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The Story of the Running Squirrel Garden Railroad
By Edy Wine


It all started with a "Oooh, Honey, come and look at this!" You see, I was watching one of those afternoon how-to shows that ladies watch when their housework is done, or they wish it was done, and there on the screen was a garden railroad. The host asked a lot of questions, but we still weren’t sure how you could have something so seemingly delicate running outside. Curiosity sometimes overwhelms us - especially Peter - so when the next train show came to Hara, we were there. There we found a list of garden railroad displays, and decided to go for a tour.

Well, if you have ever walked into Frank Klatt's house, and had to scrape your jaw off the floor, then you know what bug bit us! So we were off to the next train show, where we purchased an HO scale train. Then Pete went off to Lowe's to buy something to put it up around the living room. I think it’s running, but, Ummmmm -- can't see it! So we were off to the next train show, and we brought home an O scale set. Better, but gee whiz, it was noisy and we still wanted to do something outside. Living in a rented house, in a "not so courteous" neighborhood, we were trying to come up with a way to run trains, but have them somewhat protected.

At the next train show we found a Bachmann Royal Blue set. It was fairly cheap, slightly used. Then we thought, "where are we going to put it?!" Well, the answer came to me one day -- we can put it out it on the enclosed back porch!! It will be outside, sort of, but still protected. Cleaning the back porch out was probably the toughest job, as it had become a catch-all for all the stuff we didn't want to deal with. So, it was off to Lowe's for more wood - to make the tables. Now, it looked good, but all it did is go around in a loop. Funny, but the porch seemed a lot bigger before. (Oh, joy. This is what we have been waiting for?)

So now, to escape the confines of the (what now seemed) tiny back porch, the train talked Pete into building a support structure outside the back porch. (Which means another trip to Lowe's.) It then breaks out a window, runs along the outside the porch windows on the support structure, (which is 6 feet off the ground,) then breaks back in on the other side of the porch.  Hmmm… well it’s a slight improvement.  Now here is where Pete's brain starts going into over-drive. How about going down the west side of the house, around the front of the front porch and back? But it's Winter!!! It didn't matter. Off to Lowe's for more lumber and brackets. 

Now this puppy will run down the side of the house to the front porch. Oh sure… it goes down one way, but it’s gotta come back. Hmmmm… checking resources, Pete finds that it will cost more to get the mechanism to get the train to go back on the same track the opposite way, as it will to buy enough track to go across the front porch and down the east side of the house. (Which is a scary thought as it runs along a public alley.) Well, since it’s 6 feet off the ground… no problem, Right? So, it’s off to Lowe's for more stuff.

The next challenge was angling out far enough so the back door wasn’t blocked and then back into the porch. That took a little trial and error but it goes past the barn/bird feeder, the only building as of now. Then came double trouble. It was getting colder so the panes removed were letting a lot of cold air in, as well as the squirrels. They came in and helped themselves to Pete’s various snacks and rummaged through the stuff on the tables. (If they only knew how to use that electric screwdriver…) Pete devised guillotine style doors for each of the panes and it helps somewhat, but the smarter (or skinnier) squirrels do manage to sneak in once in a while. And while we’re on the subject of squirrels, the name Running Squirrel Railroad comes from the sight of the squirrels running down the tracks from one end of the house to the other – sometimes chasing each other. When sitting in the house you can see their shadows if the curtains are drawn and the sun is shining. My daughter says we should put a load of peanuts on the train and make them chase it! (Hmmmmm. How about a car in the shape of a peanut, with a little bin for… NO! Pete doesn’t have time for another project!!!)

With a track that far above the ground, track cleaning became a problem, so we used a battery operated train that runs by remote control. Pete is always searching for a smaller, cheaper battery, and has several different ones. Pete’s main objective was to get this train running by Christmas and worked right through some frigid weather, but he pretty much made his dead line and the Christmas train made it all around the house. What a guy!!!!!! (Pete blushes.)

Pete’s sister stopped by from Nevada, and couldn’t believe that you really CAN run trains outdoors, even in the snow. Now she knows, ‘cuz she’s seen it happen (except for the snow part, she was here in September.)

Peter envisioned a suspension bridge to go on the west side of the house to take the tracks off the brackets attached to the house. Well, it just wouldn’t stop sagging despite putting the supports in concrete and cinching them tight. (He says that the support cables would need to be anchored in the middle of the street. Yeah, right. I don’t think so.)

Another thing that was perplexing is that this was supposed to be a garden railroad, and other than a climbing rosebush and some lavender about 6 feet down , it did not run through a garden. So back to Lowe's. Pete replaced the support structure with a 2 foot wide flower box that ran along the back porch, in an "L" shape. He filled it with gravel for drainage (along with drilled holes in the bottom,) 3 to 4 inches of topsoil, and then ran the track right through it. Then, seeking my limited knowledge about gardening, he planted herbs and flowers such as ageratum and even mini (not micro) tomatoes (a real challenge to harvest 6 feet up!) He even got some plants from the plant swap the club has every spring (thanks Sharon,) and they did great. Some plants that looked good as babies out grew their confines, and had to be placed elsewhere. More trial and error, but the garden grew and is still doing well despite the late season. A lattice trellis was put up around the "giant window box," and painted green to blend with the leaves of the climbing rosebush. Later, morning glories in blue and purple came out in all their splendor. The sight gives me a thrill every time I see it.

The railroad took a unexpected pause while we dealt with the murder of our oldest son. Pete had just planted a corkscrew willow tree that week, so it is now referred to Chuck’s tree. It is still doing well and the leaves are just slightly yellow despite it being so new and the late season but Peter waters it every morning, like clockwork. After all that, he (at least for now) abandoned the suspension bridge. The tracks are doing nicely, running on a more supported bridge that seems to fit nicely together and looks great.

So now that winter has approached Peter is not sitting in his cozy room thinking of spring. 

Winter is a time for Christmas stuff (our favorite time of year) and further railroad development. 

We have bantered about a few ideas and somehow I feel a trip to Lowe's is in our future.

Pete decided that we should have an open house to show off the Christmas lights before we take them down (I think it gives him a reason to put it off for a while.)  It’s also, I suppose, a way to celebrate the new year, so here’s what we’re gonna do:  Pete is going to run the train(s) from 5:00 – 7pm or so on New Year’s Eve before he goes to work at the club. 

He also said that he would run them from noon to 2 or 3pm on New Year’s day. 

(Originally published in 1999, the New Year's open houses lasted until moving to a new house in 2005.)

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