The Botanical Garden’s Tiny Railway Town

Tucson, Arizona, is a place where the sun almost never stops shining. The rocky desert landscape, though, sometimes makes me homesick for the lush evergreens in Washington state. But Tucson doesn’t disappoint! One of my favorite go-to spots for green is a very popular Tucson landmark that almost everyone knows about unless they live under one of those desert rocks. The Tucson Botanical Gardens is a luscious garden escape, encompassing the aromas of a sweet spring garden always in bloom, hiding a multitude of displays ranging from Zen gardens with raked gravel pathways to a cozy café with a sprawling patio.

On one of my several visits to this not-so-hidden Tucson gem, I came across a display that surprised me. Tucked just slightly past the entrance is a very intricately laid-out miniature town surrounded by railroad tracks with a running train. I found out later that it’s one of several displays across Tucson set up by the Tucson Garden Railway Society. This particular railway display is protected from curious children by a see-through metal fence and a motion sensor starts up the train when someone approaches.

The Tiny “Roar” of the Trains

As you first enter into the area around the garden display you will see the shadows of a green glass butterfly. The butterfly is held gracefully in place by a metal pole entangled with swirls of colorful glass cubes, emanating a wind-like appearance. Just behind the butterfly lies this wonderful spectacle. You are gently welcomed by the tiny roar of the train engines as your eyes are enticed by the complexity of the garden display.

When I first walked over to admire the miniature railroad, the fact that it was completely uncovered astounded me. That little town was unprotected from the elements, which piqued my curiosity even more. As I peered over the metal wire fence, I was struck but its intricate complexity. I watched as not just one train was gliding along the tiny rails, but two! Yes, there are two main tracks that run alongside each other, each taking a unique path.

There is also a small separate track within the center of the tiny display named the Thorneville Railroad. The name can be seen engraved on a corrugated metal roof at the corner of the display. The model trains, each intricately designed with their own logos, include cabooses with little people inside. The train cabooses fit the aesthetic, engraved with logos such as THE RATH PACKING CO, allowing the train to embody the rustic aesthetic. Tucked aboard the train as a stowaway is a girl nonchalantly reading a book, hiding from the sun in the shade of the compartment. There is a multitude of buildings from grain silos, peering over the tower decorated with the Tucson Garden Railway Society logo, to wooden train depot shading all the trains that pass through As I began to look closer at the display I was once again shocked by the level of detail which I hadn’t seen before in any model train display.

The Little People of Thorneville

At one of the train stations there was a complete exhibit of sorts, there was a couple sitting in a small wooden shed, holding a baby as they waited patiently for the train to arrive, a barn with horses wandering the display, and a farmer in wagon loaded to capacity with oak wooden barrels. In the heart of the display there was cowboys riding horses, and houses with 20th century cars. Within the town there was even a fire station with a fully detailed firetruck, with a tightly wrapped black hose in the back incase of any fires. My absolute favorite part of the display is tucked in the back of the display, the school named the “Ding Dong School”, which got a good chuckle out of me since the name juxtaposes the early twenth century setting. The houses each have unique color palettes, some houses even including to size porthole windows at the crest of the shingle rooves. These small displays feel like a real 20th century town, with the garden landscaping matching!

Tucson Garden Railway Society

I personally love gardening and seeing how well incorporated the natural landscape was integrated into the train display made understand why it is known as a garden train display. As I wandered around the display I noticed on top of a hill, next to a faded church with nuns outside there was a sign saying that the display was put on by the Tucson Garden Railway Society, a non-profit organization that designs garden railway displays for various locations all over Tucson. The Tucson Garden Railway Society focuses on community projects, holding a year “Rails in the Garden” tour, where they create a new display and collect donations to give to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

Garden railway displays are a type of model train display that incorporates natural landscaping, thematic elements, and plants to elevate modular train displays. There are conventions held yearly where different garden railway organizations compete to create the best display. The Tucson Garden Railway Society may have members competing in this years 2022 National Garden Railway Convention, which is a nation wide competition bringing teams, and avid garden railway hobbyists together to compete in their two modeling divisions. Creating garden railway displays is for anyone and everyone, and if anyone is interested in joing in the Tucson Garden Railway Society they can join here.

I reached out to TGRS via email for comments about the display, but I didn’t hear back. However, I was able to ask a kind worker at the Tucson Botanical Gardens about the display.  Matthew Adamson, who works as the Director of Communications at the gardens, told me that the railway display there “is one of the few things on-site that is truly an attraction for children, yet adults have just as much fun with it as the kids do.” He said that the Tucson Botanical Gardens deeply value the relationship with the Tucson Garden Railway Society, the TGRS have  beautifully maintained the displays here for years. The Tucson Botanical Gardens have a deep and long lasting relationship with the Tucson Garden Railway society, which has culminated into the wonderous displays we see today.

I highly recommend that anyone who wants to have a nice escape from the Saguaros, check out both the Tucson Botanical Gardens located at 2150 North Alvernon Way, Tucson, AZ 85712, and the Tucson Garden Railway Society, linked here.


Landon Shimskey is an undergraduate student currently pursuing a chemical engineering degree at the University of Arizona. He expects to graduate in Spring 2025.