Louis Uccellini, of Columbia, admits he has been a fan of train gardens since he was a kid. When his daughter told him about the Holiday Train Wonderland Walk in Ellicott City, he had to take his family to see it.
“I think this is a great idea,” Uccellini said of the model train scenes set up in seven storefront windows along Ellicott City’s historic Main Street. “The Baltimore area is unique for the number of train gardens we have. It is part of the cultural aspect of Baltimore and the surrounding areas.”
For 21 years, Howard County Fire Station 2 in Ellicott City has displayed a train garden. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the decision was made to divide the popular attraction into seven different scenes spread throughout stores along Main Street.
“They were very excited to participate,” said Dave Balthis, a retired fire chief and longtime model train engineer, elf and spokesperson, of the store owners. Working with Ellicott City Partnership, Balthis and his train crew walked Main Street one weekend in October, selecting possible sites and approaching business owners.
“Of course I said I wanted to be a part of it,” said Cindi Ryland, manager of Taylor’s Collective, a Main Street art gallery. “People of all ages come all day. I love it.”
Longtime fans of Station 2′s train garden, Jen Funk and her son Sam, 13, of Ellicott City, were inspired two years ago to create their own train garden at home. They were looking for new ideas while visiting the stops.
“Ours is flat. We want to add dimensions, levels,” Sam said.
“We want to do a tunnel, too,” Funk added. “These are all so neat and pretty with all the little people.”
Each of the stops challenge viewers to spot different things like “four couples dancing” or “Ebenezer Scrooge’s house.” To participate in a scavenger hunt, each store window features a QR code that can be scanned by a smart phone to reveal even more items to find.
“This is our third stop and we’ve found everything so far,” said Debbie Wilhelm, who was with her grandson Lucas Bowen, 7. “It takes a while. They are really hidden.”
The B&O Ellicott City Train Station on Main Street has traditionally displayed a holiday train garden for over 30 years, including one made of LEGOS.
“To ensure safety during COVID-19, we made the difficult decision to not set up the usual holiday displays,” Anna Hunter, marketing and public information superintendent for Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, said in an email. “We still wanted to offer something festive to our visitors while maintaining safety protocols, so the museum is decorated for the holidays and a G-scale train was set up in the living quarters on the first floor.”
The station’s permanent 40-foot model train diorama depicting the first 13 miles of the B&O is open, too. For a touch of holiday spirit, miniature Santas are scattered throughout the diorama for visitors to discover, she said.
Balthis is pleased with how successful the holiday train wonderland walk has been.
“What helps us keep this running is the generosity of the community,” Blathis said. “It left us in the position to do this. Hopefully, it will be back in the fire house next year.”
It will be interesting, he admitted, if the Ellicott City Partnership wants them to do it again next year and the fire house is available, too.
“It will be tough to spread ourselves,” Blathis said, who typically has about 25 people helping with the garden. This year, about 12 people helped set up the train displays and maintain them throughout the weeks.
“These guys are professional,” said Brian Donnell, general manager of Su Casa Furniture on Main Street. “They come out every few days to clean the tracks and see it is still working.”
The train gardens, Donnell said, have been a welcome addition to Main Street.
“It drives everybody to the windows outside,” Donnell said of Su Casa’s garden, which features a hot air balloon and a casino. “It has been very well received. We are grateful to be part.”
The Holiday Train Wonderland Walk will be in place through Jan. 3. Stops include: Boman’s Dentistry, 8374 Main St.; Su Casa, 8307 Main St.; MissFit, 8225 Main St.; Sweet Cascades Chocolatier, 8197A Main St.; Taylor’s Collective, 8197 Main St.; Big Little Cheese, 8191 Main St.; and the old Shoemaker building, 8095 Main St.