Garden railroading: the golden spike that can bring people to your park

Susan McCoy

The nation’s railroads once lured thousands to settle in this country’s wide open spaces of the Midwest and West. Today, trains are still luring thousands to open spaces, with results just as dramatic–although on a, pardon the pun, much smaller scale.

In New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia, for instance, local public gardens have added garden railroad exhibits to their facilities, and the result has been a new kind of golden spike, this time linking the once charming but staid botanical garden or arboretum with one of the fastest growing hobbies and family recreational activities in the country.

Attendance has boomed. It’s something public parks and recreational centers should note, and some already have.

“We recently designed a small garden railroad display for the Campbell County [Kentucky] Extension Service,” says landscape designer cum garden railroad magnate Paul Busse. “We did it with a small budget of state money. And the biggest concern–security for the trains and the structures in the display–has proven not to be a major problem.” Busse is now in the proposal drafting stages for a more ambitious garden railroad exhibit for the Hamilton County (Ohio) Park System, which surrounds the Cincinnati area.

All Aboard

What these public parks departments are beginning to realize, according to the Garden Train Association, is the tremendous appeal and attraction, especially for families, that garden railroad displays are sparking. For example, when the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum director Paul Meyer debuted a garden railroad exhibit in the summer of 1997, he was hoping for a jump in attendance somewhere above the 7 percent or so annual rise he had been experiencing.

“We had 30,000 visitors that first summer,” says Meyer. “That was a 900 per cent increase over the same period the previous summer. Plus, we got 800 new memberships!”

There’s something almost primordial about the attraction of a model train chugging its way along tiny tracks. Add the pleasures and landscaping possibilities of the garden to the design, and you have an appeal that crosses generational as well as gender lines.

Originating primarily in Britain more than a century ago, garden rail roading as a hobby grew quietly during the 1920s and 1930s, but then died out until the 1960s, when the German manufacturer LGB began producing large “G-scale” trains that could withstand the elements of the outdoors. The trains were rugged, and all of the more fragile gears and motor parts were encapsulated to keep the dirt away. After awhile, articles on the potential of these trains in outdoor environments began to appear in model train magazines. Charles Small, a noted railroad author, wrote about the outdoor use of LGB trains for Model Railroader in the mid 1970s. The flame was kindled. Today, more than a dozen toy companies manufacture these “G-scale” garden trains. (See the box on p. 56 for manufacturer information.)

Who’s on Board?

While the model railroad part of garden railroading is a $200-million-a-year activity involving some 200,000 enthusiasts, garden railroading officially has about $8,000 members spread over about 100 garden train clubs nationally. “That 38,000 is doubling approximately every five years,” says Randy Kennie, president of the Garden Train Association and national sales manager for Bachmann.

One of the reasons for that growth, believes Kennie, is that the hobby isn’t just for gardeners or people who like trains. It’s for the whole family. Family members who may be into electrical things, carpentry or machines can apply those interests to a backyard garden railroad. “Research currently points to young families crossing over generations, with everyone involved in making decisions about how to build and how to add to the garden railroad as time goes on,” says Kennie.

Once a display is up and running, an added bonus is the media coverage powered by the garden railroad, especially from television, according to Kate Sullivan, director of for the Morris Arboretum. “Television loves the motion, the sound and sight of happy, smiling kids running and chasing after the trains,” says Sullivan. “The coverage put us on the map and helped boost our attendance.”

Busse believes garden railroad displays can bring both an educational and historical dimension to a park, playground or recreational center as well as attract other enthusiasts. “Rock garden enthusiasts, miniature tree enthusiasts in addition to gardeners, horticultural hobbyists and model railroaders are all attracted to these displays,” he notes.

David Koester, Campbell County’s extension agent for horticulture, has found the garden railroad to be an excellent marketing tool attracting parents and children. “We have a three-acre garden that’s open to the public from sun up to sundown all year-round,” says Koester. “With just two trains and one building, we’re estimating we’ve already doubled the number of visitors to the park.”

Campbell County’s only discordant note to date has to do with security. The one building–a replica of a local one-room school house–has been stolen by vandals. But that one act hasn’t dampened Koester’s enthusiasm for the exhibit. He’s planning on adding protection for the trains themselves first. “We can keep the trains safely stored in a secure building area,” he explains, “and then install a motion detector, which will then operate the trains whenever visitors are present.”

Engineering an Attraction

Assuming you can address the security issues at your park or recreational area, what’s the best way to get started in building your own garden railroad exhibit?

Robert Logan, associate vice president for audience development for the New York Botanical Gardens, suggests building your garden railroad exhibit around a theme. By adding a holiday theme garden railroad exhibit, Logan has seen an increase in visitors from 17,000 annually to more than 100,000 since Busse built the first display in 1992. “The idea is to choose a theme for your exhibit that you can then build into an event,” says Logan. “You want people telling you, `We come every year; we wouldn’t miss it.'”

So if your community has a particular period of its history commemorated on an annual basis, or an annual parade for Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, then a garden railroad depicted with buildings and other industrial scenes replicating those in your community at that period of history can certainly become a featured attraction for that annual parade. And if that parade or other celebration has been sagging of late, or is in danger of being canceled for organizational or budgetary reasons, the garden railroad may just prove to be the right project to reinvigorate the community and that celebration.

“A garden railroad exhibit would be a lot easier to mount and to manage compared to a street parade,” says Marc Horovitz, editor of Garden Railways magazine. (See the box on the next page for more ideas on how to launch an exhibit.)

Future plans for the Campbell County garden, for example, call for adding replicas of a nearby historical bridge and the county courthouse. That would make the exhibit a central feature of any historical celebration the community currently conducts or may contemplate in the future.

Deciding that a garden railroad exhibit is a good idea is the easy part. The hard part is finding the resources, especially the money. A professionally mounted exhibit isn’t cheap, but it can be designed to fit most any budget.

“We built the Campbell County exhibit for $5,000 of state money,” says Busse. “We proposed the exhibit as an educational project. It was small, 12′ x 20′, but did have two trains and a waterfall and creek. The education angle came from using Kentucky-grown and -manufactured products. For example, the cedar slabs we used came from a local lumber mill.”

Koester adds that assembling a work crew of volunteers can help reduce costs and get the project up and running more quickly. “We were up and running in just two days, thanks to volunteers,” he notes.

Although Busse now designs and builds exhibits that carry hefty annual budgets of approach $100,000 or more, he says a garden railroad is the kind of project that can start small but grow as time and money allow. “I began the exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens with a $15,000 budget in 1992,” says Busse. “We had four trains and 15 buildings when it debuted.” Today, the exhibit has grown across two galleries of the conservatory, covers 5,000 square feet, and features 10 trains, more than 100 buildings and a $96,000 annual budget.

Busse’s exhibit at the Chicago Botanical Gardens is the first one to charge a specific admission to see the garden railroad. “It’s about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet,” he says. “You walk under two trestled bridges, through two tunnels and view a total of 12 trains. We began in 1998 with 25 buildings, which have increased to over 60 today.”

Busse constructs everything from scratch, using native materials for all buildings and structures. Twigs, bark, leaves, pine cones, various pods and lichen wind up looking exactly like stone, cedar shake or window panes, as Busse turns nature’s scraps into authentic replicas of local historical or noteworthy buildings.

In New York, Busse built a rendering of the Guggenheim Museum. In Chicago, he replicated the skyline, including the Sears Tower. At the Morris Arboretum outside Philadelphia, he constructed many Independence-era colonial buildings, including the Betsy Ross House and Congress Hall. Busse is in the proposal stages for a garden train for the Hamilton County Parks System, which surrounds the Cincinnati area.

Uppermost on his mind, especially in light of the Campbell County incident, will be security. “The buildings will be at risk for theft unless secured,” Busse realizes. “The more attractive and detailed, the more secure it should be. Intimacy between exhibit and visitor is an important component of design, though,” he adds, emphasizing that security should not be overdone.

This year, perhaps, the clackety-clack of the rails and that lonesome train whistle may be just the ticket to get your public parks back on track.


Since the end of the 1960s, the American model train market has been served by a number of world-wide and world-renowned manufacturers. A select listing includes:

Aristo-Craft Trains, Irvington, N.J. 973-351-9800 or

Bachmann Trains US, Philadelphia, Pa. 215-533-1600 or www.bachmann

Hartland Locomotive Works (HLW), Laporte, Ind. 219-362-8411 or

LGB America, San Diego, Calif. 858-535-9387 or

Marklin, Inc., New Berlin, Wis. 262-784-8854 or

MTH Electric Trains, Columbia Md. 410-381-2580 or


Garden Railways magazine began publication in 1984. It now has a circulation of around 35,000 worldwide. While covering the entire field of garden railroading, the publication stresses the importance of integrating the railway with a garden to achieve a railway-like atmosphere. It’s the only model-train magazine that has regular gardening articles and its own garden editor. For more information, see

For information about the Garden Train Association, see


Marc Horovitz, editor of Garden Railways magazine, offers a video that takes you through the process of constructing a garden railroad. Some key points to consider:

* Clear the site and create an accurate site drawing. Include dimensions slope and other physical features.

* Design a track plan knowing what sort of railway you want–freight, passenger or both–and from what era. If your site is fiat, consider a mountain to give it some depth. The size of your site will also determine track size and radius. Keep the loop simple to avoid getting into a wiring morass.

* Draw your track plan on the ground where it will lay and note the center points of the curves. Cut and fill so that the track lays level with the ground; build a retaining wall to hold the fill in place.

* Track can make or break a railway. LGB flextrack is recommended with a railbender tool to ensure a smooth result. Closing the loop will generally require a non-standard piece of track to be cut and fitted.

* Ballast–finely crushed rock–provides a good, solid base for the track, keeps the track away from the soil and provides good drainage. Dig a one- to two-inch trench along the roadbed to accept and retain the ballast, and then tamper with a 4′ x 4′. Tamping is extremely important for the ballast to settle properly.

* The key to wiring the track is maintaining electrical continuity across the joints either by soldering “jumper” wires across each joint, or soldering the joint up solid. “Jumper” wires are recommended when the ground is subject to frost heave.

* As far as plants are concerned, keep the smallest and most in-scale plants nearer the track. Taller plants and miniature trees can be relegated to the mountainside (if you build one).

* Consider building a concrete foundation to provide an authentic look to the structures, by securing them firmly and perpendicularly to the ground.

* Trim and prune as your garden railroad grows naturally.

For a detailed videotape on how to build a garden railroad, visit the “Garden Railways” store at

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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