Marshall family marks New Year with garden train display

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The locomotives in the garden railroad at the Marshall's Merion Park home pass many familiar landmarks, including the historic Flanders Hotel, Music Pier and train station. The locomotives in the garden railroad at the Marshall's Merion Park home pass many familiar landmarks, including the historic Flanders Hotel, Music Pier and train station.

OCEAN CITY — In what has become a New Year’s Eve tradition in their Merion Park neighborhood, the Marshall family will once again toast the arrival of the New Year with an outdoor train display.

Those looking for some old-fashioned fun are invited to stop by the “Garden Railroad” at the Marshall’s home, 202 Bartram Lane, between 5 and 8 p.m. on Dec. 31.

“It’s open to anyone,” Marshall said. “Everyone is welcome; tell your friends and family. We set the trains up for people to enjoy them.”

Four locomotives power around tracks that wind through the extensive garden in Jim and Betty Marshall’s backyard. Jim Marshall plays the role of conductor and designer and has incorporated existing greenery to create a scenic backdrop for the display.

Local landmarks add to the display, including the historic Flanders Hotel and Music Pier, Scotch Hall and the Ninth Street train station. There are also amusements including a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round, with lights and music.

Using his imagination and an assortment of donated items, Marshall has recreated a scene of Ocean City in the early part of the last century. Marshall, an Ocean City native, said that’s about the time his family arrived on the island.

Old-fashioned houses dot the streetscape surrounding the tracks. There’s a horse and carriage and people can be spotted ice skating and otherwise enjoying the amenities Marshall’s small community offers.

It all started about 10 years ago with one train on one circular track.

“I always had trains. I love trains,” Marshall said. “One day, Betty was watching Channel 12 and they had a show about garden railroads at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. We went up to see it.”

Inspired by the garden railroads, they stopped on the way home and picked up a starter set. This was Marshall’s first foray into garden railroading.

The locomotives for a garden railroad set are about twice the size of a Lionel train set, Marshall said.

“I thought Lionel trains were big,” he said, adding that he was intrigued by the bigger trains and the opportunities they presented.

Indoor train sets were fun, outdoor train sets might be even more fun, he said.

Marshall said he thought his children – James, Thomas, Robert, Kathryn, Kristin and Julie – would enjoy the display. The youngest was 3 years old when he started.

“Over the years, it’s gotten bigger and bigger,” he said.

Neighbors have contributed much of the scenery, as Marshall has found ways to repurpose almost anything designed to be utilized outdoors into the display for the trains.

“I get creative with whatever the neighbors donate. If they get tired of something it ends up in the train display,” he said.

On Friday, Dec. 27 Marshall was outdoors all day preparing the train display for a trial run.

“It’s exhausting. I’m up and down all day getting this set up,” he said. “I have to find out where all the shorts are, and fix them.”

Railroads are fun, but they aren’t always easy, Marshall said. He utilizes family labor in the process.
“Once I get the technical process finished, the kids help me get it ready,” he said.

Though the Marshall children have mostly grown up, he said they still enjoy the display.

When the crowds arrive and he sees the smiles, the aches and pains involved in setting it up disappear, he said.

“It’s so worthwhile,” he said. “As soon as the first person shows up, I forget all about the hard work. That’s what it’s all about, seeing the children, watching everyone have a good time.”

Marshall said he enjoys the camaraderie a train set generates.

“Everyone has a story about a train,” he said.

In an era where technology rules, sometimes it’s the simple things that bring the most pleasure.

“One man stopped by one time, and he had heard someone talking about the trains on a treadmill at the gym. He just stopped by out of the blue. It’s word of mouth. He loved trains and he wanted to see it.

“Stopping by gives everyone a chance to relive their own train memories,” he said.

Twiggs, toads, rocks and squirrels, he said, wreak havoc on his railroad, but they are nothing compared to natural disaster. Hurricane Sandy remains a bitter memory for Marshall, as the tracks were under more than two feet of bay water during the October 2012 storm.

“It didn’t stop us, but it was a mess,” he said.

Marshall sets the trains up for Halloween that year, another tradition, and even after Sandy, he had the trains running for Trick or Treat.

“I had to clean the track,” he said. “Actually, I’m still cleaning it from Sandy. The tracks were fine, but the electric cords were buried, they were ruined and had to be replaced. I had stored all the engines and the other stuff inside the house, so they were fine. They survived. The yard was a big mess.”

A snowfall, however, is a welcome gift from Mother Nature, Marshall said.

“I clear the tracks and the trains run, it looks really pretty with a lot of snow,” he said.

Marshall, a Realtor for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, is a little league and recreational soccer coach, as well as a member of the Cape May County Civil War Roundtable and the South Jersey Garden Railroad Society.

The locomotives in the garden railroad at the Marshall's Merion Park home pass many familiar landmarks, including the historic Flanders Hotel, Music Pier and train station. The locomotives in the garden railroad at the Marshall's Merion Park home pass many familiar landmarks, including the historic Flanders Hotel, Music Pier and train station.


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