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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
New Boston and Donnels Creek:

Report: Christmas Train Day, 2013

This is a follow-up to our article on preparing for this year's November open railroad. It was our sixth. It was also the first in which the NMRA dropped their support, but we were busy enough without it. My apologies to folks who were looking for the NMRA open railroad tour sheets at the Dayton Train Show this fall - they weren't published, due to lack of support from other railroaders in the club. (Five others did sign up - thanks for making the effort, guys - but the folks in charge of printing up the sheets didn't think it would be cost-effective to list just six railroads.)

So the morning of "Christmas Train Day," we:

  • Wheeled our popcorn popper outside and started popping corn

  • Finished setting out the little people

  • Set out and tested the kids' trains, including:

    • A raised loop that the Lionel Thomas and James Large Scale trains run on
    • A vintage Playskool Express that little kids can start and stop by hitting a button on the top
    • A battery-powered remote-controled Lionel Polar Express train that runs on plastic G gauge track
    • A battery-powered remote-controled Lionel Santa Fe train that runs on plastic G gauge track

  • Set and started an AristoCraft passenger train on the upper loop of the permanent railroad, including an 0-4-0 with sound tender and two "Sierra" coaches with lighting and glued-in passengers.

  • Set and started a vintage Lionel Large Scale passenger train on the lower loop, including a Christmas-colored 0-4-0 and two coaches from the Thunder Mountain set.

  • Set up the projector in case it got dark enough to show train movies before it got too cold to sit outside

  • Set out the cookies that Shelia had baked

  • Lit the lights

  • Started the music (cheerful Christmas music for the railroad and nostalgic Christmas music for the driveway)

  • Put out the signs.

I selected the trains I did for the permanent railroad because we'd be running trains after dark and a lighted passenger train is much more fun to watch. I also selected shorty locomotives and coaches because they're more reliable for unattended running, especially in weather extremes.

If You Build It (And Word Gets Around) People Will Come

Friends and relatives made this open railroad as busy as the ones that the NMRA has promoted. So while I feel bad for the people who would have come given the chance, I don't know how we would have handled many more visitors than we got.

Several families whom we know through Shelia's preschool teaching stopped by, so we had a higher percentage of 2- to 4-year olds than we would ordinarily get. This is where it helped to have a Thomas or James running non-stop on one track, and three age-appropriate trains the little ones could run themselves. Of course, that means we needed adult supervision times four just for the kids. That's why I always choose trains that can run unattended for the permanent railroad.

We got many wide eyes and shouts of glee. Along with a few "pokey fingers," but nothing a dab of glue couldn't fix.

A youngster playing with the vintage PlaySkool train set, Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo. Youngsters playing with the Polar Express Set, Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo.

Shelia was disappointed that I didn't have the AristoCraft Eggliner running - that's her favorite "Christmas train." Unfortunately, I had buried it somewhere digging out the trains I chose to run. Next time, I promise.

Most of the little kids were gone by the time it started to get dark, but the families who stayed to see the lights were glad they did. Several people said it was like a little "Clifton Mill" without the crowds, naming a popular local Christmas attraction that features - among other things - an outdoor railroad, model buildings, over a million lights, and really long lines.

What Could have Worked Better

Last month I ran new power lines to a section of the track that is always problematic for some reason. That worked. But it's not an open railroad unless something that worked fine the day before stops working for no apparent reason.

My floodlight system, which illuminates the towns and other points of interest, usually works fine. About an hour before sundown, I noticed that is wasn't working, even though it was turned on (it's controlled by a switch, not a sensor or timer). I only had about five minutes to troubleshoot between waves of visitors, and I could not figure out what the problem was. Then, about ten minutes before sundown, they came on, and they've worked right ever since.

The lighting in two of my houses did not work. I had no time to investigate, so I let them go. It turns out that the wires for one has gotten knocked loose, and the light bulb in the other one had burnt out.

A couple of my locomotives started to get "tired" when the weather turned cool, but I had other locomotives onhand to replace them.

One of the Lionel "Thunder Mountain" coaches didn't light. I haven't pulled it apart yet to see if the lamp is blown.

At one point we threw a circuit-breaker (due to "old house wiring," everything in the back yard is on on 15-amp circuit). When Molly flipped the circuit-breaker back on, I forgot to restart the music, so a number of visitors didn't get the "full effect," until I realized what was missing and started it up again. By the way, replacing most of my light strands with LED strands has helped with that problem. Now that I think about it, the only thing "new" was a big chain of rope lights that I put down to show where the edge of the railroad was, so fewer little figures and accessories would hopefully get trampled by little feet after dark. These were pre-LED rope lights that I got from Big Lots at 80% off some years back and haven't used until now, so maybe they added some "drain."

All told, all of these were minor distractions that the average visitor wouldn't even have noticed - nothing like the obese cat that jumped into a bridge during our June open house and broke a piece of track on the mainline. If we were Clifton Mill or some similar full-time gig, I could easily have fixed all of those problems the next morning. But if course, something else would go wrong the day after that. If everything worked right all of the time, it wouldn't be a garden railroad.

What Worked Well

All the kids' trains ran fine. This is the fifth year for the vintage PlaySkool set and the third year we've let kids run the battery-powered Lionel Polar Express and Santa Fe trains (under adult supervision, of course), and they continued to work great.

A youngster playing with the vintage PlaySkool train set, Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo. Youngsters playing with the Polar Express Set, Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo.

The tree and town lighting was spectacular.

Long view of New Boston after dark, Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo. Passenger train after dark, Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo.

I used a "new" (used) amplifier and CD player to run the sound, and it ran great. The $40-ish Auvio 3-way speakers that I bought from Radio Shack three years ago and fastened under a shelf on the privacy fence still worked fine.

The popcorn popper worked great the whole time.

Everyone who visited was nice, and we had a lovely time entertaining them.

Closing Down

We started the movie (Buster Keaton's The General as soon as it started to get dark, but it had gotten cool in the meantime and no one stuck around.

We put up the trains, turned off the floodlights and some of the other lights that were controlled by switches, and brought in the projector, the remaining cookies, and the popcorn popper . Then we collapsed. The next day we emptied the trash cans and put the tables and folding chairs away.

Of course I realized later than I had hardly taken any photos - when you're this busy you don't think about it like you should. On the other hand, it snowed two days later, and I got a couple snapshots with the buildings lit and an eighth of an inch of snow on them.

New Boston, two days after Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo.
New Boston, two days after Christmas Train Day, 2013.  Click for a bigger photo.


A couple weeks later, we were going to have several family members in, so, with the help of our daughters, we pulled off a fresh layer of leaves and shined the track up again. Once again, everything worked as it should, thankfully. We'll leave everything up until Christmas week because several friends' grandchildren will be in town then. So, weather permitting, we may have at least one more run before it's time to put up everything we can put up.

Thanks to all who helped, especially our family. As George Peppard used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

If you ever think you might be coming near Springfield, Ohio, let us know and if there's any danger of us getting trains on the track for you, we'll let you know.

In the meantime, enjoy your hobbies, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family in the coming season.


Snow on December 7, 2013.  Click for bigger photo.P.S. A few days after Thanksgiving, it snowed again, a bit heavier. You don't ordinarily want to leave your buildings and little people out in the snow. Yes, there are little people on the sidewalks, but you have to admit it makes a pretty photo. Here's an odd thing. The circuit that lights the building interiors on Donnels Creek stopped working when it snowed - maybe it shorted out. But it makes a pretty photo anyway, don't you think?

New Boston under a few inches of snow on December 7, 2013.  Click for bigger photo.

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