You can hear the deep-throated whistles from far up the path leading down to Morris Arboretum’s Holiday Garden Railway, a quarter mile’s worth of scale-model steam and electric trains, trolleys, a miniature ski lift, bridges, houses and other buildings, all decorated with twinkling Christmas lights.
Just inside the narrow winding path leading into the breathtaking display stands Bruce Morrell, the arboretum’s longtime train master. He patiently responds to questions from visitors—and there are a lot of visitors during the holidays.
“Is the Hess train up today?” asks one parent and obvious rail fan as he urges his kids along. Alas, responds Morrell, not today.
By longtime, we mean an interest in model railways that spans nearly two decades.
Morrell has always had a love affair with model trains, as well as the technical and electrical skills to set them up and keep them running—which, as any newbie can attest, is no mean feat. He first started “playing with trains,” as he describes it, as a youngster.
“I started out with a Lionel set with my brother that ran upstairs for a few weeks around Christmas, and then I got my own set,” he says. “When I got older, I persuaded my parents to let me set it up in the basement. I’ve just always had a love for trains. The only time I didn’t play with trains was when I was in the Navy.”
Thus began a hobby that—when you consider the skills required to build the foundation, lay down rail beds, track, and scenery, and wire up the whole display—is no mere child’s play. It’s a craft that, in the hands of a master, verges on artwork.
His preference in childhood was for steam locomotives, but he also had a special place in his heart for the streamlined GG-1 class Art Deco-style electric locomotive built for the Pennsylvania Railroad starting in 1934.
All his trains were HO scale—87 times smaller than the real thing. That’s still his choice today, although he hasn’t put much time into it. His job at Morris Arboretum takes up 30 hours a week of his time or longer.
“I had one layout outside and another in my basement,” he says, “but they’re abandoned because I spend so much time here.”
The trains at Morris Arboretum are bigger than Morrell’s sets. They’re G scale, 1/28 the size of actual locomotives and cars.
The railway runs so smoothly that it’s tempting to think that Morrell, with help from his grandson, Josh Faia, just sets it and forgets it. Not so. The locomotives and cars require constant upkeep. And there’s a lot to keep up. Difficult, at times, especially when parts can be hard to come by. One major supplier, he says, went out of business.
The layout has also seen considerable expansion over the years Morrell has overseen it. When he arrived as a volunteer in 2004 (he went on staff in 2007), there were six tracks and two trolley lines. “Now,” he says,” it’s 11 tracks and five trolley lines.”
Moreover, maintaining the display is a costly responsibility.
Morrell points to a Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive chugging along a bridge. “That was donated to the arboretum,” he says. “It’s valued at $4,000. The hand-crafted buildings, scenery and bridges are also costly. One building—many of them depict local landmarks such as Lemon Hill and Philadelphia City Hall—is valued at $4,000. Most of the others fall into the $2,000 range. All the bridges and buildings are handmade.
When the railway isn’t gussied up for the holidays, it runs throughout the rest of the year. However, the holiday display sees its largest boost in traffic.
“The holiday railway brings more people here,” Morrell says. “Plus, there are night exhibits. The holiday railway carries us through the winter months. That’s the most visits and the most income.”
You can view Morrell’s handiwork at any time, but, as he suggests, the holiday railway is an especially popular draw.
Daytime viewing—from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—is through December 30. It’s free with arboretum admission. There are also especially picturesque opportunities to view the railway at night, weekends through December 23. Tickets are required. For details, visit: https://www.morrisarboretum.org/gardens_railway_hgr.shtml