City Paper is not for tourists
Jim Strong is a railroad tycoonin his own back yard.
The pint-sized members of the Melwood Church of the Nazarene Sunday-school class are roaming around Jim Strong’s suburban Maryland back yard while their parents munch on fried chicken and chat. A preschooler in a pink dress crouches by the set of tiny railroad tracks that run through the yard, her brow furrowed with concentration. She is barely 3 feet tall. But next to the oncoming toy train, her proportions are more like those of Godzilla. With hair-raising timing, she jumps up and sets out across the tracks as the train draws closer.
Suddenly, it looks as if an ugly collision is about to mar an otherwise pleasant gathering. But a pair of arms swoops down and lifts the girl off her feet. “No, ma’am,” says Strong, the railway’s proprietor. The train, which consists of a replica of a coal-fueled steam engine, a coal car, a freight car, and a passenger car with tiny, helpless occupants, rolls by beneath her dangling feet unscathed.
“Cross over here, OK?” Strong says, putting the child down in front of a set of stone steps. She nods and scampers across.
Even if she had managed to crush the 3-inch-high man in a blazer and tie or the woman in a hat who look out the window of the passenger car, there are plenty more sitting in a box in Strong’s basementmostly workmen for the trains and, as Strong puts it, anybody else who would be “lounging around a station.” Some of the figures he bought. Some he made himself, out of Sculpey, a commercial modeling clay.
Strong, 64, a retired electrical engineer for NASA, has overlooked few details in building his Woodland Railway, the elaborate garden railroad he has assembled over the past 22 years in the shady half-acre around his Upper Marlboro home.
Except for the train-shaped mailbox out front, there is little about the setting of Strong’s houseon a cul de sac in a quiet development by Andrews Air Force Basethat prepares you for what’s behind it. Walking into his yard is like riding the trolley from Mr. Rogers’ living room into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Fortunately, Strong is a better host than Rogers. He doesn’t talk to his visitors in cloying tones, and he can break down the intricacies of building a miniature Alpine house out of Styrofoam and concrete faster than you can say “Martha Stewart.” When he talks, you can hear in the pleasant ambling of his speech how much he relishes working out the kinks that building an outdoor model railway presents. It’s the process, not just the product, that fascinates him. “I care more how well [the trains] run than what they look like,” he says.
But the Woodland Railway is more than a small-scale engineering feat. Red-brick walkways surround the layout, giving it the feel of a miniature Frederick Law Olmsted creation. The tracks begin on a sunny, level patch of ground that Strong calls Willow Flats, after a willow tree that once stood there. Willow Flats is now covered by immature trees and moss, which look like shrubbery roughly in proportion to the G-scale trainswhich are 20 times smaller than the real thingthat run through them. A track connects Willow Flats to what Strong has dubbed Gum Grove and Hemlock Hill, which sit on a slope under a canopy of full-grown gum and hemlock trees. The groves are but a few steps away from the flats, but the journey for the itty-bitty passengers of the Woodland Railway is treacherous. For them, the gentle slope is a steep incline made manageable by a vertigo-inducing 2-foot-high redwood trestle.
Altogether, there are 1,000 feet of aluminum track. And Strong says that he owns about 10 engines and a couple dozen cars, many of which he operates with either a commercial remote control or one that he made himself before such remotes were widely available. Strong has no plans to expand his railway, but he is always making changes small and large: adding a tunnel, digging a gully, planting a patch of impatiens for a bit of color. “I’d like to put a church in therea cathedral-type church,” Strong says, eyeing a mound of dirt across the tracks from a white castle with blue turrets modeled after Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle.
The castle is the centerpiece of an area that Strong calls Fantasyland. Around it are two sets of Tudor-style buildings, one inspired by the whimsical English cottages designed by sculptor David Winter and sold by Hallmark, and the other based on the Alpine village in the 1940 Disney classic Pinocchio. Trains run through a tunnel below the castle; standing nearby is a wizard that Strong sculpted in bronze. Other than the sorcerer and the passengers on the train, the railway is deserted.
Strong originally created the castle more than 20 years ago as a decoration to put outside at Christmastime. He even ran a train around it, but gave no thought to keeping it out year-round. Then, in 1975, he went to England to visit his brother and saw model trains running outside a castle in the pouring rain. Outdoor trains, though popular in Europe, were then rare in the United States. But Strong was so taken with the trains he saw in England that he started setting up track in his back yard. The Woodland Railway officially began operating in 1980. A few years later, Strong says, he added the castle as a permanent fixture.
In the process, Strong became a pioneer of sorts. “He was building a seriously complex garden railroad when the idea was still almost totally obscure in the U.S.,” says fellow train enthusiast Vance Bass, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. “His series of articles in Garden Railways magazine on techniques for making model buildings really stretched the boundaries of what modelers were doing at the time. And his use of radio control was far ahead of most others in the hobby.”
The popularity of garden railways has grown steadily over the years, and more women and families are involved in it than in any other kind of model railroading, says Bass. The Washington, Virginia, and Maryland Garden Railway Society, to which Strong belongs, boasts 105 members. Strong is well-known among model-train enthusiasts, and the Woodland Railway has been featured on Home & Garden Television, but his achievements still remain somewhat obscure. Strong says that only rarely does anyone call or stop by to see his railroad. Once a year, he hosts his railway club and the Sunday-schoolers.
Most of the time, he runs the trains himself. “Like I always say,” he laughs, “I need someone to play with.”
Strong likes to call his railway his “adult sandbox.” He says that when he was a boy growing up just over the District line in Coral Hills, Md., he loved to play in the dirt. “I was always carving tunnels, airfields, and highways in it,” he says. His father was also an electrical engineer who owned model trains. Every Christmas, Strong recalls, his father would set up a “Christmas garden” inside their house: a pile of green-dyed sawdust with pathways made out of mica chips and a Lionel train running around the edge. When he was 10, Strong got his own train set.
By the time Strong graduated from college in 1958 and started working at NASA in 1963, he was more interested in a new form of transportation. At NASA, he was part of a team that created the first computer to go into a spacecraft, as well as a machine that processed images from space. Strong says that all those years working at NASAhe retired in 1996got him used to building things that had never been created before. That’s why when he makes anything for his garden railway, he says, he likes to do it from scratch. He builds each structure on the railway out of a Styrofoam shell, then adds a layer of concrete, into which he sculpts details such as trim and windowpanes. “They know my name down at Lowe’s and Home Depot,” he says, chuckling.
As much as Strong loves working on his railroad, he did take a hiatus from it once. A few years ago, he says, he couldn’t even look at a train. “I burned out. I even got depressed about it,” he says. His wife, Ruth Strong, told him that he couldn’t just mope about the house, so he took up sculpting more seriously. In Strong’s yard sit two more bronze pieces, a boy and a girl in shorts with their legs hanging over the edge of a tree stump. Just as with the houses by the railway, the sculptures are meticulously detailed. And just as Strong continues to add new features to his railway, he is always refining his skills as a sculptor, most recently by studying anatomy books.
Strong has also dabbled in computer animation. So far, he’s drawn and animated a boy and a girl dancing the jitterbug. If he could do it all over again, he says, he would like to have been a cartoon animator. “I would have loved to have worked at Disney,” he says.
But he says that he has no regrets about having followed in his father’s footsteps. His own son, Kevin Strong, 30, has grown to share Strong’s love of trains and now has a garden railway behind his house in Avon, N.Y. Kevin also writes a regular column in Garden Railways magazine and edits a quarterly magazine devoted to the history and modeling of the East Broad Top Railroad, a tourist line in Orbisonia, Pa. His own garden railway is modeled after the East Broad Top.
“When [Kevin] was looking for a house, he wasn’t interested in the house,” quips Strong. “All he cared about was the yard.”
Strong’s daughter, Linda Swann, who lives in Maryland, wants nothing to do with trains, however. She’s never recovered from a ride on Pennsylvania’s scenic Strasburg Rail Road she took when she was 1, says Ruth. “We sat behind the engine. It was really loud. I think it scared her to death.”
Kevin says that the structures along his railway are more modest than the ones lining his father’s. But in a few years’ time, they may be even more fantastic, thanks to Kevin’s wife, Allison Strong, who collects Smurfs. “Her first comment when she saw the railroad in my back yard [was], ‘Cool! I can put my Smurfs there,’” says Kevin. “I knew I was in good shape from that point.”
Kevin’s railway now features one Smurf house built by his dad, which he hopes will become the beginnings of a village. “I don’t think I’ve ever watched [an episode of The Smurfs] completely through,” says Strong. But he’s promised to build a new Smurf house for his daughter-in-law every Christmas.
“It’s coming! The train is coming!” shouts a little girl in a bright yellow dress.
A clutch of girls follows the train as it makes its way through a tunnel. Strong is not at all squeamish about letting kids run his trains, but he always stays close by just in case there’s a problem. For instance, when a train enters a tunnel with four cars and emerges with just two.
“Mr. Strong!” cries the girl in the yellow dress. “We lost a couple of cars.”
Strong patiently goes to get a stick with a hook on the end that he keeps for such emergencies. When he returns, he fishes out the two cars, reattaches them to the train, and returns the remote to the gaggle of youngsters.
Given that the railway remains uncovered year-round, it suffers remarkably few derailments or natural disasters. The biggest calamity Strong says he’s had so far was a recent cave-in of one of the tunnels. Then there was the time a year and a half ago when a train stopped inside a tunnel for no apparent reason. When Strong went to pull it out, he found a mangled toad in the wheels of the train.
“What a gory mess!” he recalls.
Another toad had a close call a couple of days before the Sunday-school picnic. Strong says he was pulling a train through a tunnel with a string to make sure there would be no surprise derailments, and, as the engine emerged from the tunnel, a toad came out in front of it, hopping for its life.
But neither dead toads, nor wet leaves, nor falling pine conesanother common hazardwill ever get Strong to move his trains inside. “It’s a matter of room,” he says. “In the average-sized home, there isn’t very much you can do.” Plus, he adds, “I like to play in the dirt.”
As Strong has expanded the Woodland Railwayand as his children have grownhis tastes have shifted from fantasy to realism. The rail yards, for example, include tanks for diesel fuel to service his miniature diesel engines. There’s even a stone quarry, Burns Aggregate. (“Let us get you stoned,” reads the sign.) Strong says that he even wants to replace the castle with a more realistic one, though the one he has in mind is the equally fantastic-looking Neuschwanstein Castle, built for “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late 19th century.
That’s a project Strong will likely save for winter, when he does most of his building. Flashing a mischievous smile, he jokes, “I like to keep my hands busy so I stay out of trouble.” CP