. Mickey and Minnie look slightly healthier than their pale Depression era counterparts.

The trains of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad were exceedingly authentic in virtually all of their details. So, too, was the rest of the operation, from the water tower to the two stations. It's a mystery of history if Walt ever thought about having a handcar, but the fact remains that he eventually got one. How the handcar came to Disney--and exactly when--are mysteries also.

The car he got was a typical narrow gauge handcar built by the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The company had been founded by George Miller and Horace Haines in 1883 as the Kalamazoo Railroad Velocipede and Car Company. They had specialized in railroad equipment initially, but by the 1950s, their product line was quite diversified, and railroad equipment was only a small portion of their business. The company became the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company in the early 1950s.

Disney's car was painted yellow, with the steel parts painted black. On the sides of the A-frame pump support, "Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company" was painted in decorative script. Pinstriping adorned the wheels and A-frame, and a large calligraphy "K" was painted I red on the A-frame ends.

Sam Towler took this shot of the builder's plate on the Disney Kalamazoo handcar when it was displayed in Fullerton in 2007. There is no date on the plate. Photo courtesy Sam Towler.

The commonly circulated story is that the handcar was a gift from the people at the Kalamazoo Manufacturing Company in 1964. There is little evidence to support the theory that Kalamazoo donated it, and in fact, it is more likely that it had been a gift from noted railroad historian and friend of Walt's, Jerry Best.

Where the date 1964 comes from is a mystery; it may have begun with the Birnbaum Disneyland travel guides, and has oft been repeated in other books and histories. David Smith, the Walt Disney Company archivist, has searched through Disney's correspondence from the period to see if there might be some sort of mention of the handcar, perhaps in a "thank-you" letter, but has not been able to find anything conclusive.

We have a slightly easier time affixing a date when the handcar arrived, and indeed, we can come within eight months of a positive date. Through the study of old photographs, we can see that the 1964 date is a fabrication with no basis in fact.

Walt Disney poses for a series of publicity photos on his handcar a few months after the Park opened. It's certainly possible that this series of photos was taken to actually commemorate the arrival of the handcar. Photos during this shoot were taken in color and black-and-white.

The photo above, while undated, gives us some clues. The biggest can be seen just to the left of the engine's headlight. Those turquoise stairs and railings belong to the backside of the Plantation House restaurant, what once was Frontierland's premier dining spot. As you can see, it's quite close to Frontierland Station.

In March 1956, however, the station was moved to the west, and away from the Plantation House. In later photos, the restaurant isn't even visible. So, we can logically assume that Disney received the handcar between opening day and early 1956--roughly an eight-month span.

When the car gained its permanent home on the siding in front of Main Street Station can also be rather easily deduced, but not precisely. The passing siding at Main Street were once functional in the Park's early history, allowing one train to pass around another, which was stopped at the station. This practice probably ceased sometime in 1956, when the Fantasyland Station was constructed. The photo below is the earliest I've been able to find showing the handcar in its traditional location.

This is a close-up of one of only five Disneyland postcards ever printed in black and white. It was made in 1956 and the handcar is plainly visible next to the
E.P. Ripley.

NEXT: The series concludes with the handcar today.

Steve DeGaetano is author of Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! Steve's latest book, the history of Disneyland's newest locomotive, the Ward Kimball, is now available. You can read more about From Plantation to Theme Park, the Story of Disneyland Railroad Locomotive No. 5, the Ward Kimball, and place an order for it, by using this link.

Steve DeGaetano may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally.

2008 Steve DeGaetano

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