Miniature trains delight kids of all ages
Thomas the Tank Engine chugs past a tiny Kensington Train Station, curves around a pond and a farm, and finally reaches the Brookside Gardens Conservatory buildings. If you peer into the miniature conservatory’s glass roof, you’ll spot a further miniaturized replica of this same railroad display, the Garden Railway at Brookside.
Every winter for more than 20 years, G-gauge model trains circle the magical display created by the Washington Virginia Maryland Garden Railway Society (WVMGRS) in partnership with Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring, Maryland, which provides the lush greenery that enlivens the nostalgic scenery and completes the illusion.
The society’s vision is to recreate what Montgomery County was like during the era of big steam trains, said Peter Drymalski, a longtime WVMGRS member and one of the many volunteers who built this year’s layout.
“We played fast and loose with that, but some of the scenes are real,” he said, like the recreation of the train station in Kensington, which still exists, or the model of an old white and red general store near Olney and the copy of a cider store in Germantown.
While some buildings are reused, the scene is reimagined and built anew each year by the volunteers. Great care goes into every detail of creating the display, including researching the history of the Cabin John Trolley, which began running in 1892.
Society members meticulously crafted and hand painted all the miniatures. Some, built from model kits, resemble familiar buildings, while others represent local icons that no longer exist.
“The car dealership is something I created,” Drymalski said, pointing to a green brick one-story building with large glass windows showcasing slick two-toned cars. “There was a company called Maryland Motors in Rockville. But I decided on a simple design that would actually fit into this layout.”
Hidden, imaginative surprises abound for those who take the time to immerse themselves in the Garden Railway storyline and inspect it closely.
A dragon nests amid the boulders and pines under one of the iron train bridges, and Santa towers over Snow White and several dwarfs on the balcony of Glen Echo’s Baltzley Castle replica.
Even the notorious Exorcist stairs, although hidden slightly out of view, are included in the layout that represents the now-defunct trolley line that once ran through Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood to Cabin John, Maryland.
The Garden Railway runs dozens of engines, both steam and diesel, but Thomas remains the favorite. “If we don’t run Thomas, the kids start asking, ‘Where’s Thomas? Where’s Thomas?’” Drymalski said.
Volunteers make it happen
It seems appropriate, then, that many of the society members got involved with model trains when their own children were young enough to be enchanted by intricate layouts like the one at Brookside.
But even with the kids long grown, these dedicated volunteers continue putting in long hours and commuting from all over the DMV area to create magic for 40 days a year at Brookside.
“We will have logged about somewhere between 500 and 600 hours,” said John Waters-Heflin, who is coordinating this year’s effort at the Gardens.
Most volunteers say nostalgia and a love of trains powers their hard work.
“When I was little, we still had steam trains,” Drymalski said. “We had to cross the tracks every day to get to school, to get to church, to get to the grocery store….A steam train makes all kinds of noises. It puts on a show.”
And the Garden Railway at Brookside puts on a show, too. The G-gauge (for garden) is the largest model train gauge, running on a brass track powered by electricity. Two volunteers are on standby in case of a derailment, and they run a motorized track cleaner that keeps the rails clean.
Society members have even rigged a tablet that allows little hands to get the trains chugging around their imaginary neighborhood — a huge hit with kids.
What many miniature railroad enthusiasts have in common is creativity, Drymalski said.
“When you create a railroad like this, you’re a little bit like God. You know, you’re creating something from nothing. And it can be very attractive, and it’s unique to you. Nobody else would do it the same way.”
The Garden Railway operates daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Jan. 1. The free exhibit is located in the conservatory at Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallan Avenue, Silver Spring, Maryland. For more information, call (301) 962-1400.