The Ellicott City B & O Railroad Station Museum has opened its holiday show of trains that range in age as well as gauge.

Four of the five train gardens at "The Oldest Railroad Station in America" have chronological Christmas themes of 1863, 1934, 1954 and 1994. The scales of the gardens range from O to G -- the sizes of the train sets. O-scale trains are smaller than G-scales.

Ed Williams, director of the museum for almost three years, has been planning since July with his cadre of volunteers for a holiday offering that began this weekend and runs through January.

"A train garden is basically anything that goes under the tree," he said.

Mr. Williams, 48, estimated that half of the museum's 20,000 annual guests visit between Thanksgiving and Jan. 31.

After touring the museum, most children would choose 1863 as a significant time in American history -- and not because of the Battle of Gettysburg.

"That's the year Santa Claus was introduced. Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly created the fat round man with a red suit and a workshop that made gifts for children," Mr. Williams said.

Before Nast's creation, Christmas was an ethnic stew of secular and religious paternal figures such as Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and St. Nicholas. Children who visit the telegraph room ,, will receive a personalized telegram from Santa's shop in the North Pole.

The 1863 train garden in the freight agent's quarters is decorated with a tabletop tree and with trains made of cast iron or wood.

The train gardens of 1934 and 1954 are in the superintendent's office. 1934 is an important year to train enthusiasts.

"Train gardens began in 1934," Mr. Williams said. "The train garden was basically on the floor. They didn't have platforms. The trains were huge. They were called Standard gauge."

Mr. Williams noted that the trains on display are not reproductions, but were manufactured in the 1930s.

The 1954 train garden, done in O-scale, has more of a whimsical treatment. It has an aluminum tree lighted by a color light wheel, plenty of plastics and a Santa Fe Silver Streak train.

"It's a classic from the '50s," Mr. Williams said. "This is the beginning, I guess you would say, of modernism taking over Christmas.

"It's the year everybody got rid of their real Christmas tree and got an aluminum one.

"A few people are going to chuckle. I hope we get a few laughs."

The 1994 garden is in the main waiting room and done in G-scale. It has "Thomas the Tank Engine" and other characters familiar to readers of the children's books and viewers of the PBS show.

"If it weren't for Thomas, there would be a huge number of children who wouldn't know about trains," Mr. Williams said.

The final train garden in the tool room combines nine different O-scale trains running at three levels with animated objects such as construction equipment and playgrounds.

Visitors may also visit the model train layout of the first 13 miles of the "the Old Main Line" from Baltimore to Ellicott City.

If museum patrons are lucky, a human-scale train will make an appearance on the tracks behind the museum. Mr. Williams said that in the winter as many as three trains an hour pass by carrying mostly coal.

The exhibit will also feature historians such as Howard Meile, who has been assisting Mr. Williams with the gardens for the past few weeks.

"It's a lot of fun. I've learned a lot. I didn't know there was so much history in this town," said Mr. Meile, a 38-year veteran of the Baltimore City Fire Department.

Mr. Meile spends most of his free time at the museum with his wife, Brenda.

When asked the link between Christmas and trains, Mr. Williams drew a blank.

"I have no idea. Howard doesn't know and he's as old as Santa Claus," Mr. Williams said.

The Ellicott City B&O; Railroad Station Museum, 2711 Maryland Ave. in the historic district, will have its holiday train gardens from today through Jan. 31. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for children 5 to 12. Call 461-1944 for more information.

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