Miniature railroads are so much fun. Kids are crazy about all the tiny people, buildings and chugging trains. The enchanting Lilliputian worlds offer so many details that are fascinating to discover and point out. There are lessons to be learned, too. Our industrial past gets a nod and Pittsburgh’s cultural history is examined. This year, one exhibit takes a unique look at sustainable farming.
The model railroad holiday tradition, which began in the late 1800s, continues to attract crowds of all ages. Here are six of our favorites:
1. Carnegie Science Center Miniature Railroad & Village
The Carnegie Science Center Miniature Railroad & Village focuses on the period between 1880 and the 1930s. Despite its old-timey era, the artisans who create new features every year are now using the latest technology in their work. A 3-D printer is being employed to make various components, although the finishing details are still done by hand.
It’s a banner year for the display, which is celebrating its 100th season with the addition of Kaufmann’s Department Store and clock replica. The tiny Kaufmann’s store, known as the Grand Depot when it opened, features 15 window displays. You’ll wish you were small enough to put your nose next to the windows and get a closeup view. Look for the gleaming Swarovski crystal chandelier just inside the main entrance and statues of Lady Liberty and Goddesses of Commerce and Justice.
This new feature is a fine example of why the exhibit attracts more than 400,000 annual visitors, who look closely at all the tiny bits that make up the 83-foot-by-30-foot platform. Kids are at just the right height to get the best eye-level view of the O-scale Lionel trains.
See if you can spot all 115 animations, which include kids on swings, a mother walking a fussy baby, and a homebody relaxing in a front porch rocking chair. More obvious movements include spinning rides in Luna Park and a steamboat operating via magnets through the 3-inch deep river.
Look for familiar businesses that have survived over the years, like Primanti Brothers and Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor. Examine the 23,000 fans at Forbes Field and all those heads made of Q-tips. Be sure to check out the motorcycle cop hiding behind a billboard, just waiting to catch a speeding car!
Every time you stop by, you’ll find something you overlooked before – like Punxsutawney Phil up on Gobbler’s Knob – so it’s wonderful that the exhibit is open year-round, allowing for multiple visits.
2. Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Garden
Phipps Conservatory’s latest Garden Railroad, “Farms, Food and Family,” celebrates everything about farm-to-table practices. You’ll be familiar with a traditional rural farm, its bright red barn and whitewashed fences. But the adventure continues with as many aspects of planet-friendly farming as you can imagine.
Silvopasture, for example, is the practice of integrating trees and shrubs into pastures to provide shade and additional crops, like nuts or fruits, plus it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Seafood is raised in a miniature aquaculture farm. Backyard, rooftop and community raised-bed gardens represent the homegrown crops many of us enjoy.
Several animatronics features allow kids to push a button to put things in motion, adding to the fun. Activate trains, push a button to get cows mooing and chickens clucking, or spin the turbine on a wind farm.
Unlike other model railroads, the tiny trees and shrubs are live plants, giving a different aspect to the miniature landscape.
Time your stop with visits with Santa on select dates through Dec. 23.
3. Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum
Founded in 1938, Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Gibsonia is one of the oldest miniature railroad organizations in the country. The 4,000-square-foot layout fixes on the 1950s, a booming time for regional railroads that transported products to and from steel mills. The era was a changeover period between steam and diesel engines, which allows the organization to run both types of locomotives.
Local landmarks are depicted within the HO-scale display’s more than 6,500 feet of track, 300 locomotives and over 2,000 cars. Look for the P&LE train station (now Station Square), the J&L Steel Mill and Fallingwater. Volunteers add more details to street scenes and built-from-scratch buildings every year.
A handout offers a fun scavenger hunt for kids to search from a list of items, like a garage that’s under construction, servicemen waiting for a train and a woman riding a bicycle.
Little engineers will love the interactive displays with wooden trains and pushing the switch that sends Thomas the Tank racing on the HO track. The Toy Train display is fun, too, where two levels include an alien crash site, a dinosaur zone, and a drive-in theater.
On Friday nights, the exhibit rolls back to 1949 to visit “Steam at Twilight,” when lights are lowered and all the steam locomotives run.
The museum’s season runs through Jan. 12, followed by a series of classes for those caught up in model railroading excitement.
4. Ohio Valley Line
Philanthropy is part of the mission of Ohio Valley Lines in Ambridge. The club train enthusiasts extend their excitement for model railroads with a Trains for Tots program, which promotes the hobby in the next generation.
Members collect and repair trains for donations. Each starter set includes a transformer, terminal track, engine, caboose, and four cars. Three sets are given away at random every day during the holiday display open house. Train donations also are made to organizations like The Salvation Army, the Moose Club “Heart to Heart Club,” and the Marines Toys for Tots program.
Ohio Valley Lines is a combination model railroad display, museum and library. The train layout includes HO-scale and N-scale tracks and trains available to view on weekends through Jan. 5.
5. McKeesport Model Railroad Club
The 68-year-old McKeesport Model Railroad Club holds an annual open house for model train enthusiasts to view its 2,200-square-foot train display throughout the holidays. This year, the open house runs Fridays through Sundays from Dec. 6-29.
The club’s fictitious Mon Yough Valley Railroad is set in the era between 1950 and 1960. The settings of HO-scale trains, people and buildings range from city scenes to mountain bridges and rural life. Look for a man shining shoes, kids playing at a picnic and a Clark Bar billboard among the tiny features.
6. Pennsylvania Trolley Museum
The Lionel train exhibit at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum is more of a fanciful village dressed for the holidays than any particular era. The Victorian buildings could double for the town of Bedford in “It’s a Wonderful Life” – except for the golden arches of a McDonald’s!
Kids can combine the train exhibit with a ride on the Santa Trolley and a visit with the big guy himself. The restored and decorated streetcar travels along a 2-mile track. The Santa Trolley begins its clang, clang, clang on Nov. 29, continuing on Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 15.
Other activities during “Trolleys and Toy Trains” include making a holiday craft, free hot chocolate and cookies, plus a look at the fanciful LEGO layout built by Steel City Lug members. And the collection of nearly 50 trolley cars is worth browsing through.