Garden Railroads

Last weekend was the annual Rails in the Garden tour here in Tucson, hosted by members of the Tucson Garden Railway Society. Every year, the club opens up ten or so of the members’ railroads to the public, and every year I go get my annual fix of the trains. I posted about last year’s tour here, but since (a) it’s been a whole year and (b) they open different railroads each year, I figure it’s worth another write-up.

Each of the railroads is unique. Some are more-or-less-faithful recreations of a particular place and/or time in railroading history (one of the weekend’s locations was at the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum and features a representation of Tucson in the 1880s, when the railroad was newly-arrived), while others are more whimsical. And the whimsy itself can range from a pun-filled landscape (for example, a place where dromedaries are for sale is, naturally, a “camel lot”) to a beautifully-detailed miniature world of buildings, hot-air balloons, and people, all built into the surrounding full-size landscaping.

It took me all day, and about 100 miles, but I managed to visit all ten of the available layouts.

The first one was at the Rodeo Parade Museum. It’s a small loop of track with several dioramas of typical buildings and activities from Tucson in the 1880s. In addition to the railroad display, the Museum holds a plethora of antique carriages and wagons, most of which are used in the annual Tucson Rodeo Parade. There are also other exhibits, like a re-creation of the lobby in the El Conquistador Hotel (torn down to make room for the El Con Mall, which itself has been [mostly] torn down to make way for a group of big-box stores and a multiplex).


Although it’s not a train, this next photo *is* an absolutely beautiful carriage (just one of many).


My next stop was at a mobile-home park, where some of the residents have gotten together to build this amazing road:


Among other things, it features a circus (with music), a literal train wreck, two streams (with real water), and a group of men about to shoot a moose that’s holding a “No Hunting” sign. It also has an entrepreneur who uses his Jeep to help other men climb to the top of the rocks (for a fee, of course) so they can look downriver at the women who are sunbathing on the rocks below.

The third railroad was the first at a private residence. This one features two “islands” of railroad, connected to each other by removable bridges to make it easier to walk around the yard (although there isn’t much non-railroad yard to walk around in any more) when the trains aren’t running. There are also multiple trestles, tunnels, and switches to keep things interesting. Vignettes include a “hobotown” built around a caboose hulk (and including a campfire) and a train wreck.


The owner creates his structures from scratch, and had several on display on a table. This is but one of his masterpieces:


The next railroad was a little more abstract, with all the tracks laid on concrete blocks and the town sitting on poured concrete. But the owner does like his roundhouses – there are three of them! This photo shows two:


The next layout shows how a lot of railroad can be packed into a small space. What interested me about this road was the “spur” line that ran along the side of the house to the owner’s workshop. The track runs through its own door into the workshop, and the owner can thus leave the trains on the track all the time and still protect them from weathering. Also, the mix of “railroad-scale” decorations and “full-size” ornamentation is good.


Here are some of the whimsical elements in this yard.


The next road, “Quail Ridge”, features a large mine at the entrance and an exquisitely detailed railroad scrap yard. I suspect some of the rolling stock in the scrap yard was created for the purpose, but it’s also possible that some of it simply wore out and was repurposed, as it would be in real life.


The owner is also a prize-winning customizer (it’s called “kit-bashing” in the modeling world). This is a standard articulated steam engine that he rebuilt in a cab-forward configuration.


Moving along, our next stop is at one of the “emptier” railroads. For me, this more closely represents early Arizona than any of the others, because everything is dirt and there are no trees. (I suspect this is under construction, though, and I look forward to seeing it on future tours.) The unique element here was one of the trains – instead of it being electric, it was running live steam! It was fun to watch the steam and smoke be expelled from the engine as the train ran its course.


The next layout had lots going on all the time. With four computer-controlled trains on two independent loops, and an end-to-end trolley line, there was always a train coming or going. There was also a section of the yard where I couldn’t tell if the line was being expanded or abandoned – the two spouses seemed to have differing ideas about that. This owner took a different approach to train storage – instead of a spur going into part of the house, he built covered train sheds along the back wall. Their tracks are connected to the main line by a folding bridge, so that people can walk around the yard without having to worry about the tracks. The first photo is the railroad (with the train sheds in the background); the second is the electronics that control the trains.



Next up: The Cholla Patch Railroad. This one is the most whimsical of all the lines on this year’s tour, but it’s also internally consistent. The buildings are all to scale and feature real copper roofs; the trestles (and there are a LOT of trestles) are built to scale; and the figures are all set in realistic poses. It’s not *their* fault that their world is composed of giant cacti!

This is the Tree House. It serves as the social center of their world, and is wildly popular with the citizens. There are multiple levels and lots of activities. It even has its own station (on the other side of the tree, of course!).


There’s also a very popular lookout tower. You can see at least two people using telescopes here; there’s also a third one in the enclosed room at the top, as well as a lighted Tiffany lamp!


Unfortunately, not all is sweetness and light in Cholla Patch. One unlucky citizen had the misfortune to fall on a cactus spine. Although a rescuer is trying his best, I fear the worst.


The final stop of the day is also the “piece de resistance” of the tour – the Eagle Mountain Railroad. This road is *always* on the tour, and it’s no wonder! The owner adds something new every year, and it’s amazing how much of Arizona he has captured – including early aviation, open-pit mining, prospecting, logging, cliff dwellings, and much, much more. It’s impossible to capture the whole railroad (or even a significant part of it) in one photo. This shot includes the red rock mesas and the underground-mining portions of the road.


This is the open-pit mine:


I always have a great time on the Rails in the Garden tour. If I ever win the lottery, I’m spending some of the winnings on my own garden railroad!

I took way too many photos and videos this year, but if you want to look at them all, click here. You can also pick any of my other albums to browse, as well.

The next Rails in the Garden tour will be March 4 & 5, 2017. If you’re in Tucson that weekend and want to take the tour, I’ll be happy to chauffeur you around.

2 Comments on “Garden Railroads

  1. Awesome photos! My wife would kill me if I plan a vacation around a railroad theme but I might have to put this weekend on my calendar for next year.

    • It’s a lot of fun! And there’s plenty more to do here in Tucson, so it wouldn’t have to be *just* a railroad-themed vacation.

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