Photo Courtesy of Hank Davis
At Christmastime, plenty of families haul out boxes of ornaments, Santa-shaped cookie cutters and twinkling outdoor lights, but for some in the Mid-Atlantic, the annual holiday preparation involves one more element: miniature trains. The tradition of the “Christmas garden” (more secularly known now as the “train garden”) is unique to this region, particularly Maryland and Eastern Pennsylvania. While the train garden has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, many residents in the region would not feel that the holiday is complete without seeing a toy train plying its way through a miniature village dusted with artificial snow.
The train garden has nothing to do with plants or the outdoors. The story of the train garden’s origin is mostly anecdotal, but it is believed to be rooted in the Moravian tradition of the putz or crèche, an intricately rendered scene of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, carved in miniature and placed beneath the Christmas tree. That tradition came to the U.S. through immigration, and along the way, wooden and then electric trains were added.
Roads and Rails Museum
Photo Courtesy of Roads and Rails Museum
Over time, the Holy Family was largely removed from train gardens to make way for little villages, faux skating ponds and other idyllic winter scenery. Many a family in the Mid-Atlantic can recall having a small scene beneath the Christmas tree settled in fluffy white batting, all of it encircled by an electric train. Others may have had something even more elaborate. Christmas was a time when Mid-Atlantic basements overflowed with the clamor of train traffic as ping-pong tables or saw horses covered in sheets of plywood were transformed into miniature worlds with multiple lines of trains traversing bridges and tunnels and bypassing villages and bucolic countryside, maybe even a fair with fully automated rides. At the push of a button an engine could be made to blow its horn or turn on the carriage lights.
The regional nature of the tradition makes sense.
“The Christmas garden, a term unique to this area that is not as widely used now, seems to have come over with Southern German immigrants, of which many came to Baltimore from the 1840s on,” explains Stephen Heaver, director and curator of the Fire Museum of Maryland,
which has an annual Christmas garden at its location in Towson. The 28-foot-by-14-foot garden features multiple trains and automation.
By 1900, there were 34,000 Germans living in Baltimore, and by 1914, they accounted for about 20 percent of the city’s population. Train gardens are also popular in parts of Eastern Pennsylvania; following more than a century of immigration that began prior to the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia from about 1850 to 1950 consistently ranked among the largest German populations in America.
Chugging Along Through History
But what’s so “Christmassy” about trains? It’s speculation, but the timeframe when train gardens were exploding in popularity, roughly the turn of the last century, was the zenith of railroading, particularly in Baltimore, where the B&O Railroad was humming along as America’s first commercial long-distance railroad. Trains were a fundamental—and fascinating—part of life.
“People used to travel the rails to visit family at the holidays,” says Dave Burroughs, general manager of the Roads and Rails Museum in Frederick, Maryland. “And railroads operated in the downtowns where the department stores were. You would encounter trains everywhere.”
Roads and Rails Museum
Photo Courtesy of Roads and Rails Museum
The Roads and Rails Museum features a 24-foot-by-120 foot train display open year-round. It’s thought to be one of the largest in America and includes a circus and an erupting volcano. Like all gardens, it was a labor of love to create, one that took Burroughs, his brothers and their father five years to construct. The museum was inspired by Roadside America, another elaborate year-round train display, located in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania. Roadside America still uses the miniature world built by master craftsman Laurence Gieringer in the 1930s.
Burroughs explains that the train garden appeals to a part of human nature that simply enjoys crafting tiny replicas of real life. “There’s something magical about building your own world in miniature,” he states. “There’s something particularly magical about a train in snow.”
Firehouse Training Time
While the roots of the garden may have been religious, train gardens evolved, and, especially in Baltimore, their size and scope exploded in the early years of the 20th century. An article in The Baltimore Sun from 1926 described the Christmas garden fascination as “Peculiar to the State [of Maryland]”: “More often than not…imagination takes free rein and refuses to be hemmed in by limitations of dramatic unities or historical facts. Such gardens are veritable marvels of the wonders which can be accomplished by patience, skill and electricity.”
Family at Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Photo Courtesy of Jay Paul
Private gardens and those in city fire departments were lauded in The Baltimore Sun society page. Train gardens are often linked with fire departments. In fact, the first firehouse Christmas garden is believed to have been built by Capt. Eugene Daly in 1917 at Engine Co. No. 28 on Guilford Avenue in Baltimore, notes Heaver.
“Firefighting was simpler in those days, and you had firemen who had a lot of time on their hands and would make models and sell them,” Heaver explains. It was natural to evolve that craft into train displays, which offered a way to engage the community in the firehouse.
Departments embraced the train garden with gusto. Accounts from the mid-twentieth century describe firehouse train gardens with waterfalls, multiple train sets and real fires. Baltimore City fire departments were so consumed with their displays that the fire chief halted the practice in 1939, fearing it was a distraction from operations. Today, only Baltimore City’s Engine Company 45 has a holiday train garden, though plenty of volunteer stations throughout the region still erect them.
Photo Courtesy of R. Kennedy For Visit Philadelphia
The folks at the Fire Museum of Maryland maintain the tradition with their own Christmas garden, and though it always has at least one “fire,” theirs is artificial. Like most other train gardens, it is secular, featuring local landmarks such as the Bromo Seltzer Tower and familiar Baltimore businesses in miniature. The wonder of the train garden is as captivating as ever; more than 300 visitors attended the Fire Museum’s Christmas Garden opening day last November.
“A Christmas garden is fun and contributes to the sparkle and the lights of the season,” says Heaver.
More Mid-Atlantic Miniatures
The Society Page may no longer devote space to holiday train displays, but thankfully, many popular destinations do. At Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum, the trainscape is created using all natural materials, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, has two displays, including one in the conservatory. From the local fire department to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, a fanciful train garden can be found wherever there’s the sound of a steam whistle and the glimmer of faux snow.
If you want to make tracks to a train garden this holiday season, here are a few of the many places in the Mid-Atlantic with train displays.
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, 901 West Pratt Street, Baltimore, 410-752-2490, borail.org
Brookside Gardens, 1500 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton 301-962-1400, montgomeryparks.org
Cambridge Rescue Fire Company, 311 Gay Street, Cambridge, tourdorchester.org
Fire Museum of Maryland, 1301 York Road, Lutherville, 410-321-7500, firemuseummd.org
Hagerstown Roundhouse Museum, 300 South Burhan’s Boulevard (US 11), Hagerstown, 301-739-4665, roundhouse.org
National Capital Trolley Museum, 1313 Bonifant Road, Colesville, 301-384-6088, dctrolley.org
Roads and Rails Museum, 200 N. East Street, Frederick, 301-624-5524, roadsnrails.com
The Shops at Kenilworth, 800 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, 410-321-1909, theshopsatkenilworth.com
All Aboard Railroad, 1952 Landis Valley Road, Lancaster, 717-392-1568, bartspneumatics.com
Antique Auto Museum, 161 Museum Drive, Hershey, 717-566-7100, aacamuseum.org
Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford, 610-388-2700, brandywinemuseum.org
Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, 5300 North Front Street, Harrisburg, 717-599-5751, forthunter.org
Longwood Gardens, 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, 610-388-1000, longwoodgardens.org
Morris Arboretum, 100 E. Northwestern Avenue, Philadelphia, 215-247-5777, morrisarboretum.org
Reading Terminal Market, 12th & Arch Streets, Philadelphia, 215-922-2317, readingterminalmarket.org
Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, 11200 Fairfax Station Road, Fairfax Station, 703-425-9225, fairfax-station.org
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 1800 Lakeside Avenue, Richmond, 804/262-9887, lewisginter.org
National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, D.C., 202-633-4888 nationalzoo.si.edu
Union Station, 40 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C., 202-289-1908, unionstationdc.com
Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum, 937 Bakerton Road, Harpers Ferry, 304-535-2521
Stephens Outdoor Railways, 33 Sandstone Drive, Vienna, 304-295-4403
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.