When I heard that Highlandtown had rolled out another holiday train garden, I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the Conkling Street firehouse. What I found was the authentic thing.
Train gardens in firehouses are a wonderful tradition. This Highlandtown version is a community-based, all-volunteer project. Donors and local businesses come up with about $3,800. A raffle and public donations allow the electric trains to keep running on the $5,000 annual budget.
And there are some beauties here, acknowledging the neighborhood's industrial heritage. There are both Bethlehem Steel and Canton Co. locomotives working alongside the CSX and an old, deep-red Pennsy, too. Students from the Morgan State University School of Architecture have faithfully reproduced a building now being renovated at Eastern and Highland avenues.
This year's garden features an appreciation of Patterson Park. There's the pagoda and the lake in miniature. Standing alongside is a knockout reproduction of the National Brewing Co.'s plant at Dillon and Conkling. I heard that there's a push to have the Grand movie theater captured in miniature for next year's edition.
I also learned that this garden is quite a labor of volunteer love. The work crews begin in late August in the upper floors of Los Compadres variety store at 3903 Eastern Ave. The owners of that business contribute work space to those who pre-build the garden's complicated set of platforms. The panels are inched down a staircase and reinstalled at the Conking Street firehouse, which is in the neighborhood's center, between Hoehn's bakery and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.
The Los Compadres store itself is also reproduced in miniature, as are nearby law offices, restaurants and shops. The Mr. Boh sign, atop the brewery, presides over this grand opera.
Baltimore does a good job with the Christmas season. Our neighborhoods could be the little villages we love to create. The other night, while seated in the window of the Grano Pasta Bar on 36th Street in Hampden, I watched the shoppers pass as I tucked into a meatball appetizer. I hand it to the 36th Street merchants. They do a great job displaying their wares and decorating windows. It was a charming December scene.
I could say the same for the Ellicott City Main Street and Fells Point. A few weeks ago, while wandering around Lancaster and Shakespeare streets, I felt as if I were strolling through a diorama. Mount Vernon's Washington Monument is now lighted. I took some time to walk past it and along the east and west squares at night. As many times as I have been there, I am still thrilled by the architecture and the scenes that could well be lifted from a Christmas card.
Bernie Deasel, who is one of the Highlandtown volunteers, is an old hand at holiday gardens. He got his first set of trains at the old Taubman's stores. He tells me the part of the show that delights young visitors is a carnival circled by a tiny amusement park train. He also told me the secret ingredient in the mountains: It's insulation foam, allowed to harden, then cut with a hacksaw and decorated in nature's colors.
A train tunnel cuts through the mountains, which wreaked havoc with an Acela Express set that kept banging into a tight corner.
What does not derail is this year's delight. The technical brains of Highlandtown have created a dandy figure eight of track with a locomotive and set of cars that seems to chase itself. And at the central crossing, just when you think there's going to be a terrible wreck ... well, go and see for yourself.
The garden is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends at 520 S. Conkling St.