2009-10-15 / News

Local train garden garners national recognition

By Stacy Jones

Most people don’t know what a railroad garden is, or that it’s one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the U.S. Fewer still know that the activity harbors the secret to health, happiness and a lifelong marriage.

That last fact comes – partly in jest – courtesy of Manuel Neronha, train enthusiast and happily married man of 51 years.

“It’s the ideal combination for couples,” said 80-year-old Neronha, who created his Bayside Garden Railroad with his 73-yearold wife, Veronika. “The women garden and the men focus on their trains. It’s just another thing you can enjoy together.”

Sounds perfect, though not every couple, young or old, wants to devote the time, labor and money required to create a train garden, which is exactly what it sounds like—an outdoor train set arranged among a background of plants and trees.

But these trains can’t be found in a dollar store or even at your local big box retailer.

Until recently, these scaleddown, mostly electric replicas of historical trains were made primarily in Germany. And replicas can set a buyer back thousands of dollars.

A few years ago, Veronika wanted to surprise her husband with a new train for his collection. Since the couple always dreamed of booking a trip on the real Orient Express (and since cost made fulfilling that dream unlikely), Veronika decided that an Orient Express replica would be the perfect train to add to their garden. After saving, she made the purchase at a cost of $2,000. Although he loved the gift, Neronha said, “If I would have known how much it cost, I would have told her to forget it.”

A distracting start

The Neronhas are members of the Rusty Rails and Rotten Ties Club in Massachusetts, which meets once a month and holds seven open houses throughout the year, each at a different member’s home. They and members of their club focus on “G” gauge trains, the largest scale and fastest-growing segment for garden train hobbyists.

“They are big, unbreakable and waterproof,” Neronha said. “You can throw them in the bathtub and wash them if you want to.”

The couple’s effort over the years has resulted in a train garden featuring more than 500 feet of track, numerous trains, 22 buildings, miniature bridges and roughly 25 different plantings. The plantings, some seasonal, are all dwarf, Bonsai or miniature shrubs and include junipers, curly-leaf locust trees, tulips and daffodils.

Such an ending could not have been envisioned when Neronha took his first step toward his fledgling pastime. It began as a distraction from his real passion at the time – smoking, said Veronika Neronha.

“He got the train idea in 1986, after I asked him to stop smoking. I told him he could take his cigarette money and put it anywhere he wanted,” she said.

On March 1, 1986, Neronha quit cold turkey and soon made a trip to a hobby shop in the Apponaug section of Warwick. He returned home with a couple of railroad magazines.

“I always wanted to have trains as a child, but I never had them,” Neronha said. “All I had was lead soldiers.”

After that initial visit, Neronha bought a starter kit and set it up in the living room. Eventually, he moved the railroad set outdoors, on a little flowerbed. Over the next eight years, the couple added trains, flowerbeds, railroad ties, loam and stones, among other things, to create the garden they have today. “I can run five trains at once in my garden,” Neronha said.

‘What’s going on

in that house?’

The hobby has brought Manuel and Veronika more than personal satisfaction. Their unique train garden has garnered local, national and international praise. The latest honor will come in the form of a magazine spread in the April 2010 issue of Garden Railways.

“It’s quite an honor,” Neronha said. “Very unusual.”

“Earlier in the year, a horticultural reporter for Garden Railways came to New England to look at two or three train gardens and one was ours,” he explained. Particularly impressive to the reporter, added Veronika Neronha, was the placement of the plants, specifically, the three-dimensionalism of the plantings overlooking the trains.

Other honors have included recognition by New England Cable News as one of the outstanding garden railroads in New England and by the Jamestown Quononquott Garden Club as a featured garden on its local tours. The Bayside Garden Railroad was also part of two national railroad tours, which attracted international hobbyists.

While appreciative of the ac- colades, the most gratifying aspect of their train garden is sharing it with the community, especially children.

“I love interacting with the children the most,” said Neronha, who holds an open house every summer for all the school children in Jamestown and their parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. “Family is important, so we welcome everybody.”

The open house is quite humorous, he said, and reaches its peak as the children and their families depart.

“Kids are going out of our driveway, screaming and hollering because they don’t want to leave,” he said. “People must wonder what’s going on in that house.”

For a man who has spent his entire life in Jamestown and most of his career in the transportation field – retiring as chief of operations for the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority – Neronha believes the train garden is proof that hard work, dedication to a cause and teamwork is always more valuable than money.

“We just play with trains,” he said, adding that train gardens are big business. People pay a lot of money to have these train gardens set up, he said.

“I’m quite proud of the fact that we did it ourselves. All this is our work. We didn’t pay anybody.”

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