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
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,
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
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