A typical scene in the model railroad exhibit at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Photo by the Getaway Guys

Here is something for area Chicagoans ages 2 to 90. The Getaway Guys thought, “To heck with seriousness, let’s do something light-hearted.” At the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) visitors to the outdoor toy train layout do not need to know one architectural style from another or anything else terribly important to get a kick out of this terrific exhibit.

Although it is 24 miles away from downtown Chicago, the Chicago Botanic Garden is one of Chicagoland’s most outstanding examples of what excellent planning and generous support can produce. Exhibits like the toy trains are the icing
on the cake.

The CBG’s outdoor train layout is not only extensive, but mind-boggling in its complexity. In junior high school, Getaway Guy Neil Cogbill tried to make three Lionel electric trains run simultaneously with a minimum of success. The electrical wiring was almost beyond his comprehension or that of his father, who worked for Consolidated Edison in New York City. The CBG layout is a wonder. Neil still owns his original Lionel train (c. 1940) and Getaway Guy Alan Barney still has
his American Flyer trains, making both (they suppose) at least junior members of the toy train set.

For visitors from 60 to 90 (with or without grandchildren in tow), this display will likely bring back memories of train travel when dining, lounge and observation cars were the norm; back when, seated comfortably, a traveler could watch the mysteries of a changing landscape that made time seem irrelevant. For those between 30 and 60, trains are possibly a curious bygone travel mode, except for daily commuters to and from work via Metra. But for the underage working segment
between 2 and 10 there appears to be an utter fascination with anything that runs on a track. Maybe Thomas the Tank Engine is responsible.

In conjunction with Applied Imaginations of Alexandria, Ky. the train and horticultural staffs at the CBG commences work in January for the coming season, which typically runs from mid-May until late October. With 18 trains, 7500 sq. ft. of exhibition space, 1500 feet of tracks to be refurbished and 5,000 plants to be installed, the CBG train layout is a major undertaking. On average these “O”-plus-scale trains travel about 22,000 miles during a 5 ½-month season and, not unlike real trains, they require constant maintenance and a dedication to duty.

In addition to familiar Chicago sites, the trains traverse a complicated roadbed of twists and turns past iconic American landmarks such as the White House, Mt. Rushmore, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and the Statue of Liberty, which makes little sense geographically. But for 2-to-10-year-olds less hung up on making sense the layout is a great game of recognition that encapsulates a truncated history of the U.S. and its signature monuments.

Former librarian Alan got into it big time and was very proud of his ability to identify almost every landmark. Neil (his jaded, Brooklyn-born sidekick) recognized most landmarks, too.

This exhibit celebrates American railroading past and present in a whimsical way.  Missing is a hint of the future. America’s somewhat-wanting Acela from Boston to Washington D.C. is notably missing, along with truly high-speed trains experienced by Neil in France and Alan in China. Of course, trying to incorporate high-speed examples into the present layout would be a formidable challenge, but may be something to be considered.

Hundreds of American songs are dedicated to train lore. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” readily comes to mind. But, for this article the Getaway Guys will sign off with Al Jolson’s “Toot-Toot Tootsie Goodbye”:

Toot-Toot Tootsie goodbye.

Toot-Toot Tootsie don’t cry.

The choo-choo train that takes me from you

No words can tell how sad it makes me.

With this article (for the Evanston RoundTable and getaway-chicago.com), Neil Cogbill and Alan Barney are going to take a brief hiatus. For the next couple of months they will be working on their much-delayed book and will return to business as usual in October.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.