Chugging along

A young girl admires a toy train set

The holiday train display at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums draws upon the 19th president’s well-known love of train travel to evoke a sense of nostalgia in young and old alike.

’Tis the season to check out whimsical, creative model train displays around the state.

Applied Imagination, Cincinnati and Columbus

Through scenes of fairy tale dwellings, and city landmarks that look as if elves came from a forest to create them, Applied Imagination’s trains are a nationwide hit. Ohio native Paul Busse, the company’s founder, made his first public garden train from natural materials for the Ohio State Fair in 1982. Botanical gardens in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago boast Busse’s brand of holiday magic, but Ohioans only need to go as far as Cincinnati and Columbus to experience the wizardry.

In Busse’s world, magnolia and eucalyptus leaves are shingles, and grapevine tendrils are wrought-iron embellishments. Acorn caps, seed pods, and bark create intricate buildings that hearken to yesteryear.

At Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory, the display features replicas of three local landmarks — Union Terminal, the Music Hall, and the Krohn Conservatory itself. Two of Busse’s displays run within minutes of one another in Columbus. The display at the main branch of the Metropolitan Library features a castle atop a mountain with a waterfall and a Bavarian village below. Here, the inspiration is Bernkastel and Rothenberg, Germany. Close by, Franklin Park Conservatory hosts a trip through childhood where Rapunzel’s tower and the Three Little Pigs’ houses are neighbors to the Old Woman’s shoe.

No matter the display, trains move through scenery on multiple tracks from knee-level to well above arm’s reach in a whimsical game of now-you-see-us-now-you-don’t.

Hayes Train Special, Fremont

When Rutherford B. Hayes traveled to the West Coast by train in 1880, he was the first sitting U.S. president to make the trip. At Spiegel Grove, the 19th president’s 25-acre estate, the holiday train display pays tribute to his love of train travel.

Along three levels of tracks that wind through Victorian-era scenery reminiscent of when Hayes was in office, G-gauge and O-gauge trains chug past nostalgia. Tiny ice-skaters on a pond, a Ferris wheel, and a musical carousel turn in holiday cheer. Nearby, a horse-drawn sleigh is being loaded with a Christmas tree, and light from the buildings’ miniature windows cast a glow on cottony snow.

As the trains appear and disappear through tunnels, interactive buttons set parts in motion. Crossing guards lift, red lights flash, and a signal man steps out from his post. The favorite button makes a train whistle blow. Even adults can’t resist. Laughs Christina Smith, the marketing director, “The front desk knows when I’m going by. I blow the whistle.”

Kettering Tower Holiday Train, Dayton

During the holidays, Kettering Tower’s lobby becomes a place of childhood delight where Dayton’s past becomes memories of the present. Through scenes reminiscent of when the Wright Brothers owned their bicycle shop, three G-scale trains pass each other on their way through a hillside tunnel and around curves of 300 feet of oval tracks that weave through Dayton’s history.

Edged with lit-up period street lamps and evergreen trees, the buildings include a replica of Requarth Lumber, a Dayton fixture since 1860. Small milled lumber planks dot the lumberyard where workers add an aura of bustle to the Victorian-era scene.

Virginia Kettering, a Dayton philanthropic powerhouse who started Dayton’s Holiday Festival in 1972, added the model train display more than 20 years ago. Kettering, who believed the excitement of the season should be shared by everyone and be free of charge, gifted the display to the city. When the building is closed, the train is visible through Kettering Tower’s plate glass windows.

EnterTRAINment Junction, West Chester

Boasting 2 miles of train tracks and 90 moving trains in the world’s largest indoor G-scale train display, EnterTRAINment Junction celebrates train history year-round. Here’s where childhood memories are made every day of the week.

During the holidays, train love is multiplied when 12 trains wind through wintery wonderlands of snow-dusted evergreens and Victorian-style buildings. Houses festooned with tiny Christmas wreaths, shops with miniature signs, and buildings reminiscent of a Candy Land game are centerpieces of good cheer.

Running along elaborate configurations of raised tracks, bridges, and tunnels, passenger, locomotive, and freight trains appear and disappear over, under, and past one another in a whizzing version of hide-and-seek.

Each December, Neil Young’s O-gauge model train display is part of the celebration. Young showed his train around the United States before he gave it to EnterTRAINment Junction for its collection.