top of page

The History of "Little Engines"

Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis was born in Iowa on May 26, 1885. Early in life, Martin began a career as a mechanical engineer. He moved to Southern California in the early twentieth century and acquired a job working for Dale Gentry of Gentry Ford in San Bernardino, California. It was here that Martin and Dale Gentry invented the first V-8 engine. The engine was named the Gentry-Lewis Engine and was placed into a vehicle manufactured by Ford.

Unfortunately, Ford did not authorize the Gentry-Lewis Engine, so their plans fell through. Martin soon decided to pursue other interests. By the early 1930’s Martin had moved from San Bernardino to Wilmington, California where he began working for Harpur’s Marine Engines.

It was during this period that he met his wife Irene. In 1938 Martin began a small business selling miniature live-steam engines. The company, which Martin named “Little Engines”, started as a catalog/mail-order business. By 1946, Martin and Irene needed more space to operate their growing business.

They relocated to Lomita, California where they had enough room to build and run their live-steam engines. Little Engines had become a big success, but sadly in 1949 Martin passed away, leaving Irene to keep Little Engines in operation.

Irene Lewis

Irene Lewis was originally born under the name Edith Irene Ott in 1899. She was the oldest of eleven daughters of Frank and Grace Ott. After growing up and spending much of her youth in Oregon, Irene moved to Santa Barbara, California. After settling in Santa Barbara in 1929, Irene started working as a waitress. The owner of the restaurant where Irene had been working noticed her potential and paid for her to go to business school. As mentioned earlier, Irene and Martin Lewis married and moved to Lomita in 1946. Following Martin’s death in 1949, Irene continued operating Little Engines as her husband would have wished for.

As the years passed, Little Engines, now under the watchful eye of Irene, began to prosper. The Southern California Live Steamers, a miniature live-steam engine club, was established on the same premises as Little Engines. The club would hold meetings, socialize, and operate their own live-steam engines. The club would also occasionally give rides to friends and family members. The Southern California Live Steamers still operate and offer public rides; however, the club relocated to Wilson Park in nearby Torrance.

Under the management of Irene, Little Engines began to receive national recognition. Walt Disney’s interest in railroading and live-steam engines prompted him to befriend Irene.

The most famous local buyer from Little Engines was Walt. A widely known train fan, he was a friend of both Martin and Irene. Irene was said to have been given a ticket to the grand opening of Disneyland.

A few of Irene’s steam engines went on to be featured in television programs and Hollywood films, such as, The King and I (1956). After settling down and accumulating enough profits from the sales of her miniature steam engines, Irene built a museum in honor of Martin Lewis and to celebrate the golden age of steam power.

The Lomita Railroad Museum

Sometime during the 1950’s Irene Lewis began planning to build the Lomita Railroad Museum. The idea for the museum came from a trip Irene took with her friend Arthur Zimmerla to Denver, Colorado. Construction began in 1966 on the railroad museum, and it officially opened in 1967. Built on the very same piece of property as Little Engines and the Lewis’ home, the museum is a replica of the Boston and Maine Greenwood Depot in Wakefield, Massachusetts.

Throughout the years Irene personally collected and received donations of numerous railroad-related artifacts. The 1902 Baldwin steam locomotive was soon to be scrapped on Terminal Island until Irene purchased it. The locomotive combined with the empty tender weighs 216,000 pounds, and would be fueled with oil. The 1910 Union Pacific caboose which sits adjacent to the steam locomotive had been donated to Irene by Union Pacific. It was presented to her as a Christmas gift. Union Pacific even took the time to wrap it in a giant red bow.

The caboose is equipped with beds, a potbelly stove, ice-box, conductor’s desk, washing and drinking water containers, a sink, and a toilet. The museum also houses a 1913 wooden box car, a 1923 Union Oil tanker car, a Santa Fe caboose, and a velocipede handcar. The velocipede, in particular, was built in 1881 for the Maine Central Railroad. Its purpose was for track inspections, track maintenance, and short distance travel for crew members. It is constructed almost entirely out of wood. Furthermore, the velocipede was restored three years ago by a group of volunteers.

The interior gallery displays countless railroading artifacts, and is designed to model an authentic Victorian-era train station. There is a waiting bench, schedule board, and ticket office. Many of the artifacts include lanterns, markers lights, dining car dinner and silverware, pocket watches, uniform buttons, whistles, and much more. There is also a Western Pacific Railroad brakeman’s uniform on display in the gallery. The uniform was acquired only a few years ago and put on display in January 2013.

A Dream Realized

Unfortunately, Irene Lewis passed away on January 9, 1990; however, her dream of building a museum in honor of her husband, Martin Lewis, and the golden age of steam power continues to live on. Currently, the museum staff is guiding tours, researching artifacts, informing visitors on interesting railroading facts and figures, and organizing museum special events. With the support of museum staff, the Lomita Railroad Museum Foundation, the City of Lomita, dozens of local businesses and organizations, volunteers, and visitors the Lomita Railroad Museum has become a historical treasure both regionally and nationally.

98 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page