Fire Department keeps garden chugging along

Mount Washington exhibit of trains a 47-year tradition

December 28, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The train garden that has drawn thousands of people to the Engine 45 fire station in Northwest Baltimore since its inception almost 50 years ago takes up nearly half the firehouse, displaces the medic unit, and requires three months to create and set up.

Firefighters at the station on Glen Avenue in Mount Washington wouldn't have it any other way.

"The Fire Department is about tradition," said pump operator Harry Jackson, who was watching over the garden yesterday as dozens of children and adults streamed through. "We want to keep it alive."

As the last city firehouse train garden in Baltimore, the Engine 45 garden draws all sorts. There are school classes, Scout troops, toddlers who must be held aloft to see the setup and adults who visit year after year to gaze at the familiar and the new.

The garden, which measures 12 feet wide by 40 feet long, can be counted on to feature mountains and skiers and snow scenes and, of course, model trains of all sizes chugging on more than 100 feet of track as Bing Crosby croons Christmas songs on the sound system.

But the 40 firefighters who build the garden every year also include a nod to the year's current events. In 2001, they re-created the Baltimore Howard Street tunnel fire. Last year, they constructed a war zone modeled on Afghanistan, complete with prisoners of war being captured.

This year, the garden features the California wildfires, with charred hillsides and aircraft on wires spraying blue clouds of simulated flame retardant. Tiny yellow-and-red flashing lights symbolize the flames. There is also a re-creation of the Wright brothers' first flight, with a model plane above mounds of sand meant to resemble the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

"It's more than just coming out to look at trains going around tracks," said Tom Howser, 52, of Arbutus, who took his wife, daughter and mother to the garden yesterday. "It causes you to think about the events of the year and reflect on them."

He added, "I'm almost half expecting to see Saddam peeking out of a hole."

Alas, the garden was set up weeks before Saddam Hussein's capture in Iraq. Firefighters began working on the garden in August, planning the layout, creating and painting the scenes and fixing the engines of the trains, of which there are at least 10.

Now in its 47th year, the garden needed a few extra improvements this year. Eight fluorescent black lights were installed above the garden, to make it easier to see when the overhead lights cycle off during the "nighttime" garden setting. Firefighters also bought 24 four-by-eight sheets of lumber to replace the base of the garden.

All of it is paid for by donations from the 10,000 people who see the garden each year. There is no admission charge to see the garden, which is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day through Jan. 4. Visitors are encouraged to donate on their way out. Jackson estimates the cost of the garden runs between $3,000 and $4,000 annually.

"Guys will work on this even past their shift to get the project done and have it open on time," said Jackson, who has been a firefighter for 10 years and at the Mount Washington station at 2700 Glen Ave. for four. His specialty is detail work - adding the trees, bushes and other small items that fill out a scene, as well as painting characters.

The garden requires constant upkeep. The trains need to have their engines rebuilt or replaced every three or four days of constant operation (a new engine can cost $300), and the tracks must be maintained and kept clear of debris. People throwing coins at the fountain in the center of the garden often miss, their coins landing on tracks and causing train derailments.

The work is appreciated by visitors like Oriet Milmoe, 32, of Baltimore, who carried her 3-year-old son, Patrick, on her hip as she walked around the garden yesterday. It's their second year to visit.

"It's one of his favorite things at Christmas," Milmoe said. "He likes to see the firetrucks, too, and he likes to talk to the firefighters."

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