Bruce Greenberg's Bessley Railroad

May 5th 2018

View of today’s dense, multi-level Bessley Railroad. The two standard gauge ovals enclose a Lionel tinplate industrial plant and passenger station, with an enginehouse bring up the rear and a Hellgate bridge carrying the outer track on the right.Train action and some of the many accessories and details on the Bessley. The gondola at the lower left and cables ascending across the scene are part of the aerial tramway more recently added to the layout.The polychrome Lionel tinplate industrial building is one of the focus areas within the layout.

Bruce Greenberg’s Bessley Railroad

By Gary Mason

Confession:  I’d become accustomed to the modest sound of an HO scale train running on track atop cork roadbed. So when I visited Bruce Greenberg’s Bessley Railroad during the Potomac Division’s May 5 layout tour, I was not prepared for the decidedly louder, unmistakable sound of its standard gauge equipment running on steel rails and clickety-clacking over the rail joints. The Bessley’s distinctive sound immediately brought to mind the O-27 Lionel train my father would set up around the base of our Christmas tree in the early 1960s.  But the reminiscences didn’t stop there.  The pale green of the massive arched span of Lionel’s pre-World War II tinplate Hellgate bridge, as well as on the roof, windows and cornice of the otherwise cream colored passenger station vividly brought back many iconic memories from my youth which, together with growing up in a small railroad town in northern California (on the Northwestern Pacific RR), put me on the path to becoming a model railroader.

Bruce’s Bessley Railroad has done what any good train layout of similar age should:  it has continued to evolve and improve.  Originally constructed in the 1980s as an 8’ by 16’ 1:30 scale (standard gauge) exhibition layout for Bruce and his wife Linda’s Maryland-based Greenberg’s Great Train and Toy Show (which continue to this day), after many miles, shows, and exposing thousands of mostly North Easterners to model trains now comfortably resides with the Greenbergs in Alexandria, VA.  Retired from the road, by 2010 the layout had already come to include three additional operating tracks (including street running traction).  It also began increasing in detail -- with additional structures, vehicles and other elements benefitting its more sedentary habit.  Along the way it also became host to a previously marketed motorized O scale truck that traverses its own “street.”

Beginning in 2013, in addition to being formally bestowed its’ road name, the Bessley left the realm of an “at grade” layout with the additions of first one, and then a second even-higher, elevated monorail. An elevated 0-27 scale trolley line was even erected as the layout evolved. Today’s Bessley has grown to boast a complement of ten operating lines.  No simple feat within its’ comparatively modest footprint

Based on its inception as a marketing tool today, the Bessley Railroad might more correctly be considered a form of commercial art, which is something we don’t necessarily think about while visiting a layout.  Such singular objects, if that can be correctly applied to Bruce’s layout, are aspects of commercial art history and, aside from a few manufacturer’s collections of their own products, generally go unappreciated at the public level.  Private collectors are, in a sense, doing their own part in preserving individual specimens of model train items produced over the past century and some of these collections can be visited.  This is where Bruce and Linda occupy a distinct role whether they fully realize it or not: that of documentarians of model railroading history.

In addition to their Greenberg’s Great Train and Toy Show, the couple operated Greenberg Publishing from 1975 until being bought out in the mid-1990s by Kalmbach Publishing (now Kalmbach Media), publisher of Model Railroader.  During their tenure Greenberg Publishing was a prolific publishing house issuing more than 440 titles from a range of authors, including Bruce himself, documenting prototype as well as toy and model trains in various scales, and a smattering of other subjects.  The historical value of information afforded through these publications, like Barger’s (1992) Union Pacific Business Cars 1870-1991 and Mallerich’s (1987) Greenberg’s Guide to Athearn Trains is inestimable for current as well as future model railroaders. 

Even as the Bessley was about to become a fixture in Alexandria in the early 2000s and would soon enter its skyward expansion phase, Bruce, long recognized as a premier expert on Lionel trains, together with his wife Linda continued to be active engaged in the publishing business with their current firm, Brinkman Publishing.  In 2001, Brinkman released Athey’s Harry C. Grant:  Co-founder and Inventor Lionel Manufacturing Company, together with Bruce’s own Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Standard and 2-7/8” Gauges, 1901-1940 6th Edition in 2015 and, most recently, his 2018 Greenberg's Guide to Lionel Trains, O Gauge, Vol. 1: 1915-1928.

All the forgoing does not do justice though to the opportunity to talk directly with Bruce about the history, evolution and potential future of the model train industry.  We are indeed fortunate he has committed so much information from his own research into the more than five dozen model train publications bearing his name. His personal fascination and excitement with our hobby is palpable and work on the Bessley continues.  His current challenge is to discover how to adjust the auto-reverse on a two-gondola aerial tramway whose original ropeway length has been extended so it will run the full length between the lower and upper stations.  As we all know work on one’s layout is never really done.