Boxcar Children Museum celebrates power of imagination, rail

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Mon., Jul. 29, 2013
Jessica and James Bonner brought their children Malynn and Caleb to the Boxcar Children Museum. Photos by D. Coffey.
Jessica and James Bonner brought their children Malynn and Caleb to the Boxcar Children Museum. Photos by D. Coffey.

Train tracks pass within a few hundred feet of where children's author Gertrude Chandler Warner grew up in Putnam. She would spend hours watching trains pass from her parents' home on South Main Street. The location was a happy coincidence for a young teacher with an imagination. It was from that front porch that she could see into the cars of so many passing trains. Those visions, and her childhood dreams, finally found their way into her writing when she published “The Boxcar Children” in 1924. Warner went on to write 19 books in The Boxcar Children Mysteries.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Gertrude Chandler Warner Boxcar Children Museum. Located adjacent to the tracks that run through downtown Putnam, and within sight of her family home and the Israel Putnam School where she used to teach, the museum is an actual boxcar. It features Warner's books, a desk at which she worked, family photographs and memorabilia. One section is decorated to look like the boxcar in her first book. Hay covers the floor where a wooden barrel stands. There are tea cups and a railroad lantern. The black silhouettes of the book's four main characters grace the walls of the car.

The small museum is a testament to the power of the imagination and the power Warner's stories had on her readers. When the museum was opened in 2004, students from Warner's classes contributed memorabilia to the exhibits. There are autographed books, a class photo from 1928, and silhouettes of young children. They were things Warner was known for. She made cakes for student birthdays. She created silhouettes of her students. She had an ever-present puppet at her desk.

The museum houses original drafts in composition books, a family desk and the typewriter she worked with. Family portraits, an easy chair, and flowery wallpaper give the impression of her family life. But it's the toy train that runs along the sill of a painted window that carries a more powerful message: that of adventure and mystery.

James Bonner was a boy growing up in Kansas when he read “The Boxcar Children.” He got a job as a track laborer when he graduated from a technical high school in 1997. “My intent was to work until the following August, but by that time, I had decided railroading was for me,” he said. That career choice took him around the country. Today he is the director of sales and marketing for the New York and Atlantic Railway. Bonner, his wife Jessica and their children, Malynn and Caleb, were at the museum on July 27.

Bonner understands the nostalgia surrounding trains. The lure of travel to places unknown, the romance and adventure that has long been part of rail history is with us still, he said. His work with several different rail lines hasn't diminished his love for and appreciation of an industry that helped build the country. Warner played a part in building some of that mystique. And Bonner has fond memories of the Boxcar books he read when he was young.

Jessica Bonner said the family has read through the first eight books in the Boxcar Children series. “We do it at night as a family,” she said. “I like that the stories teach about things from the past. There are no electronics. Kids have to use their imagination. They solve the mysteries.”

The young characters are also resilient, brave and resourceful. That they solve their mysteries and have their adventures without parents or adults make the books especially appealing to children, according to Docent Nancy Scholl. She pulled out a guest book and read an entry a visitor made thanking Warner for getting him through a rough childhood. “He got inspiration from the resiliency of the kids in the books,” Scholl said. “He even read the book when he served in Iraq.”

Such is the power of Warner's work that her books are still widely read and well remembered. The Boxcar Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends May through mid-October. For more information, go to

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