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Who doesn’t love a train? Watching a train round the tracks brings joy to hearts, young and old. The Old Century Flyer train at Conway Human Development Center (CHDC) is a miniature train with a long history in Arkansas.
Although the first steam locomotive was invented in 1804, it took another hundred years for the idea of a miniature train to become a hit. In the first half of the twentieth century, miniature trains became popular, especially at theme parks and zoos. Aurell Vaszin immigrated to the United States from Romania in 1904. With little education, Vaszin worked first as a cabinet maker before taking a job at an amusement park. He worked first in Connecticut before being drawn to Dayton, Ohio. Here, Vaszin helped manufacture parts for roller coasters, small trains, and other amusement rides. These parts were sent to amusement parks around the country. In 1919, Vaszin opened his own company, Dayton Fun House, later renamed National Amusement Devices (NAD). NAD became a premium supplier for roller coasters, but the company also specialized in miniature trains.
Vaszin began designing miniature trains by the late 1920s, with one popular train sold as the Century Flyer. These trains were produced from the 1940s to the 1960s and featured train cars modeled after the roller coaster cars the company also produced. The train used a 24-inch track and had either a diesel or electric engine. Vaszin’s option of an electric engine was ahead of the times, but the Century Flyer in Conway is the diesel engine. The train cars and engine were silver and blue, with an open-topped engine that allows the engineer to drive the small train and several open-topped cars for passengers. Vaszin’s company only produced around 100 of these trains. His company also built over 400 rollercoasters during Vaszin’s stint with the company. He sold it in 1973 and continued to advise NAD until his death in 1979.
NAD built mainly wooden rollercoasters and installed them in the U.S. and other countries, including the Montaña Rusa rollercoaster in Mexico City. This rollercoaster operated until 2019, much longer than many NAD rollercoasters. Photo: Ximena1318 via Wikimedia Commons.
In April of 1957, local Little Rock businessman Jess Wood bought a Century Flyer train for Funland, an amusement park located in Burns Park in Little Rock, which opened the same year. The train operated in the park for two years. In 1959, the Little Rock chapter of the National Association of Railway Business Women (NARBW) expressed interest in purchasing the Century Flyer and moving it. The NARBW existed to stimulate interest in railroads, further cooperation between the railroads and other industries, and undertake charitable endeavors. The Little Rock chapter was founded in 1956 and was active until 1999. The women’s group had recently been involved in founding the Arkansas Children’s Colony, a center in Conway created to serve children from across the state with mental health disorders. The Children’s Colony was built as a residential center to initially house up to 1,000 children on its 400-acre area, which included a school and residential halls. The NARBW in Little Rock felt the Century Flyer would be a perfect addition to the colony as a source of amusement for its young residents. They purchased it for $20,000 and donated it to the new Arkansas Children’s Colony.
The train was moved to the Arkansas Children’s Colony in 1959, where it has remained for the last 64 years. The little engine and its three railcars provided countless trips for residents and their families, as well as rides for the public during special events. In 1992, members of Union Pacific repainted the train to mimic the red and gold colors of that railroad. Still, the new paint wasn’t enough to keep the train running smoothly. The three quarters of a mile loop track and its two wooden trestles had been damaged by flooding and fallen into disrepair. The Central Arkansas Model Railway Club (CAMRC) agreed to volunteer their time to refurbish the train, its tracks, and the signal crossings in 2009. They also repainted the train to its original silver and blue appearance. The train was once again operable. The Arkansas Children’s Colony was renamed the Conway Human Development Center (CHDC) in 1981 as it moved from its original purpose of assisting children into also assisting adults with mental disorders.
In 2010, the CHDC applied for the Century Flyer, nicknamed the CHDC Fun Flyer to be accepted on the Register of National Historic Places. In its application, the CHDC advocated for the Century Flyer’s historical significance as a now-rare example of a miniature train. Even though Vaszin’s company built around 100 Century Flyers, only a handful still existed, with even fewer in active operation. The train also provides an example of an early 1950s diesel-powered passenger train. As one of the few remaining Century Flyers, it is a piece of American history, a tribute to Aurell Vaszin’s miniature train cars and the greater trend in the United States to place small trains in parks and amusement centers.
Today, the CHDC’s Century Flyer still provides amusement for residents of the CHDC. It is occasionally open to the public when the center holds events, like its annual Polar Express ride in December. The best way to keep up with the train and its availability is to follow the Conway Human Development Center on Facebook. If you happen to pass the center, you might catch a glimpse of the little train as it travels around the track, over its miniature trestles, and through the 70-foot tunnel that also serves as its storage facility when the train isn’t in use. The Century Flyer in Conway will keep bringing smiles as it chugs around its miniature track for years to come.
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