|Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)
and New Boston and Donnels Creek:
Christmas Train Day Report: Our Fifth Christmas-Themed Open RailroadRunning trains outside in November for visitors is now a five-year tradition. It started when the NMRA asked at least one garden railroader in the greater Dayton area to have an "open railroad" the week after the big NMRA train show every fall. So far, no one else in the club has been brave enough to do it (actually, the phrase that comes up is "crazy enough"). So it has become a Race family tradition. Every year, the event is a little bigger than it was before. And except for 2011, when the wrong date was published in the NMRA schedule, we've had more visitors every year than we had the year before.
Most of my friends in the regional clubs have their "open railroads" in the early fall, when they've had all summer to prepare. But preparing for a cold-weather "open railroad" is different. For one thing, you can't have your little people out when the leaves are falling, unless you want to pick them up with the leaves like the wheat with the tares. And I'll be honest - I'm a sucker for Christmas (that explains our Christmas sites FamilyChristmasOnline.com, CardboardChristmas.com, BigChristmasTrains.com, and OldChristmasTreeLights.com). Having the "open railroad" this late in the year gives me an excuse to decorate dozens of little trees for Christmas, play Christmas music outside, run trains with red-and-green paint jobs, fire up the popcorn popper, and so on.
Every year I think I'll have more time to get things ready, but every new year brings its own issues. The good news is 2012 has been a pretty good year. But it has also been a very busy year, which means that, once again I didn't get everything done on my garden railroad that I would have liked. Still, we got most of it done, and that was a lot.
In other years, the long-term preparations have involved a lot of right-of-way preparation, as well as rehabbing structures and other hard-core maintenance. This year, the right-of-way preparation was less, but we still had the ongoing weeding and building maintenance issues - issues that affect anyone having an open railroad, no matter what time of year they plan it.
Weeding and ROW ClearingPeople who run battery and remote control trains like to brag about how much time they "save" by not having to clean the track. Based on my experience, that probably saves them two or three hours a summer. Because they spend just as much time weeding and cutting back groundcovers that have overgrown the track as I do.
The concrete and 2x6s that I have now placed under about 2/3 of my trackage help keep the weed problem way down on much of the right-of-way. Unfortunately, frost heave and other shifting have made some parts of the roadbed a little bumpy. These are problems I can usually fix with extra ballast, but it's a little self-defeating to throw a lot of ballast on your railroad right before winter. Most of my Christmas locomotives are short enough to handle the rough trackage anyway.
I gave the railroad a pretty thorough weeding in late September, but due to finally getting some rainfall, it needed another one by late October. Then, a brief but wonderful warm spell brought out another batch of weeds. So my railroad was not as weed-free or grass-free as I would have wanted it, but at least I could run trains. Short trains, that is.
Train PrepAfter I had the weeding and ground-cover trimming done (maybe a 20-hour job), I cleaned the rails (a 1-hour job), hooked up power, and tested the locomotives I planned to use.
If you're wondering why I have so many Christmas-themed locomotives it's because I used to loan them out to friends and clubs for Christmas railroads or displays. If you're wondering why I need so many locomotives for an open railroad in which I'll never run more than three track-powered locomotives at once, its because Murphy's law goes into overdrive as soon as you have people over. Dumb accidents, equipment failures, and the normal wear and tear that comes from running a train eight hours straight. Plus, as the weather cools down, the lubricants in the locomotives get stiffer, causing moreresistance. So some locomotives that work fine when it's 60F strain to pull their own weight when it's 45F or cooler.
"Testing" consisted of letting the locomotives run around the track while I was working on other things, like leaf removal. My first-team trains all performed without a hitch. Well, almost without a hitch. Because of the cool-weather issues, I let each of the locomotives run for a bit without pulling anything until they had "warmed up" and would pull trains the way they "should." Once the locos had "warmed up," they could all pull a short consist.
Landscape LightingI've been experimenting with little LED spotlights, sold two and three years ago by Walmart as "Brinkman" brand. Sadly, they never caught on - possibly due to the fact that the wiring system is a bit more complicated than standard 12-volt garden lighting systems. But I like their brightness and low power usage. Last year and this summer, I figured out the best places to put them where they can light important scenes or corners without being too obvious. Unfortunately, people have been known to walk on them, and at least two had the stakes broken off. Still, I was able to arrange the remaining ones to cover everything I wanted to cover.
I also added a bunch of those tiny solar lights that use the 2/3AA batteries and sell for $1 - $2. Often I use them like street lights near buildings. They don't cast that much light, but they help a little, plus they brighten things up. (Note: Now that it's December, I have found that the ones I bought this year stay lit about half as long as the ones I bought last year. For a railroad that shuts down after an hour and a half of darkness, that's not a problem. But if I was going later in the evening as some folks do, it could mean darkness in places you expected to have light.)
Seasonal LightingFor "Christmas Train Day" I also put LED Christmas light strands on all but three of the trees on and around my railroad - multi-colored for the trees on the railroad, blue for the trees behind it. This year I discovered that three of the brand new Phillips blue LED strands I bought last year had failed - one had given out completely, and two had given out half-way. The similar off-brand strands I bought at Big Lots are doing fine, however.
On the other hand, last year, I got a lot of compliments on the two Phillips "twinkling" LED light strands I used. So this year I bought a few more. (Warning: they're not cheap.) I realize that having a couple dozen or so bulbs blinking on and off over a 14x60' railroad doesn't seem that impressive, but it's more useful than you might think. On the upper loop, the train "goes away" and comes back a couple minutes later, so there's nothing to "watch" during that wait. But with the Christmas music playing, the twinkle lights create a sort of mini-light show that helps keep people's focused on the railroad, examining the towns and figures, etc., until the train comes back.
BuildingsIf you've been following our web pages, you know that my buildings are a mix of kits and trashbashed buildings that I converted from toys back in the 1980s when you couldn't get US-looking buildings.
Most of my trashbashed storefronts that I rehabilitated a few years back are still somewhat useful, and they had lighting installed already, so I used them again, probably the last year for a few of them until they're completely disassembled and rebuilt.
The three Piko storefronts I bought from a friend in 2009 were still intact, although my friend's dependence on the Piko's factory paint job is showing in the fact that they've become discolored. I didn't have time to repaint them, but I figured they'd last one more season as well. For the history of those buldings and notes on the 2009 rehabilitation and lighting of my trashbashed storefronts, click here.
Since I planned to expand the number of kids' railroads and wanted buildings for them, too, I started another batch of "trashbashed" buildings. That process, still not quite complete, is described in our article "Trashbashing Step By Step". By the time I needed to stop working on buildings and start working on the right-of-way, I had four building fronts mostly done:
I printed curtains for these, but I didn't have time to install lighting in the new buildings. So I used the curtains in the storefronts that already had lighting installed. Those curtains, printed on "vellum" and paper, had disintegrated. These curtains are printed on overhead projector film, so we'll see how well the plastic-only "curtains" hold up.
One addition that made it onto the railroad at the "last minute" is a toy log cabin I got cheap a year or so ago and just barely had time to spraypaint with gray and brown primer. I've had other buildings at the top of the waterfall, but this one seems to fit better, even though some detailing remains to do.
A Last Minute Name ChangeThe Sunday before the open house, I wanted to pass out some invitation cards at church. In the past, we've called this an "Open House," an "Open Railroad," and other variations on that theme. But the truth is, when I use terms like that, I find myself explaining to people, first, what a garden railroad is, second, what an "open railroad" is, and third, that we'll have Christmas lights, Christmas music, kids' trains, snacks, and other family activities. So this year, I changed the name of the event to "Christmas Train Day," added some details in the "fine print," and handed it out the cards that way. Though I doubt very much that this brought anyone else to our door, I think I'll keep the name as it requires so much less explanation than anything else I've tried.
Building LightingTo light my buildings, I used the same Malibu power supplies I used last year, one on the north end of the railroad, and one on the south end. (See our article "Lighting Buildings with Low Voltage Garden Lighting" for more information.)
BIG Christmas VillagesI have to admit it's a bit more challenge to set out, light, and populate four or five communities outside than it is to set your Dept. 56 buildings and accessories inside. But it's so much more fun to see outdoor communities come alive surrounded by lit live evergreens and trains running every which way around them.
Several of the buildings were still lit from last summer, and four of the stations were still lit since last winter. The wedge bulb underneath the "Fort Tecumseh General Store" (to the right) had gone out, but it just needed replaced. The old Western storefronts had lighting installed but needed to be hooked up again, which involved running wires between the storefront/streetlamp wires on each building to the wiring connected to the old Malibu power supply. Sadly, one of the buildings had a short in it, and I didn't have time to troubleshoot it, so I left it stay dark. The spotlight would be shining on the front of it regardless.
Similarly, two of New Boston's '20s storefronts (right) wouldn't light. During the day, or with all the other lights on you could hardly tell, though, so I let that go to work on more important things. These buildings need a serious rehab anyway, so the lighting systems will get another look then.
Finally, I didn't light any buildings on any of the kids' railroads. Several of the buildings could have been lit, but I was running low on time, and I'm not crazy about having too much electrical stuff around kids anyway (hence the battery trains described below).
Cleanup on Aisle TwelveSo far autumn had been pretty nice to me - nice in the sense that it got cold early so that most of the leaves fell a couple weeks before Christmas Train Day, and I had time to get the yards more-or-less cleared of leaves. But a few days before the big day, we had a storm from the north that blew what seemed like all of the remaining leaves in the county onto the north end of the railroad. I spent several hours just getting a foot-high pile of leaves back off of the railroad, then testing the trains and track once again. Still, that's not as bad as one year, when we were still raking huge piles of leaves the day of the event.
Kids TrainsOur first "kids train" ever was an elevated loop that we built for a clinic in 2007, with the plan of running Thomas or James for the kids. It's been so useful and so popular with visitors of all ages, that we just finished a new article that explains how to build your own.
The first year we used it in our open railroad, it was sitting too far from the light for the kids to see after dark. So recently we've been bringing it close to the house and garage. Unfortunately, the ground slopes a bit, so, with the help of my daughters Emily and Molly, we raised the lower end by setting it on scrap boards. Emily then tacked a strand of lights around it - they don't really help you see Thomas better after dark, but they decrease the chance of someone walking into the railroad.
By the way, Thomas and James both run fine on the permanent garden railroad, and we've run them there in the past, when there were kids over and this loop wasn't set up. But many kids seem to appreciate having Thomas closer to their "eye level." Plus if they feel the need to "crowd" Thomas, or to chase him around the track, they're not kicking down buildings, lights, and little people like they tend to do when Thomas is running on the permanent railroad.
The Playskool children's train we've been using all along went onto the house's back deck/porch as it always has. This one is ideal for toddlers (under supervision), as they can start it by whacking it on the top. Playskool reissued it for one year about ten years ago, but it's been virtually unavailable for the past twenty years. It's the best "little kids'" train ever, so if one comes your way, don't let it go.
We also put the Lionel "G Gauge" Polar Express toy train on the wellcover again, as we had last year. Kids old enough to use the remote love to use it - in fact one little boy's dad dragged him away kicking and screaming last year, which we counted as a success. As I discussed in our article "Lionel's Toy 'G' Trains" these are undersized toys, not models, but they are sturdy enough for kids to play with and they do run on 45mm track, just like real garden trains. We didn't use brass track, though. Actually all of the track we used for this train and the one just below was actually Bachmann plastic track, left over from the first battery-powered Bachmann "Big Hauler" trains we bought in the 1980s.
Since the kids were having to wait a long time for a turn at the Polar Express last year, we added a third trains for kids to run - another Lionel train that we got on closeout two years ago. We cleaned off the pool deck and built a temporary "fence" to keep kids from falling onto the pool cover. Then we put our other Lionel toy "G Gauge" train there. Although the locomotive and remote are almost exactly the same, it's painted for Santa Fe and represents a freight train.
Movie TimeTwo years ago, we showed Buster Keaton's The General after dark, using a low-powered projector and a 4'x4' painted piece of plywood leaning against a hedge. That wasn't ideal, but it worked. Last year, it was too cold to think about setting up anything that would keep folks there for long after dark. This year, though, it looked like the weather would be perfect - high close to 70F. So, once I had the trees lit, the leaves cleared, the buildings wired, and the track tested, I figured I had enough time to build a better screen.
This year I wanted to show Polar Express. As it turned out, our copy was "full-screen" so there was no point in building a wide screen to show it.
Using lumber I had bought for another purpose and never got around to using, I built a solid stand for my little 4'x4' "screen" and made certain the old projector was aligned, focused, and ready to go. Because any ambient lighting at all would make the picture seem washed out, I kept rotating the "screen" until I got it where it got the minimum ambient light. (With a brighter projector, this wouldn't be quite as big a problem.)
I set the projector on a milk carton and kept shimming it with sticks, etc., until I got a "perfect" projection on my little screen. I set the DVD player on another milk carton, hooked up the video line between them, and ran the audio output to a pair of high-end self-powered computer speakers. If you try this, make certain you buy your cables ahead of time, though, because your speaker system might not take the cables you think it should.
The morning of the event, my daughter Molly and her friend put an arc of little solar lights on one side of the "theatre" to indicate a "boundary." It's surprising how little things like that can "dress up" an area. Molly and I also took turns repainting the screen. Two years ago, I'd painted it light gray, as some folks had recommended, but I saw a more recent recommendation of using Sherwin William's white Duration paint. The formula he recommended was new, but we had a can that went back to 1999 and was as thick as paste, so it actually smoothed out some of the roughness in the plywood.
Food PreparationThough we were going to add grilled hot dogs, the big snack "star" of the show was still the theatre-style popcorn popper we bought two years ago. Shelia and the girls (including my sister Tess Hoffman, who came down to help) made a bunch of cookies as well.
Morning PreparationsIn the morning, Shelia made lemonade and supervised setting up the snack table. Daughters Emily and Molly set out all the little figures. I have more figures than I really need, since I purchased "extras" to set up displays outside the home, but they insisted on using all the ones available to them. That's one reason the street fair in New Boston is so well-attended. But nobody seemed to mind. LGB figures, Lifelike workers (no longer made), Lemax Christmas village figures, off brand figures. Lots and lots of "little people," as you can see in the photo below. Or click on it to see a larger version.
I got the trains on the track and got the sound tracks started (one from a hidden boom box by the driveway and one behind the railroad, using outdoor speakers and an old stereo amp that is protected from the weather).
Then I had to make a battery run. Three out of four of the kids' trains ran on C cells and we did not have enough. By the time we got back from Big Lots (yes, that's where I buy my alkalines), it was time to get things really going.
Two visitors who have been here before showed up a half hour early, but we were pretty much ready anyway. When time came to start officially, I put out the signs, and folks started coming.
Everyone but one fellow* was gracious and appreciative, and many had lots of questions about garden railroads, toy trains, and Christmas trains that we were glad to answer. Those who brought children or grandchildren appreciated that we had four trains for the kids which kept them more or less out of trouble while the adults visited and looked around.
VisitorsThere have been years when we went to this much effort, more or less, and had only 30 or so visitors. There have been years when the weather was so cold that the visitors who came didn't stay long. "Wow, your trains look great! We're going back to the car now."
This year the weather was perfect, and people kept coming. Seven visitors came from the greater Columbus area, having received a notice from their club leaders. Thirty or more new visitors came because they saw the event listed in handouts at the NMRA train show. Others were friends and friends of friends, many of whom brought their grandchildren.
By the time the night was over, we figure we had over a hundred visitors (they didn't all sign in). For me, the crazy part was after it had got quite dark and people were still coming. Shelia, Tess, and daughters Kristen, Emily, and Molly helped make certain we got a chance to say "Hi" to everybody, get each child a chance to drive an age-appropriate train, and answer questions. Shelia and Tess made certain the snacks kept coming as well. Thanks for all of the help, ladies! Thanks also to Molly's friend, also named Emily, whom we kept busy all day long as well.
And because the weather was so nice, many people stayed and visited and watched the trains for a long time. When twilight came, the "magic happened" just as I predicted, and plenty of folks who had been on the grounds for a while already made the tour again, to get the full effect. Compare this photo to the photo of the same area several screens up to see what I mean about the difference a bit of Christmas lighting can make at twilight.
Movie Screen Outcome
The last time we ran a movie like this outdoors, we had to bring out blankets for people to stay warm. This time the weather was much nicer. Though I didn't have time to pay attention to the film once it started, I was curious to see how well the new raised screen would work out.
I started the movie at twilight, though with the low lumen rating of the projector, you couldn't really see much until it was much darker. (Sort of like the first half-hour at the drive-ins, if you're old enough to remember those). Still, a few kids who had already been there quite a while, and had run all the trains and consumed lots of popcorn and cookies sat down to watch while their parents visited with other adults.
By the time it was nearly dark, one whole family was sitting down. We brought over chairs we had used elsewhere in the yard to make certain their was enough seating. How did our "built-from-leftovers" screen turn out? Great. By the time it was dark, the picture was bright. Though it would only compare, technically to a 60" 4:3 screen, the "full screen" format of the movie filled almost every inch, and was quite watchable. Having good speakers helped, too.
One family watched almost the whole thing, even though by the end, it was getting a little cold to sit still for that long.
That said, the premier of the "New Boston Bijou" was successful by any measure, and I'm already planning on doubling the screen size for future viewings. (I also have access to a brighter projector.)
We don't usually have many children onhand after dark. But this year, the weather was so nice and the "big people" were having such a good time that kids were still taking turns on the kids' trains well after dark.
I can't guarantee that "a good time was had by all," but if anyone came and didn't enjoy himself or herself, it wasn't our fault.
We also had several families that were considering getting a train for their kids or starting a garden railroad, that hopefully found our examples and advice helpful.
When I went around putting things away, I noticed that some enterprising children had filled up two gondolas with "logs" made of sticks from the yard - the gondola on the Lionel Santa Fe, and Thomas' "Troublesome Truck." BTW, we ran James and the passenger cars a few times, but the kids honestly preferred to watch (and sometimes chase) Thomas. And, frankly, Clarabell and Annabelle don't stay on the track as well as the rest of the Thomas pieces.
I would like to have a brief open railroad in May for the regional NMRA convention, and be open at least one day in June, for the National Garden Railway Convention. There will be fewer lights, but longer trains. How much more will I have done by then? We'll see.
Shutting Down for the NightAt 7:00, I took down the sign, and we started taking in the snacks. Shelia made a real supper for us (something I didn't expect, since we had hot dogs and popcorn, after all). We also had the chance to visit with my Aunt Shirley and her husband Richard, who had come out for the event and stayed until well after dark.
I pulled the plugs, turned off the music, brought in the projector, etc., and you would be surprised how fast a "winter wonderland" can turn into just another dark back yard. Or how good it feels to put your feet up after a day this busy.
ConclusionEvery year I promise myself we'll be more prepared, and every year our helpers are working right up to the last minute to get things ready. But we have been able to build on what we've learned (and even built) in previous years.
This year, the family really kicked in to help, and it showed in every aspect of the event. Above all I'd like to thank Shelia, Kristen, Emily, Molly, my sister Tess, and Molly's friend Emily for all their help. Fortunately my family sees our open railroad as a family activity and not just "something Dad does."
And, through the power of the Intenet, we get to share the fun of this day with literally thousands of people who couldn't have been here if they tried. Hopefully, seeing this article has given you some ideas, some inspiration, or at least some Christmas cheer.
If you think you might be coming through southwest Ohio and you want to stop by, or if you want to be put on our mailing list for future open houses, please contact us and let us know.
Here's hoping you have a very Merry Christmas and a great New Year. And that you get to spend time with your family in the coming weeks,
* Ordinarily I wouldn't bother writing this down, but the behavior of one fellow was so strange, I have to say something. He arrived early, wearing a backpack (don't you usually keep stuff like that in the car?), pacing briskly around the back yard, and asking occasional questions that seemed to disparage much of what he saw. "Those buildings are plastic, aren't they?" with the word plastic sounding like a dirty word. He didn't introduce himself or say where he was from but he definitely seemed to think that his trek to our house was a waste of his time. His general attituded seemed to be "Is this ALL there is?"
In retrospect, I've concluded that the fellow doesn't have a garden railroad, or he'd have asked meaningful questions about the supporting (unseen) infrastructure, or the variety of plants, or the trestle construction, or a dozen other things that tend to concern fellow hobbyists. Besides the elephant-in-the-room - the kind of courage it takes to do all of this prep for an outside event in November.
I'm sure that whenever he starts his garden railroad, every detail will be authentic, the structures will all be built up, strip-by-strip from scale lumber, and no red-and-green locomotive will ever profane his scrupulously "superscale" settings. The only problem is, unless you can afford to keep three gardeners on your payroll year 'round, you will never have a "perfect" garden railroad. Trains running in a visually entertaining and relaxing environment is the best that most people can hope for (unless they're wealthy enough to pay someone else to do all the work, or have managed to retire early in good health on a great pension).
If our visitor returns next spring or summer, the seasonal lighting will be taken down, the Christmas music won't be playing, the plastic buildings may be replaced with something else, the Lemax figures may replaced with more "model-railroady-looking" figures, some of the trees will have been trimmed, and the Christmas trains may be replaced by trains with more realistic paint jobs. But something else will fail his "inspection" - I guarantee it. Because garden railroads are organic, like children: nothing you try ever turns out quite the way you want it to, and nothing you think you've "fixed" ever stays "fixed." Like children, you do the best you can, but above all, you learn to enjoy what you have while you have it.
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