model train set on track

Holiday Train Gardens of Baltimore (updated Winter 2024)

e*Train Issue: Dec 2023   |   Posted in:

By Nikhil Jammalamadaka, TCA# 16-71820                      Summer 2021

Everybody loves the holiday season. Don’t you? Toy trains and the holiday season have gone hand-in-hand for years: be it a full-fledged holiday train display outside or a simple train running around a Christmas tree at home. These exhibits can be found all over the country, but this tradition is practiced in an interesting manner in the Baltimore area, especially among fire departments.

Holiday gardens, called “putzes” (coming from the German word “putzen,” meaning to decorate or clean), are actually a centuries-old tradition. It is believed that they originated in Rome where the refugees chiseled scenes of Christ’s birth in walls and rocks (Washington, Virginia, & Maryland Garden Railway Society). As Christianity spread throughout Europe, German and Alpine craftsmen used natural materials from native forests to carve figures of the Holy Family. These figures were then seen in homes, churches, and marketplaces in Europe.

In the 18th century, the Moravians created similar nativity scenes or crèches with small fences around them and displayed them under the Christmas tree to commemorate Christ’s birth. Sometime after, the Moravians traveled from South Germany to settle America and brought along these figures. They then prepared these displays and went “putzing” to view each other’s home displays (Glencairn Museum News, 2019).

These gardens were solely religious in nature until the 1800s, when train travel rose in popularity. People began adding small wooden trains for the children to push around the Christmas tree. In 1891, during the Victorian era, Märklin created the first mass market model train sets. This tradition gained further popularity with the emergence of Lionel and other electric train manufacturers.

However, according to the Fire Museum of Maryland, the specific tradition of Holiday Train Gardens in Baltimore is believed to have originated in 1917 during World War I. In that year, Capt. Eugene Daly of the Baltimore City Fire Department’s Engine Company 28 on Gilford Avenue was the first in the area to build a Christmas train garden. During this time, the horse-drawn fire apparatus was being replaced with motorized apparatus, creating more room for the gardens to expand and grow as they became popular.

Over time, every firehouse in Baltimore began building train gardens and operating them from December to the start of January. Eventually, however, in the 1930s, the Baltimore City Fire Department felt that too much time and money was being devoted to building the train gardens. Sometimes, housing these gardens meant parking fire engines outside. Not only this, but the large crowds surrounding the gardens were also beginning to hinder their fire & rescue operations.

As a result, many firehouses stopped running the displays and the practice of operating train gardens fizzled out. It was not until almost 20 years later when the tradition restarted after two gardens were established – one at Engine 4 on Cold Spring Lane, and another at Engine 45 on Glen Avenue. While Engine 4’s garden eventually closed, Engine 45 has hosted a Holiday Train Garden since 1955. The tradition has since spread to several other area firehouses (including volunteer stations) and non-fire locations such as shopping malls, community centers, and museums. Given below are the highlights of the Engine 45 train garden along with several other notable ones in the area.

Station of Engine 45: See Additional Details

The pictures above depict how the Engine 45 train garden was initially set up and what it has evolved to in the present time. This 12 by 40-foot display now occupies almost half of the station! Annually, the garden incorporates themes related to the Baltimore City Fire Department, current issues, classic model train towns, and scenes/characters from different movies and television shows.

Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Company: See Additional Details

The Wise Avenue FC is one of the largest temporary displays in the country! After the Dundalk Fire Station shut down its Christmas Garden in 1978, its staff donated items from their garden to the Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Company, helping them host their first Christmas Garden in 1981. The Fire Company then increased the display’s size to two times the size of the original Dundalk Garden. Completed in three weeks, more than 16,000 visitors came to see this first 10 by 32 foot garden and over the years, the garden has grown to 20 by 44 feet.

Currently, it features Lionel and MTH trains, Dept. 56 ceramic buildings, O gauge accessories, model displays, and animated scenes. Firefighters begin working on the garden during the summer months before the holiday season. The garden is designed differently so visitors see something new and different each year. In 2013, upon visiting this display, 15-year-old named Zan Willis was inspired to build a train garden at the Hickory Hill Farm in Street, MD.

Highlandtown Train Garden (Engine House #41): See Additional Details

In 2009, the Baltimore City Fire Department partnered with CSX to provide space and funding for the Highlandtown Train Garden at Engine House #41 on Conkling Street in the Baltimore neighborhood of Highlandtown. Baltimore Guide editor Jackie Watts called on volunteers to make the Highlandtown Train Garden a reality. Since then, this display has been a fine replica of the Highlandtown neighborhood in miniature with its favorite streets and an entire platform featuring old industrial Highlandtown. So, this is a true community train garden!

Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department: See Additional Details

This 26 by 10-foot garden is filled with 8 trains pulling as many as 40 cars running around fabulous scenes such as ballroom dancers, dancing elves, and a Big Foot family. There are buildings from the Department 56 Dickens Village series, scenes from DC Comics, Santa figures, and a replica of Baltimore’s iconic Bromo Seltzer Tower. Volunteers can also put their own spin on things, like when a Jewish volunteer added a miniature menorah. Each year, the visitors witness something unique.

Fire Museum of Maryland: See additional Details

Since 1986, the Fire Museum of Maryland has hosted an annual Holiday Train Garden designed by volunteers with 1940s style O-27 trains running on O-gauge track around a 20th century town. The setup includes the Bromo Seltzer Tower, Gwynn Oaks Amusement Park, Baltimore Zoo, Baltimore neighborhoods, and even a “working” fire. There are photos of old train gardens of Baltimore, displays of miniature fire engines and firefighting equipment, and a small display case with vintage toy trains.

Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society: See additional details

This train garden runs between Ocean City and Dundalk with 11 trains running on four different levels, including the lowest for the little ones. There are more than 150 action scenes, a circus, a zoo, an operating trolley and SUV, and even an expanded HO section.

White Marsh Volunteer Fire Company: See additional details

Operated by TCA member Paul Piker, this 512-square-foot train garden features six to eight trains, a trolley, a lighted Christmas boat parade, a circus, the iconic tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, and even an animated water scene.

Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department: See additional details

This garden is themed around a number of children’s books and incorporates dinosaurs because trains and dinosaurs have traditionally gone together, such as in TM Books & Video’s I Love Toy Trains.

Marley Station Mall:
Click here later in the year 2021 for a link to the train garden!

Operated by the Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Pasadena, MD, the layout includes a LEGO garden, a NASCAR track with racing cars, and more than 20 trains running around multiple levels.

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has stood in the way of us being able to enjoy many of these spectacular displays. Hopefully, once this precarious phase is over, we can all go back to enjoying the holiday season to its fullest!