Dig Deeper-Lenoir Biography

Dig Deeper – William J. Lenoir Biography

Born in Chicago on September 30, 1910, Bill Lenoir lived part of his early years with his grandfather in Lombard, Illinois. It was here where, as a youngster, Bill enjoyed watching trains on the Chicago Great Western as they passed through town. This, plus occasional rides on the CGW, made Bill a lifelong fan of that railroad.

Bill’s father was a draftsman producing patent drawings and Bill studied drafting at a vocational school in Chicago. Bill graduated from Crane Technical High School in 1931 and probably would have become a railroad man, but the depression was on and the railroads were not hiring. His first job was patent drafting. In the early 30’s, he was a member of the Chicago Society of Model Engineers, and later joined the Chicago Model Guild. He was a charter member of the National Model Railroad Association. His training also prepared him to become a machinist. His ultimate career was defined when his grandfather presented him with a copy of “Popular Mechanics” that included an article on building a model steam locomotive.

He built his first scale model locomotive in 1932 and after that time he had an active interest in one-quarter inch scale railroading. The first engine built for a customer, the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, who had just been enhancing the operating layout and displaying the highly detailed historic models of the Chicago Great Western Railroad. 

Baldwin, Lima, Alco and other locomotive builders might still be listed on the New York Stock Exchange as financial giants paying fat dividends to stockholders if William J. Lenoir—master model maker—had anything to do with their destiny. Modest to an extreme, Bill was a master machinist, pattern maker and one of the very few artists in model making industry.

From 1935-1936 he worked for W .K. Walthers, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Walthers’ first O-gauge material was marketed. Then in 1936-1937 he went to the Scale Model Railways, Huntington, Indiana. In 1940-1941 he developed the Saginaw line of Pennsylvania Railroad engines for the Saginaw Pattern & Manufacturing Company, Saginaw, Michigan.

Then along came World War II and Bill served in Uncle Sam’s army for 3 1/2 years as an ordnance machinist and saw overseas action in Italy and the Philippines. He decided that after his discharge he would have no more to do with the model business and moved to Tampa, Florida, to work in his brother-in-laws’ prop and costume shop which catered to Ringling Brothers Circus and the Holiday On Ice, but someone heard he had been discharged from the army, asked him to build a locomotive, and he was at it for the remainder of his life.

From a beginning in the late 1940’s, Bill was president, mechanical draftsman, superintendent, and the entire labor force of the Lenoir Locomotive Works, located in Tampa, Florida. Bill continued building locomotives until his retirement in 1987. All of his locomotives were built from the same blueprints used to build the real locomotives by such companies as Baldwin, Lima, Alco and other locomotive builders. 

At his peak, Bill could turn out a locomotive in five or six weeks. In his early years, Bill scratch built all of the parts needed for an engine. Later, as good quality castings became available, he used commercial parts to speed construction. He could machine anything he needed in his well-equipped shop, often supplying parts to other manufacturers such as Lobaugh or Athearn.

It has been said the Bill Lenoir was a true gentleman. Very quiet and unassuming to the point of being shy, Bill never bragged. He didn’t have to—his work did it for him. He had a lot of friends around the country and many of the Scalers were sorry when he retired, but that time comes for everyone. In Bill’s case, his legacy will always remain in the wonderful historic models he created. Today his models can be found in both private collections and in museums.
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