Model railroad enthusiasts have been finding ways to run their trains outdoors since at least World War I. But it wasn't until the late 1960s that the E. P. Lehmann company of Germany developed the LGB, a large scale train specifically designed to withstand outdoor use.
It was a revolutionary development for outdoor railroading and the hobby grew in popularity throughout Western Europe, particularly in Great Britain and Germany. Today there are public displays throughout the region as well as "thousands upon thousands" of privately owned gardens that are sometimes open to visitors, said David Buffington, spokesman for LGB of America.
"You can go visit just about anywhere in Western Europe and find a layout," Mr. Buffington said.
The hobby has spread to the United States, which today accounts for almost half of the worldwide sales of LGBs, Mr. Buffington said. In the United States, more than 20,000 starter sets have been sold each year for at least the past four years. Large or G-scale trains, similar to LGBs, are also produced now by manufacturers other than Lehmann. These big trains -- which are about four times the size of traditional HO-scale trains -- range in price from under $100 to thousands of dollars.
While some G-scale train owners run indoors, there are "thousands, if not tens of thousands" of garden railways across the country, he added. The United States also has an estimated 50 or so garden railway clubs.
Marc Horovitz, of Denver, Colo., is editor of Garden Railways magazine. He and his wife discovered the hobby during a 1979 trip to Great Britain. "It was appealing, the idea of working outdoors," Mr. Horovitz said. "Indoors the goal is a realistic setting that imitates reality. Outdoors you're working with reality. It's a whole different attitude."
He and his wife, Barbara -- who is associate and horticultural editor for the magazine -- returned home and built their own garden railroad. They also started a magazine for hobbyists, which today has a worldwide circulation of about 13,000.
"I've been interested in trains all of my life," Mr. Horovitz said. "My wife has been interested in gardening all of her life." The combination was a natural for them.