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  • The History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff

Train-Loving Elliott Donnelley Rode Them Around His Yard

By the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff As model railroading soared in popularity across the country in the 1930s, Elliott Donnelley brought the pursuit home to Lake Forest. Donnelley (1903-1976) was a grandson of Chicago printer R. R. Donnelley and a pillar of the community, serving as mayor in the 1950s and on the Lake Forest College Board of Trustees for decades starting in 1942. 

Though also in the family printing business for decades as vice chairman of the firm, Donnelley had a lifelong enthusiasm for trains, which he took to the next level in 1933 by going into the model railroading business. He acquired American Model Engineers, Inc., which he rebranded as Scale-Craft Scale Models, Inc. Right away, the new company scored a coup, with several of its sets on display before thousands in the railroad exhibit at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. 

Elliott Donnelley rides his train on his Lake Forest estate.

Scale-Craft operated in Chicago, Libertyville, and Round Lake from 1933 until the 1950s (though during World War II, Donnelley converted his plant to manufacture parts for military use). The trains Scale-Craft produced were not marketed as toys: the company targeted its product toward adult hobbyists, creating scale model kits with a high level of detail and realism. 

In 1934 Donnelley and his wife, Ann Steinwedell Donnelley, built a home on Ridge Lane, designed by architect Walter Frazier, which featured a train room in the basement. His model train set-up later moved to the nearby basement of the Lake Forest Recreation Center (then at Forest and Southgate). 

Elliott Donnelley's name is on the Donnelley & Lee Library at Lake Forest College.

The Donnelleys again worked with Frazier’s firm to build a new house on 21 acres in west Lake Forest on Melody Road in 1955. Here he was able to design the model railroad of his dreams, the Stet & Query Central, a gauge railroad pulled by a ride-on steam locomotive that operated on over a mile of track. He often opened up his railroad for charitable purposes and for youth from the city. Local schoolchildren, Lake Forest College students, and area railroad enthusiasts alike all enjoyed his extensive layout. The family later donated this railway to the Hesston Steam Museum in Indiana.

Learn more about Elliott Donnelley at the History Center’s model train exhibit “Whistle-stop Wonderland.” The exhibit, which features historical model trains collected by local residents and a large operating layout run by Midwest RAILS, is open through Dec. 22 and then again after the holiday on Jan. 2-4 and Jan. 6 at the History Center, 509 East Deerpath.

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