Morale in the Mt. Washington Fire Department was low last summer after Baltimore City relocated Truck No. 27 to a firehouse on Reisterstown Road.
But now the Mt. Washington station's annual train garden, rebuilt for the first time in at least 15 years, is brightening a half-empty bay and lifting the spirits of firefighters during the holiday season.
The 12-foot by 20-foot train garden, a fixture in one form or another since 1955, will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, from Dec. 1-Jan. 6, at the station, 2700 Glen Ave.
"The whole premise behind this is to put a smile on a kid's face," said the station captain, Jason Turner, 34. When Turner was a boy in Hampden, his father, also a firefighter, took him to visit the train garden.
The station's four firefighters began rebuilding it last spring because the old one was literally falling apart. Each firefighter has been working on it for about 25 hours a week, in addition to their regular duties, said Turner.
They are funding the cost of $10,000 with donations, which visitors can drop in a red and white can inside the bay entrance.
The train garden was a work in progress last week, as firefighters repopulated it with miniature people, cars and houses, as well as fanciful scenes, ranging from a ski lift and mountain village to a monster truck show, a circus, and a carnival complete with tiny rides.
"The fun stuff is in the details," Turner said.
Two miniature mountains are made of wood, bags of gypsum and wire mesh.
A motorized red truck crawled down a slope into the drive-in theater. A reflecting pond sat near the Silver Fox Lounge.
A trestle bridge and a waterfall rubbed shoulders with the Heartbreak Hotel and a sign for Domino Sugar.
Christmas carolers wearing scarves stood near a fall-themed Halloween Village. Skaters skated on a pond, etching figure eights into the fake ice.
"It's kind of a hodgepodge," Turner said. "We try to do things people can relate to."
There's even an iconic Natty Boh beer character, and a Hanukkah sign representing the large Jewish population near the firehouse, as well as a Raven-themed roof for the train garden.
For the first time, several Mount Washingtonians are also helping to create train garden tableaus at the fire station.
Environmental lawyer Eliza Steinmeier and her son, Sam, 5, contributed a pirate island from Sam's active imagination.
"It's a lot of work," said Steinmeier, a consultant and former director of the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper program that she founded.
"I'm so glad I got my law degree," Steinmeier joked, as she stood in the train garden last week working on her part of the project.
The most amazing part of this year's renovated train garden is that "it almost didn't happen," noted Harry Jackson, 52, a firefighter at the station, and a former Hampden resident now living in Havre de Grace.
Jackson said firefighters at first were so disgruntled that the station truck had been relocated in a budgetary move that they were in no mood for a train garden.
But Jackson said he couldn't forget about his happy memories of his own dad taking him to see the train garden when he was a boy in Hampden.
"I loved it," he said. "It seemed like a special father-and-son kind of deal. It seemed like it was far away, and out in the country."
Now, it is a pilgrimage for children like Sam, who, with his mother's help, is populating his island with a pirate ship and figurines from his toy collection, as well as flourishes such as thatched palapa huts.
Of course, there are battles between figurines, "good guys and bad guys," Steinmeier said. "When you're 5, that matters."
But enough talk.
"I'm going to start gluing trees," she said.