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Visit a garden-railway display at a nature center

By Maurice Snook | June 7, 2021

This three-day event attracted families and kids of all ages to watch trains run outdoors

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A family watches a large-scale train display
Pieces of wood to build a toy train for kids

In addition to the train display, the author prepared 85 wooden engine sets for kids, so they could make their own engine to take home. These engines were offered, one to a family, with a suggested donation to the Nature Center. Photo by Maurice Snook

Pieces of wood to build a toy train for kids
Wooden train for kids

I designed a basic engine body, and could cut 8 one-foot-long bodies from one 2” x 4” x 8’.  A band saw cut the engine body shapes and dowel rods were used to make headlights (1” x 1/2” dia.), smokestacks (2” x 3/4” dia.), axles (2-1/2” x 5/16” dia.), sand/steam domes (1-1/2” x 1” dia.) and wheels. I ordered 2-1/2” dia. dowel rods online and cut more than 80 wheels from one 3’ dowel. For the sand/steam domes, a 1” dowel was rounded on the end with a belt sander. 

 

I needed 510 large driver wheels and 170 1-1/4” dia. wheels for the front trucks.  A 1-1/2”x6-3/4” x 3/4” block was glued to the bottom of each engine to raise the wheels and engine body to a reasonable height. Another block (1-1/2” x 1-1/2” x 1-1/4”) was added for the front truck wheels. I made a special jig to hold the cut wheels on the drill press for drilling the axle holes.  When clamped in the proper place on the drill press bed, the “V”-shape notch jig formed by the two pieces of wood insured a quick placement of the wheel for drilling. The small bells were from Michaels Arts & Crafts. Photo by Maurice Snook

Wooden train for kids
People at a table, building wooden trains

Kids, with help from adults, enjoy assembling the wooden train kits. Photo by Maurice Snook

People at a table, building wooden trains
 Kids and adults watch a large-scale train display

Folks of all ages enjoyed watching the trains. Photo by Maurice Snook

 Kids and adults watch a large-scale train display
A model mill with water wheel near a small pond.

One garden had a small in-ground pond, so the author added a mill and water wheel near the water’s edge. A small water pump and short sluice turned the wheel. Photo by Maurice Snook

A model mill with water wheel near a small pond.
Kids and adults watch a large-scale train display

Some structures and accessories make a temporary display much more interesting. Photo by Maurice Snook

Kids and adults watch a large-scale train display
Three children watch a large-scale train display

This display featured a bridge and, toward the back, a row of city structures. Photo by Maurice Snook

Three children watch a large-scale train display
A family watches a large-scale train display

A family waits for an engine to approach the saw mill/lumber yard complex. Photo by Maurice Snook

A family watches a large-scale train display
A family watches a large-scale train display

After the engine crosses the bridge, it will briefly “disappear” behind the shrubbery, making the scene more interesting when it reappears elsewhere. Photo by Maurice Snook

A family watches a large-scale train display

For many years I have been a volunteer at our local nature center (Sandy Creek Nature Center of Athens-Clarke Co., GA). It occurred to me that their circular flower and nature gardens would be a perfect setting for a garden railroad. I approached personnel at the center, and they were enthusiastic, as it would create good publicity for the nature center.

Over three weeks the following spring, I laid track in four of their flower/nature gardens, each measuring about 25 feet in diameter and having a bark mulch “roadbed.” I placed the track directly on the mulch, sprinkled gravel over the track, brushed it in, then leveled the track.

The hardest part was figuring out which size curve and straight track would fit together, as I only had Aristo-Craft sectional track of 8-, 10-, and 15-foot radius, and 1-, 2-, and 5-foot straight track sections. Although it was sectional track, over the 25’ diameter of the gardens there was enough flexibility to make the ends meet. In two of the gardens, I added sidings. Although the trains only ran in a circle in each garden, there were enough plants, buildings, and bridges to remain interesting for viewers.

In one garden, I ran a Bachmann Ladybug Eggliner, which generated quite a bit of interest both from children and parents. One garden had a small in-ground pond and a mill and water wheel were set on its edge. A small water pump and short sluice turned the wheel.

In addition to the trains, I prepared 85 wooden engine sets for kids, so they could make their own engine to take home. These engines were offered, one per family, for a suggested donation to the Nature Center. There was quite a crowd in the engine making tent with constant tap, tap, tapping as the kids inserted the axle dowels into the wheels and assembled the headlights and smokestacks.

As many garden railroaders know, kids were particularly fascinated with the trains and constantly followed them. Two area libraries asked me about setting up the trains at their locations. Although it would be on a reduced scale, I am looking into that. Other garden railroaders might investigate local nature centers and check out their grounds as a possible venue for displaying our great hobby. Even a simple oval or circle of track will capture the attention of any youngster or adult who passes by.

Note: If you’d like to visit a garden-railway display, please see a list of ones that are open to the public: https://www.trains.com/grw/beginners/permanent-garden-railroads-you-can-visit/

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