The Wonderland Railway – Brigadoon in Ashland, Kentucky
By Jim Gray, TCA 09-63787 Spring 2017
The first thing that came to mind when I visited the Paramount Arts Center Festival of Trees and Trains was the musical “Brigadoon.” The festival, like the musical, is staged in a grand theater; the event briefly appears as if by magic before disappearing, and the themes of the joy of country life and love transcending time ring true for both.
But I should start at the beginning. In June, 2015, while working as a car host behind the recently restored Norfolk & Western J 611 out of Manassas, Virginia, I met a young lady named Christy Reaves. As we went about our hosting duties, she told me about the Wonderland Railway, a G scale layout she worked on in Ashland, Kentucky. It was a layout, she told me, which ran for just 10 days each year in a restored 1930s art deco theater in the heart of coal country. I was intrigued.
The Wonderland Railway is part of Ashland’s Festival of Trees and Trains, a community project that raises funds for the arts programs of the Paramount Woman’s Association, as well as for the restoration of the magnificent Paramount Theater. This year the festival made its appearance from November 18 – 27.
Once I experienced the entirety of this show I realized that this was not just another Christmas display, this festival was the embodiment of the passion, sharing, and love that is Christmas.
The 2,000 + square foot railway, landscaped by professional landscape architect Kim Jenkins, is literally a projection of the resilient soul of Ashland, set in this National Register of Historic Places theater.
Floating over 10 rows of raked theater seats and spanning two staircases in the balcony, the Railway brings life to the forest of nearly 200 richly decorated Christmas trees; it is what makes it all a Wonderland.
Physically, the Wonderland Railway comprises over 600 feet of track with a flat yard of 4 tracks, each with a consist waiting to be switched onto one of the two main lines. There are four separate layers of action, the uppermost being a Tram locomotive pulling the coal cars from the top of the mine shaft to feed an incredibly detailed triple coal tipple, which in turn fills coal hoppers and gondolas pulled by a mighty MTH Challenger. Under all the action you’ll find over 1,400 feet of wiring to power switches, signals and accessories as well as the many LED lights that illuminate the various scenes and structures of the railway.
Just below the mountaintop tipple, there is an elevated line that travels over and through intricately designed and constructed wooden trestles that are thrust out over the open high side of the railway’s platform. Surface level tracks alternately carry passenger and freight trains that rush around the huge outer main line with energy and purpose. Intricate Bob Kelley Garden-Texture buildings bring life to the railway, and close inspection reveals a fantastic level of detail in and around each.
The lower lines service the central power plant and passes by cottages tucked away in the hollers. The detailed pieced quilts and bright red union suits on the clothes lines remind us that there’s a chill in the air; after all, Christmas is almost here!
Up on the main line we can see Santa’s home base, with an N gauge train for Santa’s own garden railroad. To the right is a HoN3O gauge for a Train ride with tourists circumnavigating the grounds of the Chinn Inn.
A hidden abominable snow man, train spotters on a bridge, a pair of hidden bunnies, Cokes in a chest type machine, ladies at the depot, and two kids on an operating swing set are just a few of the clever little details local children search for as they strive to complete their scavenger hunt forms.
Christmas music fills the air, and the lights of those exquisitely decorated trees shimmer off of the frescoed ceilings and walls of the theater. When you enter the theater, you’ll be dazzled by the trees, but amazed by the railway, floating mirage-like in the balcony.
The overall effect is mesmerizing. Mike Wolf’s MTH RailKing engines provide the motive force for the railway, and his DCS system controls the action. The main line locomotives are taken out of operation at regular intervals to share the workload with the engines in the yard. Some of the resting engines will be moved into the magnificent new Kelley Locomotive Works shed; others wait to return to main line operations on yard tracks.
A Heartland G gauge trolley provides connecting service between a country church, and a small settlement on the edge of Wonderland, where skaters enjoy the ice and crisp mountain air… and a moonshiner behind a thicket near the trestle tends his still.
The orderly comings and goings of this active railway, and the wonderful bits of whimsy interjected into the various scenes, reflect the thousands of hours that have gone into the creation and 12-year evolution of The Wonderland Railway. Here in this former steel town on the banks of the Ohio River where Kentucky meets Ohio and West Virginia, this annual festival has foreshadowed Christmas and captured the imaginations and spirits of up to 15,000 visitors a year. And, although hundreds of individuals have lent their time and talents to the Wonderland Railway, Christy is its heart and soul.The Wonderland Railway masterpiece is a creation of pure love, the enacted vision of a diverse team of dreamers who draw the best of the community together to build and operate this Brigadoon railway as it welcomes Christmas each year.
What really amazed me is that this railway is completely dissembled (the track is not screwed down, but tagged so that it can be placed in the same spot) and moved offsite for modification and improvement each year after its stay. Two sets of legs – one for the raked floor of the theater, and one that allows the layout to be reassembled on a level floor – makes the railway mobile.
With work done by everyone from the carpentry division of the Ashland Community and Technical College to fellas from a local half-way house to talented volunteers such as Kim Jenkins, Chris Lockwood, Joe Rosenthal, Sonny Smith, Harold Vallance, and Jim Gardner, this holiday vision will capture your imagination and awe.
But be careful. After you see this jewel of a Christmas railway, you may feel the need to get home and add more magic to your own layout. Listen carefully for the theater’s specter, Paramount Joe, when you visit. He may be able to give you some tips; he’s been there since the beginning, and his legend is part of the magic.
Check www.pacfott.org for the exact dates of the 2017 show, which will be held again at the Paramount Arts Center, 1300 Winchester Ave, Ashland, KY 41101.
Image of this year’s poster from the festival’s web page; all other pictures by author, Jim Gray.