Get on board with holiday train displays

Hudson Slenker, 6, points out an upcoming train while peering at his grandfather Kirk’s model train display with cousin Caroline, 6; brother Abram, 4; aunt Linda; and cousin Collin, 13, in Glen Rock’s Arthur Hufnagel Public Library. (Photo by Chris Dunn)

Norman Rockwell could’ve painted it. That’s how iconic and American it is to picture children in awe, watching a train circle a Christmas tree.

In recent years, kids have renewed their interest in trains, from Thomas the Tank Engine, to Hogwarts Express and “Polar Express.”

“There are avid train collectors who use this as an opportunity to show off what they have; for others, it’s just to re-create that nostalgic look under the tree,” said Keith McCleary, academic director for the Art Institute of York’s interior design and fashion and retail management program.

At antique stores, he’s seen rooms of Christmas items, including train scenery like paper-mache houses and trees made out of bristle brushes, that might’ve sold for $3 to $7 in the 1950s. Now they sell for $25, sometimes $45 in the original box.

Unlike other decorations, a train set can be a focal point for entertaining guests during the holidays, McCleary said. It can sit on a mantle, on an elaborate platform or some even run through walls, from room to room.

“(It takes) weeks to wire everything, months to create … a village with mountains and snow,” McCleary said. “It really is a work of art by the time it is finished.”

At least two works of York County art emerge annually around Christmastime at Arthur Hufnagel Library in Glen Rock and Rocky Ridge County Park in Springettsbury Township, thanks to the Susquehanna Valley Garden Railroad Society.

In Glen Rock, Kirk Slenker of York Township says his son encouraged him to start the display. It’s a generational hobby.

“I was 5, and my dad got me my first train set — and I still have it,” Slenker said.

When his middle son became interested in trains, it renewed Slenker’s interest. He bought each of his three sons a train for their Christmas trees after they married.

In the Glen Rock display, it’s all in the details. New this year is a dining room car with table lamps, glasses and food painted on plates.

At the Rocky Ridge display, the layout continues to grow year after year, said Turk Russell of Waynesboro, vice president of the SVGRS. He started working on the display in 2000, though the two tracks were set up a few years prior as a way to entertain visitors waiting to see Santa.

Now, the trains run inside and outside on a display complete with waterfalls.

All sorts of people from the society volunteer to help with the annual project, Russell said, emphasizing it’s not strictly a male hobby.

“I have just as many women helping up there as men,” Russell said.

And all of the work is worthwhile for visitors’ memorable moments — like when one of the train cars carried an engagement ring around the track a few years ago, Russell said. 

DIY display

Here are some of Slenker’s tips for families creating their first train display:

1. Determine if the train display will be just for the holidays or year-round.

2. Decide on a space. This could be under the Christmas tree or on an elaborate and more permanent wooden platform. If scenery is important, lean toward a platform.

3. Pick the train’s size. A G (large-scale) display is best for a family train, because it is less likely to break, easier to set up and doesn’t have to be level. A serious hobbyist might prefer a smaller, more detailed set.

4. Consider the scenery and if you’d like a theme — a realistic town or a whimsical design. For budget-conscious families, Slenker suggests buying a building for a focal point and creating the rest. Use the talents of the family to create scenery. “You can build your own buildings out of inexpensive materials,” Slenker suggests. He spray-paints thick, brown paper to create mountains, which he staples to a backdrop.

5. Get ideas from other displays, including at train shows held throughout the year between York and Baltimore. “People all over the U.S. come to those shows,” Slenker said, such as the East Coast Large Scale Train Show, held at the York Expo Center each year in March.

If you go

What: Train display sponsored by Glen Rock Hose & Ladder Company

Where: Arthur Hufnagel Library, 32 Main St., Glen Rock

When: Nov. 23 through Jan. 13

Hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays; 2 to 6 p.m. Sundays; 9 p.m. to midnight Dec. 24

Details: or 717-235-2654

What: Christmas Magic

Where: Rocky Ridge County Park, 3699 Deininger Road in Springettsbury Township

When: Nov. 23 through Dec. 31; closed Dec. 24 and 25

Hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Details: 717-428-1961 or

To find out more about the Susquehanna Valley Garden Railroad Society, visit or call Turk Russell at 717-244-3522. 

A Christmas story

Why are trains associated with Christmas?

In the 1920s, three toy train distributors — Lionel, American Flyer and Ives — were competing for business during the holidays. They asked stores to incorporate the trains in window displays, and ad campaigns showed trains chugging around the tree.

Soon, instead of gifting a train set for Christmas, families started setting up displays as early as Thanksgiving, to run throughout the holiday season.

— Source: Train Collectors Association, headquartered in Strasburg

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