Looking Back: From Man to Myth- The Charlie Bowdish Story

Jefferson County Historical Society submitted the following article:

[Pictured above: When Bowdish moved his model railroad exhibit to Pittsburgh, it was first housed in Buhl Planetarium. Thousands came to see it. Today, it is exhibited at the Carnegie Science Center. (Courtesy Jefferson County History Center)]

Submitted by Carole Briggs:


Most older folks in this area know the story.

When young Charlie Bowdish returned from Europe where he’d been gassed, he was too ill to work, so he built a little miniature village with a train for his brother’s wedding. More than 600 people came to see it in 1920, and that was the beginning of his annual Christmas shows at his home south of the White Street Bridge.

That’s the myth― the stories that have grown up about the man who originated what has become the Miniature Railroad & Village™ at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

Myth serves an important function in every culture.

Here in rural Pennsylvania, the story of an injured veteran who loved children and entertained them and their families year after year without charging a dime is an inspiring story of self-giving and one that resonates as each Christmas season rolls around.

But, what are the facts?

And, how did the Bowdish story become the myth it is for some folks today?

Bowdish grew up in Brookville with two older brothers, two older sisters, and his parents. His forebears had moved into the Brockway area where they were skillful machinists, woodworkers, and musicians. This we know from the family genealogy and an article written in 1899 by Pittsburgh reporter Bion Butler.

Like many in the 19th century, Charlie’s parents yearned for new horizons. In their early married life, they traveled to Michigan and Nebraska. The birthplaces of their children help us know this.

Charlie was born in Brookville in 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, or 1898! Here the facts are confusing because census records and other information cite various years―1900 census says 1894, 1910 census says 1895, 1920 census 1897, and 1930 says 1898.

The family genealogy lists February 28, 1895, and his tombstone at the Baptist Cemetery in Richardsville says February 28, 1896, but even tombstones are sometimes wrong! His signed social security application says 1896 and that is the date the History Center uses.

Tracking down the facts can be difficult! We may never know the year Charlie was born, and he himself may not have been sure. But, facts are important, and at the History Center, we do our darnedest to ferret them out!

[email protected] County Historical Society, Inc.

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