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What my garden railroad taught me

By Rod Eaton | September 13, 2022

Four lessons learned from The Hitchcock Railroad

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two children watching a model train on a garden railway

What my garden railroad taught me: Our first garden line, The Johnsville & Cripple Creek, was complete – as these things go. We moved. I looked forward to starting over. Construction on the Hitchcock Railway began a few months after moving in – and continued for more than 10 years. When NMRA National Convention visitors arrived in 1999 the railroad was barely half finished.

In 2009 I received my Golden Spike Award – the Hitchcock Railway was complete. Over the next several years I built additional rolling stock, added structures, and expanded the forests. There was always work to be done – including a total replacement of wood ties with plastic ones. By the summer of 2017 maintenance was becoming burdensome.

We made the decision to host our last open house before removing tons of concrete, wire mesh, and wood. There were lots of pictures taken, goodbyes said, and a few tears shed. Just days later a Bobcat arrived, and in three hours 20 years of effort was removed. The garden railway was gone – but a lot remained.

What did I gain from garden railroading?

Enjoy the journey. For me, garden railroading was always about the journey. I drove thousands of tiny spikes into redwood ties. I mixed, applied, and sculpted concrete mountains until it was too dark to work. I planted and pruned. People would tell me they didn’t have the patience to do what I was doing. Completion was never the goal. I loved the doing. I was creating a miniature world.

Share the hobby with others. Early in the construction process, people walking the path behind our house asked when trains would run. As soon as we could, Pat and I started a tradition of operating for the public every Sunday afternoon in June, July, and August. Over the next 12 years more than 15,000 people visited the Hitchcock Railway. Seeing the delight in children’s faces as my engines huffed around the layout, whistles and bells signaling their presence as they emerged from tunnels or rounded a curve, never grew old. I answered the same questions every Sunday. I was never impatient. I rerailed cars pushed over by inquisitive fingers. I never admonished. I was pleased when someone discovered the eagle in a tree, giggled at the goat eating dynamite, or marveled at the erupting geyser. It never became tiresome to hear someone say the railway was amazing.

Encourage kids to participate. Every Sunday we’d set out a pile of Model Railroader We encouraged children to take one – we’d tell parents kids would enjoy looking at the pictures even if they couldn’t read the articles. We hoped we might kindle the spark of model railroading. And I think, for some, we were successful.

Find joy in what others experience. I built my railroad for my own gratification, but I learned that operating it for others provided the greatest rewards. Without intending to, I had made a railroad that was perfect for others to enjoy. Two trains could run for a couple hours with little monitoring or attention. I was able to interact with our visitors – with only modest interruptions to attend to railroad business. The layout wasn’t especially large, but the track looped around, passing over itself in a convoluted fashion. It was difficult to take it all in at once – trains disappeared and reappeared in a seemingly random pattern. People could move all around the railroad and watch trains from many vantage points. They delighted in discovering scenes and details on their own. Building and operating the Hitchcock Railway gave me great satisfaction. I’m very proud of what I accomplished – and the joy it gave to others.

It was difficult to watch the Bobcat rip out huge bites of mountains, trees, track, and bridges. But I have hundreds of photographs – some collected into a book – to aid in remembering the Hitchcock’s glory days. People still tell me how much they enjoyed seeing the trains run, and how their children remember visiting “The Train Man.”

Related reading:

Kid-friendly garden railroading

More kid-friendly garden railroading

How to host an open house

Bobcat with man nearby and piles of debris

What my garden railroad taught me: After 20 years, the author dismantled his garden railroad. Photo by Rod Eaton

Bobcat with man nearby and piles of debris
Girl reaches out to touch piece of model rolling stock
For many years, the Eatons opened their railroad to the public on Sunday afternoons during the summer. Children loved to visit. Photo by Rod Eaton
Girl reaches out to touch piece of model rolling stock
Boy watches model train on a garden railroad

The author found joy in seeing others experience his garden railway. Photo by Rod Eaton

Boy watches model train on a garden railroad
model goat chewing on stick of dynamite
The author had many scenes on the railway that visitors could find and enjoy, like this goat. Photo by Rod Eaton
model goat chewing on stick of dynamite
What my garden railroad taught me: group of people watching model trains

The author is proud of the joy he brought to others for so many years. Photo by Rod Eaton

What my garden railroad taught me: group of people watching model trains
two children watching a model train on a garden railway

Nothing warmed the author’s heart more than seeing the railway through children’s eyes. Photo by Rod Eaton

two children watching a model train on a garden railway
a man with a large-scale train on track
 
a man with a large-scale train on track

4 thoughts on “What my garden railroad taught me

  1. Congratulations on a great story. What a great idea handing out old magazines to kids. I might try that at my next show.
    A pity about having to dismantle the railroad but I know where you are coming from. I’m contemplating scaling mine back to make it easier to maintain in my older years.
    Cheers
    RobMW
    Addleoo Bush Tramway.

  2. It’s never easy to dismantle something you have worked on for so many years and gave so much pleasure and enjoyment not only for yourself but for the countless number of folks who came every Sunday during the summer months who enjoyed watching the trains run but you may have sparked a new generation of model railroaders to build their own empire and that in itself is the memory and legacy you can be proud of that you passed on Speaking for myself I have moved to theee different locations in the past 13 years. 3 different layouts and now a new one in my apartment in a spare closet in Florida. The spirit and ambition to build anew and again never dies or grows old. Joseph C Markfelder

  3. It’s never easy to dismantle something you have worked on for so many years and gave so much pleasure and enjoyment not only for yourself but for the countless number of folks who came every Sunday during the summer months who enjoyed watching the trains run but you may have sparked a new generation of model railroaders to build their own empire and that in itself is the memory and legacy you can be proud of that you passed on Speaking for myself I have moved to three different locations in the past 13 years. 3 different layouts and now a new one in my apartment in a spare closet in Florida. The spirit and ambition to build anew and again never dies or grows old. Joseph C Markfelder

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