Chesapeake Choo-choos Chug with Christmas Cheer

 Vol. 9, No. 50
December 13 - 19, 2001 
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Who doesn’t fantasize at the sight, sound and even smell of little engines rolling round a miniature wonderland of snowy hills and towns decked out for the holidays?
by Patricia Kirby

Chugging around Chesapeake area firehouses, malls, museums, garden nurseries and railroad stations — as well as homes — this time of year are miles of model railroad track. Increasingly taking part on the local Yuletide scene are railroad buffs who, once having unwrapped a model train in childhood, were hooked for life.

Behind many of the more elaborate exhibits are regional model railroad clubs. Some of the club names breathe a romance all their own, such as the Chesapeake, Allegheny, & Blue Ridge Train Runners and the Crabtown Model Railroad Association. No matter the name or rail gauge, members share a love of their hobby as endless as their circular tracks.

Model railroading is a costly hobby in terms of money, time and effort. Yet so strong is the desire to share it at this season that clubs often set up major train exhibits for free.

It’s been said that a model railroad is better than the Fountain of Youth for keeping young at heart. Perhaps that’s why even Saint Nick loves trains. He makes frequent stops at area rail exhibits. And devoted though he is to his sky-bound sleigh, he enjoys spending time with Marylanders on special Santa trains.

All aboard for a quick trip around some of the area’s train displays.

B&O Railroad Museum
901 West Pratt St., Baltimore • 410/752-2490
Boasting “the most significant collection of railroadiana in the Western Hemisphere,” this exhibit is a great place to start. Bring good walking shoes to go around its 37 acres of full-size equipment and rare 19th century locomotives, along with two sets of model trains this Christmas.

An in-house HO-gauge train with old-fashioned switching mechanisms plies intricate curves, over and through mountains, into a railyard and town. Christmas preparations are everywhere en route, along with Santa, elves, polar bears and toys. Another large layout (O-gauge) joins the smaller layout this year, thanks to the Virginia-based National Capital Trackers.

Saturdays in December are free train rides along the first mile of American commercial railroad track at 11am and 1pm and 3pm.

Hours: 10am–5pm daily except major holidays: Fee.

Ellicott City B&O Railroad Museum
Main St. and Maryland Ave., Ellicott City • 410/461-1944
Farther down the track from Baltimore is “America’s oldest railroad station,” where three model trains are set up just for Christmas, running until January 26. Always up is a model, three years in construction, of the 13 miles of railroad between Ellicott City and Baltimore. The first two weekends of December, the museum hosts its annual Trimming the Station event, a chance to see how Christmas was celebrated in Victorian days.

Hours: Friday, Saturday 11am–4pm; Sunday noon–5pm. $4.

Union Station
40 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Washington, DC • 202/289-1908
Tracking down to Washington’s elegant train station and exiting into the beautifully decorated Grand Concourse, you can see what’s billed as the “world’s biggest portable Scale G model train display,” recreating a rail trip across Norway’s mountains and fjords, courtesy of the Royal Norwegian Embassy. Watch for trolls!

Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am–7pm; Sunday noon–6pm. Free.

U. S. Botanic Garden
West Gallery, 100 Maryland Ave., SW, Washington, DC • 202/225-8333
Decorated especially for children, the West Gallery is the perfect location for a Christmas train display, courtesy of the Washington, Virginia and Maryland Garden Railway Society. Overshadowing the train is a Fraser fir full of stuffed animals with a bald eagle soaring at the top. The recently renovated Botanic Garden is an attraction in itself. The train is up until January 6.

Hours: 10am–5pm daily, including holidays. Free.

photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Institution
900 Jefferson Dr., SW, Washington, DC • 202/357-1300
New at the Smithsonian this year is a two-track garden train, the Smithson & Land Express, displayed at the Arts and Industries Building. It’s not officially a Christmas train, but it passes several poinsettias along its rocky route and fits well with the holiday decor.

The lush, verdant plants are natural, in contrast to many model train layouts, and there’s a fountain. You’d expect no less when you understand that the display is a joint effort between the Horticultural Division and the Exhibits Division (more accurately, amateur train lovers within each group).

“It’s whimsical,” comments the Hort’s Melanie Pyle. A replica of the Smithsonian castle crowns the exhibit, with little houses below.

Hours: 10am–5:30pm daily. Free.

Trains Out and About

National Pageant of Peace
The President’s Park (Ellipse), Washington, DC
For nine years, a garden train exhibit has graced the nation’s Christmas tree. Reminiscing on its growth, trainmaster Bill Frank explains, “We started out simple with just four trains. This year we’ll have nine and a trolley.” The layout, too, has grown, with new towns and villages sprouting up each year. It’s a clear example of the model railroad adage that a layout is never finished.

Officially dubbed the National Christmas Tree Train, the train components are set out and taken in each day by volunteers, often Chesapeake Country commuters headed to or from work in downtown Washington.

Getting the National Christmas Tree Train to the Ellipse took some persuasion, perhaps with a nudge from Santa. The long and short of it all is that trainmaking firm Aristo Craft agreed to donate the trains seasonally, while the local National Capital Trackers took on the task of laying out the trains.

Does the model train contribute to the Pageant theme? “Well, ” says trainmaster Frank, “the tree is part of Christmas, as everybody of all religions knows, so this is more or less ecumenical.”

Pageant entertainers often come over to the exhibit when not rehearsing and watch the trains being set up. The train itself is quite a celebrity, a favorite focus of local, national and even foreign media.

Like many involved in model railroading, the National Christmas Tree Trainmaster got his own first train quite young: He was two. But he experienced something of a delay in fully enjoying them. “Between my father, grandfather, uncles and cousins, I finally got to play with the trains when I was nine,” Frank says.

“I threatened to tear down the tree,” he confesses — if not the highest sentiments of Christmas, good credentials for ensuring that young visitors get to enjoy a copious heritage of model trains at the Pageant.

Hours: 10am–10pm daily thru December 30. Security is high in the area and parking very limited. Free.

Tony Izzi and grandfather Carl Collins survey Homestead Gardens’ train village.
photo by Mark Burns
Homestead Gardens
743 West Central Ave., Davidsonville • 301/261-4550
Set amid lavish banks of the nursery’s Christmas flowers and decorations, this stunning train garden offers so much to see that benches are set up around the display. Across its snowy peaks and valleys speeds a very modern G-gauge and a more traditional O-gauge train. Animated skiers and cable cars traverse the slopes under natural light pouring through the translucent roof. Scott Daly, creative manager of the Visual Display Department who made the scenery and village, often invites youngsters to help him. He’ll hoist a child up to pull the cord attached to the whistles or turn off the trains at day’s end.

Four high school buddies who set up the train layout drop by on weekends for train chat with bystanders: Tony McAndrew; brothers Dave and Barry Milstead; Reggie Pratt.

Hours: Monday–Friday 9am–9pm; Saturday 8am–9pm; Sunday 9am–6pm.

Riviera Beach Fire House
8506 Fort Smallwood Rd., Pasadena • 410/255-3636
The basement-long display of two setups, O- and HO-gauge, is the creation of volunteers in what is already a volunteer fire unit. It boasts winter scenery, mountains and scenes of Baltimore and another small town. “I remember coming to see this same display as a kid myself,” says one current fireman.

Hours: Saturday, Sunday noon–3 and 6–9; December 24–January 7 (except Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day), nightly 6–9pm.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore • 410/783-8024
Train lovers often say trains have a music all their own, which may be why the Symphony’s holiday concert series includes garden trains in a Christmas village. Helping with the project is the Baltimore Society of Model Engineers.

Concerts 8pm December 14 & 15; 3 pm December 16; 7:30pm Dec. 19-22.

Trains on TV

Maryland Public Television: Clickety Clack Christmas Trains series
Another way to visit Maryland model and Santa trains is by tuning in to MPT’s marvelous six-segment series. The popular video program focuses on both passenger and model trains. Included are the tiny Zoo Choo at the Baltimore Zoo, the Christmas train garden at Towson’s Kenilworth Mall and the train garden at Baltimore’s Cross Country Fire Station, known for its offbeat, non-traditional displays. Santa’s annual appearance on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad is also featured. The series has been offered as a pledge premium and will be again, but this year MPT will also sell it for the first time at its Web site, (“Shop MPT” link), as will the B&O Railroad Museum.

Program airs 4pm December 22 and 7pm December 23 on MPT:

Model Railroad Clubs
No Christmas train tour would be complete without a visit to some of the area’s model railroad clubs.

Severna Park Railroad Club
3 Riggs Ave., Severna Park • 410/647–6077 (Sam Shepherd)
In contrast to the more permanent facilities like museums, it’s rare for clubs to have their own meeting space. One striking exception is the Severna Park Railroad Club.

What better meeting space could a rail club ask for than its very own railroad station, in this case, the old Severna Park Railroad Station? It also has a permanent layout (Maryland in Miniature), which — although minus a Christmas theme — is shown off at open house the first weekend in December. The club also offers a standing invitation to the public to visit every Thursday from 8pm “to whenever the last member leaves.”

Dottie Vaughan and John Hughes of Herndon, Virginia, of the Chesapeake, Allegheny & Blue Ridge Large Scale Railroad Society.
photo courtesy of Chesapeake, Allegheny, & Blue Ridge Railway
Chesapeake, Allegheny, & Blue Ridge
Northgate Mall, Aspen Hill • 202/726–3333 (Dottie Vaughan)
The Chesapeake, Allegheny, & Blue Ridge Large Scale Railroad Society, also known as the Train Runners, has its own permanent meeting space at Northgate Mall in Aspen Hill, at least until the mall owner can find a paying renter. For a club focused on garden trains, large space is particularly precious. Santa drops by the weekend of December 15–16.

“We just love to show trains,” says current president Dottie Vaughan. Chesapeake Country expatriate Vaughan caught the model railroad enthusiasm of her husband. “But I was always interested in the kind of trains you ride on,” she adds, explaining that owning layouts, joining clubs and liking to ride trains are all part of “railfanning,” a larger endeavor.

Some of her club members will help at the Pageant of Peace this year, along with some of the members of the Washington, Virginia, and Maryland Garden Railway Society, who are also helping at the U.S. Botanic Garden exhibit. The WVM is the oldest and largest East Coast garden railway society.

Hours: Weekends noon-4pm.

Crabtown Model Railroad Assoc.
meeting @ the Admiral Farragut Apartments basement; 250-B Hilltop Lane, Annapolis • 410/268–7685 (Don Adams)
The Annapolis-based Crabtown Model Railroad Association, though minuscule in members and gauge (HO), holds an open house each winter and shows off the club’s long-standing railroad layout. There’s no Christmas theme, but locations along the mythical Annapolis and Ohio tracks represent locations along the B&O in Maryland.

Open house December 15 and 16 1–5pm.

Admiring the Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas trains is Paul Love of Baltimore, the youngest member of the Baltimore American Flyer club, in fact the only child member.
photo courtesy of Baltimore American Flyer Model Railroad Club
Baltimore Area American Flyer Club
410/255–0629 (Monte Heppe)
This American Flyer S-gauge club sets up a popular and much-awaited train show one day each Christmas season at Earleigh Heights Fire House. It’s different each year and always a surprise.

The club also appears at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “They bring kids down on beds connected to all kinds of machines and they look like they’ve been through who knows what,” says club officer Monte Heppe. “Then they watch those trains, and you just say, wow.”

Sunday December 16 from 8am–4pm at Earleigh Heights Fire House, Route 2, Pasadena.

Baltimore Society of Model Engineers
225 West Saratoga St., Baltimore • 410/837-2763
The Baltimore Society of Model Engineers, formed in 1932, is the oldest model railroad club in the United States. The club has its display up all year. It’s not a Christmas display but is enjoyable this time of year all the same. Around the 30-foot by 70-foot layout — with particularly realistic details and scenery, including a city somewhat like Baltimore — roll the Chesapeake and Western (HO gauge) and Allegheny Northern (O gauge).

Open house: December 30–January 28 plus January 1 from 1-5pm.

Trains by the Brittains for Calvert Hospice’s Festival of Trees.
photo courtesy of the Brittain Family
Brittain Family • Calvert Hospice Festival of Trees
Not a model railroad club but a reasonable facsimile is the family of Greg Brittain of Prince Frederick. The annual Calvert Hospice Festival of Trees has become as well known for the Brittains’ unique train layouts as for success as the hospice’s main money-raising event. Staged the weekend after Thanksgiving, the festival is frequented by early Christmas shoppers seeking gifts with a crafted flair.

Brittain, his wife and three sons began the railroad to help the hospice in 1993. “It’s exhausting,” Brittain explains. “It takes several days to put it together. I lie on my back to put lighting into every house on the display. It costs so much to buy the stuff, and you need so much room to set up.”

The family has helped create the display itself, not just set it up, and has loved doing it. But as they’ve grown and moved on in interests, they’re hoping someone else will take over the Festival of Trees enterprise. Still, Brittain echoes the watchword of the model railroader at Christmas time: “When you see the kids look at the trains, it’s all worth it.”

Where to Buy Model Trains
Chesapeake Country has two train suppliers, both in Arnold.

Star Hobby, a family business, does direct sales (1244 Ritchie Hwy.).
Don Hale, whose family owns the business, notes that “kids had gotten away from trains for a long time, but now the success of Thomas the Train is bringing them back.” Thousands of boxed trains cram the shelves in testimony.

“About 40 percent of our total sales in any gauge are Christmas train sets and scenery,” he estimates — that is, trains bought not as gifts but as seasonal displays.

Al’s Kustom Train Kars (410/757–9497) is a mail-order model train company with a Cinderella story. “I was always poor as a kid and wanted trains, ” explains owner Al Taublib. He later joined a model railroad club and now makes a living of his dream.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly