Holiday train gardens, or layouts, are a centuries-old tradition. South German immigrants are believed to be the first to set up Christmas Gardens, which were religious in nature and were in their homes. Usually it was a Manger scene or a crèche with a small fence around it.
In the mid 1800s, some people started adding small wooden trains around the outside of the fence that children could push around. During the Victorian Era, train sets were gradually becoming electrified, and they soon took their place in the gardens.
Capt. Eugene Daly, of Baltimore City’s Engine Co. 28, on Gilford Avenue, is believed to be the first in the area to set up a Christmas Train Garden in 1917, during World War I.
Once the steam powered fire engines and horses were replaced with motorized apparatus, the Gardens grew substantially, as there was more room available in the fire houses. The idea soon caught on and other Baltimore fire houses built gardens of their own, until 1939. That year the fire department felt that too much time was given to building the Train Gardens, or perhaps that the crowds of people were impeding their fire-fighting operations.
After nearly 20 years, two Gardens were established at Baltimore City firehouses, one at Engine 4, on Cold Spring Lane, and another at Engine 45, located at 2700 Glen Avenue, at Cross Country Blvd. Various volunteer fire houses also host train gardens each year.
Here at the Fire Museum, we operate an annual train garden, with multiple trains operating, local businesses, a “working fire,” and even a subway. The Train Garden opens each year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, which is November 25th this year, and runs each Saturday thereafter until New Year’s Eve.