The tiny trains chugged along the twisting track of rails, making a journey through a miniature version of America.
Trains passed the iconic faces of Mt. Rushmore, which had been carved out of wood and embellished with moss, shelf fungus, walnuts and other materials. The Golden Gate Bridge, with woven cables and grand red wooden towers, spanned a far end of the display.
On a small-scale Las Vegas strip, trains wove through Caesar’s Palace, a digital “Elvis!” sign and an illuminated pair of dice.
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Visitors to the Eiteljorg Museum this holiday season will have the opportunity to ride the railways from Indianapolis out west and back again. The annual Jingle Rails: The Great Western Adventure display will feature nine different trains running simultaneously on 1,200 feet of track, passing by painstakingly recreated models of Yosemite National Park, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Las Vega strip.
Organizers have blended some of the country’s most recognizable landmarks with the holiday aura surrounding model trains. The result is the museum’s most popular attractions.
“It helps us tell the story of the West. We feature the iconic parks, and we also tie in the Native American aspects of the country,” said Martha Hill, vice president for public programs and visitor experience. “It’s a fun, fanciful way for us to explore our mission.”
Inside the Louisville, Kentucky, workshops of Applied Imagination, workers chipped away at the displays for months. The team assigned to Jingle Rails not only had to work on the existing Indianapolis features such as Monument Circle, but were in charge of creating a Hoover Dam and Las Vegas scene from scratch.
“It was a concept we worked on for a long time. We ended up creating a really wild scene in Vegas — it’s got everything but the topless dancers,” said Cindy Johnson, a botanical architect for Applied Imagination.
The company was founded by model train enthusiast and landscape architect Paul Busse, and has created garden railroads for the New York Botanical Garden, United States Botanic Garden in Washington, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Bellagio Conservatory in Las Vegas.
Nearly all aspects of the displays are made using natural products.
All of the bridges and tresses are made of black willow trees from Kentucky. The mountains are cast-off bark and other unused pieces of Kentucky red cedar.
Acorn caps, seeds, twigs and other types of plant material help embellish the displays.
“You get attuned to working with those materials,” Johnson said. “Mother Nature has given us a great gift of building materials. But a walk in the woods is not the same anymore.”
Jingle Rails has been a tradition at the Eiteljorg since 2010. The concept was to create a holiday tradition for the museum, which organizers could put on year after year to attract more visitors to the building, Hill said.
With the museum’s focus on Western art, it seemed fitting to incorporate trains into their project. Staff members were aware of Applied Imagination’s work, and started collaborating with the company on a toy train extravaganza.
“We thought about how we could make a garden-railway kind of thing work for the Eiteljorg?,” Hill said. “Our mission is based on telling the stories of the American West, so how about a train trip that starts here and heads out to some of the great iconic places of the West.”
Hill works closely with the team from Applied Imagination. The Eiteljorg envisioned the places they hoped to see in the display, and asked if the artists could make it happen.
“They’re amazing artists, and so creative. They have a staff that does the research, looks at pictures, and creates something that’s very real,” Hill said. “It’s fanciful, but it’s all real.”
People start their journey in Indianapolis, where miniature versions of Chase Tower and Lucas Oil Stadium have been crafted out of bark, moss and twigs. Of course, the Eiteljorg Museum is one of the landmarks on the trains’ routes.
The rails pass through tunnels carved in mountains made of tree trunks, frontier villages and stagecoaches. Waterfalls tumble over ledges and into basins that meander through canyons made of bark.
The train eventually makes its way to Glacier National Park and its namesake rivers of ice. Yellowstone National Park features a small working Old Faithful.
The Grand Canyon is made of layers and layers of different bark.
“You can see the layers of the canyon. We even included the bark of a giant redwood tree to have this red bark layer in a few places to make it more authentic,” Johnson said.
The museum has allowed visitors to vote for the feature they want to see the following year. Past winners include the state fairgrounds, hot air balloons and Aspen ski slopes.
Recognizing the museum’s dedication to Native American art, recreations of villages from the Blackfeet and other tribes have been inserted throughout the display.
Set-up takes about two days. The team of botanical architects have built the entire display on hexagonal tables that can be assembled as pods each year. After set-up, other decorators set up snow and lighted trees to make the display glow.
A small army of volunteer model-train enthusiasts help set up and trouble-shoot the tracks.
Those volunteers take time during the duration of the exhibit to answer questions about the trains and ensure the models are working properly.
“They love to talk to the folks who come in, because they love model trains and they all have these amazing set-ups at their own homes,” Hill said.
The train set-up is the main attraction. But organizers have created additional activities surrounding the exhibit to help people relate to it.
A hunt-and-find activity invites children of all ages to search the display for significant items.
An interactive kiosk at the entrance of the exhibit offers a trains-eye view of the scenery that’s been created by Applied Imagination. People can follow each individual train through the length of their journey, or click on individual attractions to see canyons, mountains and parks in detail.
The kiosk also will connect those locations to pieces of art in the museum related to those spots. Focusing in on the Jingle Rails version of the Grand Canyon will take people to Wilson Hurley’s massive painting, “October Suite, Grand Canyon.”
“That was really one of our big goals this year to make more ties from Jingle Rails to the rest of our galleries,” Hill said.
Jingle Rails: The Great Western Adventure
When: Through Jan. 18
Where: Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
What: A G-scale train display featuring trains racing from downtown Indianapolis to the American West past famous landmarks including Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, Golden Gate Bridge and Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium and Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
Length of track used: 1,200
Number of trains: Nine
Cost: Included with museum admission; $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $6 for children ages 5 to 17, and free for kids 4 and under.