A train’s song is iconic, and with the flip of a switch, Jerry Paladino’s garden railroad roars to life. When not in use, the cars and engines live on shelves that line the walls of his garage. From there, they chug through a tunnel in the wall, out to the backyard and on to elevated tracks.
“I had to do a lot of talking to knock a hole into a brand-new house,” Paladino says. “My wife is very understanding.”
Trains run through Paladino’s blood. His own father was an employee of Railway Express Agency and Union Pacific, and Paladino fondly remembers riding the California Zephyr in the 1960s.
Today, rather than riding his father’s magic carpet made of steel, he operates N-scale models. Perhaps it was natural he became enamored with garden railroads when he was invited to see the layout of a track run by the Gold Creek Railroad. It included hand-cut ties, hand-spiked rails, and a painted background.
“It just kind of blew me away,” he says. “It was just amazing. Museum-quality.”
Paladino started with his garden railroad hobby in the early 1990s. Indeed, garden railroading is a popular hobby across the country, and Paladino is a member, and serves as the current president of the River City Railroaders Club.
An outdoor railroad with tracks of brass and UV-resistant plastic ties curves through the garden. Trains with classic looks from U.P., Burlington Northern, and other railroads run along a track laid around the edge of a raised concrete planter. The planter, measuring 15 feet by 50 feet, houses a garden of miniaturized plants and model buildings.
The model buildings are both scratch- and kit-built and the layout features figurines of people and animals. There’s a water tower, a gazebo that lights up at night, and a golden spike where Paladino laid the last of the track. Many buildings sport signage and name tags noting Paladino’s family members, including his wife and grandchildren.
It takes tender care for these trains to roll past houses, farms, and fields. Paladino can’t use weed killer for the health of the garden’s miniature evergreens, roses, chrysanthemums, and other plants. The trains can run in all weather and temperatures so long as they have traction and the rails are clean and clear, but the track requires rebalancing from time to time.
“You gotta trim, you gotta prune, you gotta pull weeds,” Paladino says. “There’s always something out there to repair.”
For Paladino, the building and construction is his favorite part of the hobby, although he does enjoy conducting the trains for his grandchildren, who in turn enjoy racing toy cars along the track.
Some enthusiasts like to make their tracks adjustable, but Paladino prefers to keep his permanent.
“I put the tracks and the main lines up against the outside edge of the layout,” he says. “It’s completely flat, there’s no grade to it at all. That’s how I like it.”
One thing is certain—that constant clacking of the wheels on the tracks take him to far away places.
“I just turn it on and sit in a lawn chair and watch it run.”
And then the rhythm of the rails is all he feels.