By Donald Wittkowski
Brayden Smith watched in fascination as the trains went round and round on tracks that passed through a miniature fantasy town of tiny people, quaint homes, schools, churches, businesses and streets lined with snow-covered Christmas trees.
“I like Santa in the caboose,” 4-year-old Brayden exclaimed when his father, Eric Smith, asked him to name his favorite part of the train display.
Brayden wasn’t the only one who was captivated Saturday by the elaborate model railroad displays, many featuring holiday themes, at the Ocean City Train Show at the Music Pier, now in its 24th year.
Al Schmidt, 75, a member of the South Jersey Garden Railroad Society, said model trains appeal to people of all ages because they are “timeless.”
Over the years, model trains have become symbolic of the joy of Christmas. The custom of putting toy trains under the Christmas tree dates to the 1880s, historians say. Schmidt, of Haddonfield, noted that he had a model train under his Christmas tree when he was young.
“It wasn’t Christmas until you had a train under the tree,” he said.
Schmidt recalled that when he was a child, the same special blue trains would magically appear under his family’s Christmas tree. Afterward, they would be put away for the rest of the year, only to reappear for their Christmas cameo.
“The same blue trains meant that Santa had come,” Schmidt said. “When we were kids, it had to be the same blue train with the blue cars.”
Jim Lincoln, 72, vice president of the South Jersey Garden Railroad Society, fondly remembered how his father would make Christmas morning even more special by surprising him with model trains.
“I would come down, and the train would be running. You didn’t know where it would come from, but it was there,” said Lincoln, of Galloway Township.
Each year, just weeks before Christmas, Lincoln, Schmidt and other members of the South Jersey Garden Railroad Society transform the Ocean City Music Pier into a beguiling, nostalgic dream world of toy locomotives, cabooses and passenger cars for the ever-popular train show.
The show, which continues on Sunday at the Music Pier from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., also features trains, train parts, holiday decorations for home displays and memorabilia for sale.
Husband and wife Jim and Marilyn Fox, who are also members of the South Jersey Garden Railroad Society, made a special trip to Ocean City from their home in Kissimmee, Fla., to help assemble the sprawling, centerpiece train display that occupied the Music Pier’s stage.
“I hope to get children interested in trains and to educate them on train history,” said 79-year-old Marilyn Fox. “For the older people, it’s the nostalgia of trains.”
It took the Foxes and other club members more than three hours to put the display together.
“It’s really heart-warming. There’s nothing more fun than seeing people watching the trains and taking pictures,” said Jim Fox, 81.
The Smith family, of Pottstown, Pa., stopped in to marvel over the trains while they were in Ocean City for a weekend getaway of horse and carriage rides in the downtown shopping district and pictures with Santa outside the Music Pier.
Brayden Smith replied with an enthusiastic “Good!” when he was asked what he thought about the show. His parents, Eric and Casey Smith, smiled when they saw him light up. Brayden’s 1-year-old brother, Owen, was also with the family.
Eric Smith said the train show rekindled memories of his youth. He didn’t have model trains, but his father, Craig Smith, did. Eric said he would help his father create the scenery that was part of the train sets.
“I would build up the fake mountains that we had in the basement,” he said.
One of the train buffs at Saturday’s show was 9-year-old Ashton Coulter, of Evesham, N.J. He was accompanied by his mother, two siblings and his grandparents.
“Cool” was how Ashton described the show. He particularly liked a model train set that had Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sticking out of the top.
Ashton’s mother, Sharon Coulter, said the family already has one train set. Glancing toward his mom, Ashton made it clear that he would like another one this Christmas.
“We want Santa to bring more trains,” he said.