Have you ever wondered where the tradition of putting a model train around a Christmas tree comes from? Read on to find out, and to discover how fire departments played a role in this annual hobby.
Image Credit : Dennis Crawford
South German immigrants are thought to have been the first to set up Christmas Gardens, which were based in religion and located in their homes. Often it was a manger scene or a crèche with a small fence around it. In the mid-1800s, some people started putting in small wooden trains around the outside of fence that the children could push around by hand.
During the late nineteenth century, as travel by train became more common, model train sets became a new toy for children, and the trains soon took their place in the gardens. In 1900, Lionel demonstrated that it was possible to fit an electric motor into a toy train, power it with low-voltage electricity through the rails the train rode on, and thus a new industry was born.
Capt. Eugene Daly, of Baltimore City’s Engine Co. 28, on Gilford Avenue, is believed to be the first firefighter to set up a Christmas Train Garden in 1917, during World War I. This was the same period during which the steam powered fire engines and the horses that pulled them were being replaced with motorized apparatus. Because there was now more room available in the fire houses, the train gardens were able to grow substantially. The idea of a holiday train garden soon caught on and other fire houses built gardens of their own, until 1939, when officials in the Baltimore City Fire Department decided that too much time was being given to building them.
During the gardens’ heyday, it was not uncommon for the fire apparatus to be parked outside for most of the holiday season, to allow more room for the trains. This may have also had something to do with the decision to end the tradition.
After nearly 20 years, two new gardens were established, one at Engine 4 on Cold Spring Lane, and another at Engine 45, located on Cross Country Blvd. The tradition continues at several other area fire stations, including volunteer stations (such as Arbutus), as well as numerous non-fire locations, such as senior centers, shopping malls, and museums – including the Fire Museum of Maryland! If you are interested in more information about our Christmas Garden, click here.