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A Spectacular
(Though Short-Lived)
Chicago Garden Railroad

Text and Photos by Peter Wine

As spring beckons (itís 60 degrees outside,) Iím on the road with Paul Busse again, ready to build another garden railroad, and in some ways this trip is like a homecoming for me.

You see, my first trip with Paul (in November of 2000,) was to help create a holiday garden railroad in a courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, and this time weíre building a temporary garden railroad that will be part of an exhibit at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show.

Because Iím going to be staying in Chicago after the rest of the crew goes back to the Applied Imagination workshop in Alexandria (Kentucky,) I decided to take a bus to Cincinnati, where Brian (Busse) picked me up. Brian lives in the area, so he knew well how to get to the bus station, but had to think a minute about how to get back on the highway to go to Alexandria to meet up with the Busse caravan (3 pickups with 3 trailers.)

For me, it was a case of going south to get north, but it worked very well. Soon, the trucks were gliding along the highway, and with a quick stop at a White Castle, we pulled up at the motel in good time. So good, in fact, that we werenít sure what time it was. Itís amazing how quickly you can lose your bearings, and when you think youíve changed time zones (Eastern to Central,) and your clock is the same as the one on the lobby wall, itís disconcerting. It turns out that the cell phones we were using for reference had updated to Chicago time, and thatís why they were the same. (Isnít technology wonderful?)

So we brought in our bags and got ready for dinner. The clerk at the motel recommended a restaurant in the neighborhood, and it was a good choice. Because we want to be at the Navy Pier at 7 am, it was early to bed, and early to rise.

One of the issues I have as one of Paulís temporary workers is that Iím not as knowledgeable about the details of whatís to come as Iíd like. But the advantage is that the first day can feel like Christmas when all of the buildings are unloaded. Paulís crew at the workshop has spent a lot of time getting them ready, and they look terrific.

All of the buildings are covered in natural materials. No paint is used. Ever. The only thing Paul allows is a final coating with marine urethane to protect them. If you see what looks like an acorn as a decoration, it probably is.

Leaves are often used as roofing material, or in the case of the library, for adornments on top of the roof. The people who work with Paul are truly artisans, not just builders.

Weíve also brought along about 4 tons of whatís called cedar scrap. (People that work with cedar for chests and furniture donít like the bark, so the planks that have bark attached are sold off as scrap.) Thereís also a ton or two of decorative rocks.

This isnít Paulís first experience with a flower show. Working with the Camden (New Jersey) Childrenís Garden, where Paul has another garden railroad installed, they took Best In Show from one group, and Award of Merit from another. The exhibit was one of two garden railroads at that show.  The other was created on a trailer bed for Bachmann Trains, and they use it at various events around the country, and it, too, was from the workshop of Applied Imagination.

Day 2 began at 5am (local time,) as we got up and ready to go by six. We left in the pre-dawn light, and watched the sun come up over Lake Michigan on the way to the Navy Pier.

If youíre driving, I can understand how youíd wish for a simple (and quick) trip to work, but as a passenger, it was incredible. The view just getting better and better as we got closer to the Navy Pier.

Upon our arrival at the Pier we found we had to go up a ramp in order to pull into the festival hall, and we were required to pull in only one truck at a time to unload.

First in was the truck with the 4 tons of cedar. These were put into four piles, two each on two corners. These were used most of the day to build optical walls. What is an optical wall? Itís what appears to those on the outside to be a wall, but isnít built for support of something on top or behind.

Itís more of a visual barrier, which helps separate different scenes that will be created over the next 4 days.

Using about 40 per cent of the cedar, (which were brought one or two at a time from the piles to the location where the wall was being built,) we created what appears to be a forest of tree trunks, with plenty of tall trees brought in by the staff of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Itís quite a sight.

During the day, we had teams all over the area.

First, we had teams that were assembling track sections, into predetermined shapes (as indicated on the plan.)

After the track sections were assembled, we had everybody working for Paul, and those working for the Chicago Botanic Garden gather to help lift the track more than 6 feet in the air.

Then, another crew went around with a screw gun and screwed support pieces to the bottom of the track sections. But holding it up was only half the battle. So they also created what look a bit like a teepee support at strategic spots to keep it from moving in any direction until the full support system was in place.

The next step was to begin building the walls. There were two teams of Ďwall builders.í Each team had a person who held the cedar plank in place while the other used the air gun to nail them in place. I was the third person on the team: the one who brought the pieces from the pile to the work site, keeping the other two busy.


While we built walls, staff of the Chicago Botanic Garden trimmed trees, and built the wall that defined the circle around the railroad.

By my working quickly from time to time, I was able to build up a large Ďpaletteí for the others to choose from, and step away for a few minutes to take some pictures for you to enjoy.

It was a win-win for everybody until my back started to hurt from the strain. I guess that my almost 49 year old body isnít quite as used to this as it once was. Oh, well, a hot shower, and Iíll be ready to do it again tomorrow. (Really, I will.)

The Chicago Flower Show is held at the Navy Pier, and itís amazing the contrasts you find as you go through an average day here.


You come into the festival hall, still thinking about the great view of the Chicago skyline, but after an hour or so inside, it becomes just like any other VERY LARGE building interior, and you are happily surprised with the beauty of the area again when you walk outside for lunch.

After a break for lunch (and for me, a walk up and down the pier for some pictures,) work kept up until almost 6, and then we put away all the tools, and headed back to the motel for a bite to eat and a good nightís sleep.

Day 3. OUCH! I awoke this morning to a new sensation of pain. Paulís truck is a bit off the ground, and the combination of getting in and out of the back seat, and the concrete floor of the festival hall has really caused my ankle to swell. While getting dressed, I decide to take an extra Naproxin to reduce the inflammation, and it works wonders. By the time we get to the Pier, Iím all ready to go.

I walk into the hall and am amazed at the progress we made the first day. During the morning Iím put in contact with Sue Markgraf at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She is interested in some shots for publicity purposes, so I take an extra few minutes every once in a while and roam around the railroad looking for pictures.

Sue said she is looking for a picture "that screams Chicago," and is creative. I do my best, but since Paul wasnít ready to put buildings or trains out, there wasnít much to work with.

The changes were a lot more gradual today than yesterday. With a few more plants in each area, the garden began to come to life, but by the end of the day, it still didnít "scream Chicago." I was a bit disappointed in my creative side, so I tried another approach.

I got up on a ladder and took a picture of the best looking (read less under construction) area, then I took pictures of several of the buildings that were over along the wall, and put them in boxes underneath.

I got done with it about 11:30 pm, and was about to send it to Sue, and then realized that I never did get her email address. I tried to go to the Chicago Botanic Garden web site, but the computer didnít cooperate. Since I wasnít all that enthused about this picture, I decided not to call her, and got the email address the next day.

Day 4. Itís amazing how quickly this has come together. To have gone from plastic covered concrete to this wonderful garden in only 3 days is incredible. But there is a lot left to do, and the next two days blend together.

One of the biggest projects is dirt. The dirt was stored at the other end of the hall, and transported to the railroad by mini-bulldozers. In some areas, they dump it, and it gets spread around (here by a retaining wall.)

In other places, dirt gets transported one bucket at a time.

Another major project was the creation of the stream. At just under 100 feet, this is a grand undertaking!

The first step was the "stream bed." Pieces of plywood were put together (according to the plan,) to appear to meander along and help bring the Chicago skyline scene and the bungalow scene together.

To make it happen, just about everybody got together to fold and move the 100 foot of liner into place inside the "stream bed."

Then the "bucket brigade" kicked it up a notch, and the buckets were filled with the small rocks that went on the bottom of the stream.

When the bottom was full, they began to place the larger rocks along the edges, and every once in a while in the middle to help it look like a natural stream.

But there is still a lot to do: there are buildings to place, more plants to plant, moss to silicone to the edges of the pond, and the cleanup of the area to make it look like itís always been this way.

During the day as some of the buildings were brought over,

I got pictures of both Chicago Botanic Garden staff and Applied Imagination staff getting the buildings ready, so at the end of the day, at least I had some shots I could send Sue for press releases.

In some ways, my favorite time of the day is lunch. 

Itís the time I get to go outside and see a small slice of Chicago life at the Pier.

But, back to work...

By the time everybody is done planting, it is estimated that there will be more than 5,000 plants used. (Over 2,000 yellow and white Violas alone!) 

It is amazing to watch (though most of my watching is out of the corner of my eye while Iím planting some Violas.)

Because of everyoneís dedication, it all gets done, and will be ready for the final touches (like turning on the g-scale Buckingham Fountain that Brian made.)

Day 6.

Paul sent the rest of the crew back to the workshop to continue work on the buildings and bridges that will be installed in a garden railroad at the Atlanta Botanic Garden. Itís a never ending job, since thereís always another job (or three) in the pipeline.

I stayed to gather more pictures and help with some of the final detail work. Paul had TV interviews on Friday morning, and in the early afternoon I went out to the other gardens that had been created in the few days since we arrived.

It was amazing to see how this once sterile building had come to life with 25 full size gardens for people to walk through, learn from or simply enjoy. 

But the buzz was clear... "have you seen the trains?" 

Itís just the reaction that the Chicago Botanic Garden was hoping for, and attendance at their Junior Railroad this summer should be right on track.