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Behind the scenes of Philly’s most popular holiday train displays

Philadelphia's miniature train displays during the holidays take a lot of work to maintain.

Micah Christensen, right, and Vince Marrocco, left, work on the holiday display in the Garden Railway at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, PA on November 13, 2018. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Micah Christensen, right, and Vince Marrocco, left, work on the holiday display in the Garden Railway at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, PA on November 13, 2018. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

One of Philadelphia’s most beloved holiday traditions is the elaborate miniature train sets staged by the some of area’s most prominent gardens and museums. Even though increasingly advanced technology surrounds us, twinkling Christmas lights, realistic train sounds, and hand-built models of the city’s most famous landmarks still enchant thousands of visitors each year.

Paul Hoerner and David Jensen have been running Brandywine River Museum of Art’s miniature train display, one of the most detailed in the area, since the 1990s. The museum first started running a miniature train display during the holidays in the 1970s. Hoerner and Jensen both worked as engineers for full-size trains before turning their interest in miniature trains into full-time jobs.

Hoerner said his fascination with miniature trains started when his dad used to set up a display after he fell asleep on Christmas Eve.

“I’d wake up on Christmas morning and just be like, ‘Wow!’” Hoerner said. “Back in the 1940s and 1950s, trains were synonymous with Christmas because they would deliver presents and family members to you. They’re nostalgic in that way.”

Over the years, the two trainmasters have built an impressive collection of trains and buildings that they’re controlling through a smartphone app for the first time this year. They’re also debuting four new locomotives this year, including one draped in mini Christmas lights, and visitors will get to see fascinating details like Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter series and a fully operating amusement park, complete with a carousel and Ferris wheel. Thanks at least in part to the display, the museum sees its monthly attendance numbers double in December.

But putting together the scenes is quite a labor of love — gardeners and train specialists spend hundreds of hours hot-gluing tiny wreaths to model homes and carefully wiring hundreds of feet of train track before the displays open.

“I used to work on this all day back when we had four days to get all of this done,” Hoerner said. “We used to catch naps under the table where the tracks were set up during the 24-hour days.”

While Brandywine runs its holiday train display indoors, two of Philly’s most famous train displays are outdoors at Morris Arboretum and Longwood Gardens. The arboretum’s Garden Railway, which is 21 years old this year, is Philadelphia’s first outdoor model train display. (The Reading Terminal Market opted out of displaying its miniature trains this year.)

The train engineers work hard to keep the train tracks clean from fallen leaves and dirt because the trains run for multiple hours every day. (The trains pick up electricity from the tracks through their wheels.)

“We attach an S.O.S Soap Pad to the last car on the trains,” Vince Marrocco, the chief horticulturist at the Morris Arboretum, said. “So that way we can clean the tracks while the trains are running instead of wiping them down by hand every day.”

Marrocco said that the arboretum first began featuring a miniature railway during the summer. Attendance jumped 800 percent so they added a holiday one, which made December the arboretum’s second-most-visited month. The holiday railway features a South Philly-themed Thomas the Tank Engine track for the kids, which draws inspiration from the Miracle on South 13th Street.

“Most of our visitors like the more traditional white holiday lights,” Marrocco said. “But we try to have a little fun with the Thomas track and pay homage to all the crazy, colored decorations you see down there at this time of year.”

The arboretum also incorporates natural materials collected on its grounds by volunteers, such as lotus seedheads and acorn caps, into building repairs each year. Marrocco said that the railway currently has around 60 buildings, all of which are Philadelphia-specific and made from natural materials by an Ohio-based company, as well as over 100 locomotives.

Longwood Gardens also incorporates natural materials into its 380-foot-long model train display, which is roughly 20 years old and features miniature versions of its Webb Barn, conservatory, and fountain. In order to set everything up, gardeners work for nearly three weeks in order to build the tracks, “miniscape” the scenery with shrubs and grasses, and sculpt the mulch that the display sits on.

Harold Taylor, a section gardener at Longwood Gardens, said there are a lot of people in the generation that came after World War II who loved model railroads because of the technology.

“Model railroading isn’t as popular as it used to be,” he said. “But it’s still popular with the kids. For us, it fills a really nice niche because the little preschoolers absolutely love it.”

Hoerner said that at the end of the day, getting to build something that is a part of many people’s holiday traditions makes the hard work worth it.

“The railroad has been around long enough that people are starting to bring their kids and grandkids to come see it,” he said. “Getting to help create those memories is such a special experience."