An empty store space next to Liberatore's Ristorante at the Bel Air Town Center has been filled with model trains of varying sizes in recent weeks, as well as the people, young and old, who enjoy watching the trains speed through Harford County scenes.
Members of The Mason Dixon Large Scale Railroad Society will be operating their holiday train garden through Jan. 11.
Manny Pospisil, a founding member, said attendance has been strong since the exhibit opened the day after Thanksgiving.
It is one of several holiday train gardens around Harford County: Christopher's Train Garden is open at Broom's Bloom Dairy south of Bel Air and the Jarrettsville Volunteer Fire Company is hosting its 32nd Annual Train Garden at its main firehouse at 3825 Federal Hill Road through Jan. 12.
Hours for the Jarrettsville train garden can be found on the fire company's website, www.jarrettsvillevfc.com.
Pospisil said attendance at the Bel Air train garden has been driven in part by diners at nearby restaurants in the Bel Air Town Center such as Liberatore's and Chili's.
"We get that dinner crowd that comes to eat and visit us, or visits us and then eats," Pospisil said.
He was also expecting large crowds for weekend before Christmas and the day after Christmas, as Harford County residents bring relatives who are visiting for the holiday.
Several displays are in the space next to Liberatore's, with the main display measuring 26 feet wide and 95 feet long. It has two tracks with six to eight trains running at a time.
It is made of individual modules built by members of the group, which has about 18 regular participants. Each person builds a section of track on a display.
The majority of the trains run on electricity, but some members bring trains with locomotives that run on "live steam."
Distilled water is heated with butane or propane, and the steam powers the radio-controlled engines.
"It runs around huffing and puffing and just looks great," Pospisil said.
The various model displays include mock-ups of the Harford County train stations of yesteryear such as the former Ma & Pa Railroad station in Bel Air, and the Whiteford train station.
It also includes the locomotive characters from the children's television show "Thomas & Friends," such as the title character Thomas and his cohorts Emily and Percy.
Children rode on their parents' and grandparents' shoulders to get a good look at the trains making their way around the track of the main display Thursday evening.
Lisa Fiore's 3-year-old son Nicholas was enamored watching the light blue Thomas locomotive motor around a small circular track and through a mountain.
"Nicky loves it because "Thomas & Friends" is his favorite," Lisa Fiore said.
Pospisil said the train garden is also popular with older people. As Pospisil was being interviewed Thursday afternoon, a group of senior citizens visited the display.
"They all reminisce about the days when they were children and had trains running around the Christmas tree," he said. "It's fun listening to them."
The Bel Air Town Center train garden is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. It will be closed Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
Christopher's Train Garden
A shed at Broom's Bloom Dairy, off Route 543 (Fountain Green Road), is the scene of Christopher's Train Garden, which will be open through late December.
The train garden was designed in honor of Christopher Cooper, who died in 2007 at age 15 after struggling with medical conditions throughout his life.
The train garden is operated by members of his immediate family such as his parents and grandparents, and friends of the Cooper family.
Christopher's grandmother Linda Cooper was volunteering Wednesday evening, watching children work the controls to send the electric model trains through the village scenes.
"I love it," she said. "It really makes Christmas feel good, makes it joyous."
Cooper said her grandson loved trains.
"When I'd baby-sit him, I'd take him to Edgewood and we'd sit there and watch the trains go by," she recalled.
Children could also view a smaller train garden modeled after the Ocean City Boardwalk, and put together toy train sets.
Kristen Choinski of Churchville visited with her children last Wednesday. Her 4-year-old son, Nathan, and 2-year-old son, Tyler, watched the trains with rapt attention.
This year was their first visiting Christopher's Train Garden.
"Both boys love it," Kristen Choinski said. "It's kind of like a little magical place to come for Christmas; we'll be back next year for sure."
Melissa Innocenti, of Churchville, watched her 4-year-old daughter Juliana play with the trains also.
She and her family visited the train garden two years ago. During her latest visit, Innocenti looked at books filled with pictures of children who had visited, including hers during their first visit in 2011.
She saw photos of one of her daughter's friends, Jacob Eli "Bear" Brzozowski, a Harford County child who died suddenly in mid-April at the age of 4.
"It was really nice to go back and have remembrances of those days," Innocenti said.
Christopher's Train Garden is open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; Broom's Bloom Dairy is at 1700 S. Fountain Green Road.
Harford County Modular Railroad
As has been the case for the past several years, the Harford County Modular Railroad members set up an extensive display of their HO scale modules for the holidays earlier this month.
This year, as last, the group set up some 50 modules at the Historical Society of Harford County in Bel Air. The display was open to the public through Dec. 15.
The group has 75 to 80 HO modules made by individual members, many who learned this craft by taking HCMR President Dick Schwanke's model railroading classes at Harford Community College, said member Jim Fisher of Bel Air.
Fisher said the group sets up displays a few times a year. In addition to the Christmas display, it has them at the big model train shows that come to the Timonium Fairgrounds.
"People tend to model what they remember from their childhood," said Fisher, 64, who has also lived in Texas and California and in the Midwest and is a fan of the old Southern Pacific Railroad, now part of the Union Pacific system.
Fisher displayed his complete set of the SP's famous Pacific Coast Daylight, the crack passenger train that ran between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As he operated a long freight train pulled by a distinctive forward cab SP steam engine, Fisher noted most of the tank cars in the train were his models and bore the names of companies he or his father worked for such as Shell Oil, FMC Chemicals and DuPont, where he currently works.
Fisher said on member grew up in Australia and built a module from his native country.
Fisher said the group likes setting up at the Historical Society because the display stays up for about a month, giving members an opportunity to play with the trains a few weeks beyond the public showing.
Another member of the group, 68-year-old Howard Wright, of Havre de Grace, has been passionate about trains since childhood – he grew up in Philadelphia one block from the Reading Railroad steam roundhouse, a maintenance facility for steam engines.
"I guess it was in my blood," he said Thursday.
Wright said he enjoys building and wiring the modules.
"I get fellowship out of it," he said of the model train hobby. "You meet a different group of people and it doesn't matter what you background is, the common denominator is the love of railroading."