If you have a child that loves trains, then the moment you walk into the Train Garden at the Botanical Garden at City Park, you know you’re going to be there a while. In fact, it quickly morphs into one of those parenting moments when you know you have lost a battle before you have even had it, and you’re best to sit back and enjoy a little bit of New Orleans architecture and history as it chugs right by you.
The garden is tucked away in a particularly lush corner of the Botanical Garden. While most people find themselves visiting it for “Celebration in the Oaks” during the holidays – and the garden was designed in 2002 for that very event – a daytime visit during the weekend when the train is running allows folks to enjoy some of the splendid details in the buildings and train cars that aren’t as visible in the evening hours.
Featuring 1,300 feet of track, the train garden celebrates New Orleans history by focusing on its role as a major train hub in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, a moment that saw tremendous growth in specific neighborhoods. Placards showcasing these neighborhoods – you’ll notice Marigny, French Quarter and Garden District in particular – give not only their history, but how they changed and were shaped at the time that New Orleans was one of the major railroad destinations in the United States.
In addition to replica streetcars (at 1/22 of their original size), there are a vast array of train cars: from commercial freighters that we see along the Mississippi River (some even bearing the same logos) to old-time engines and coal cars. There are even a few Thomas the Train cars – in case you have a younger child determined to see his or her favorite train character.
The Train Garden and layout were designed by Paul Busse who, along with his team at Applied Imagination, have designed train gardens and botanical exhibits across the United States. While the Botanical Garden suffered immensely after Hurricane Katrina, a generous grant from the Azby Fund allowed for staffers to remain and remove plantings. The trains and buildings were packed away, but it was a huge effort from volunteers that helped bring it all back for what was to be an abbreviated “Celebration in the Oaks” in 2005.
While it’s easy to get lost in the whimsical designs of the buildings, the impressive scales of buildings and, in particular, a huge (relatively speaking, of course) wooden rail bridge, one of the most impressive elements of the train garden is barn where the “engineers” work on keeping the track in line, the cars tuned up and everything in working order. For the child interested in the technical side of model railroading, this section of the garden is the most compelling. Volunteers on staff are happy to talk to visitors, and there’s a wealth of information (including a few model train magazines for sale) for those interested. The Train Garden also hosts birthday parties and events.
While the train only runs on the weekends, the garden itself is a reminder of how our 365-day growing season allows for train gardens to operate year round. Meanwhile, the Garden Trains Association (link available on the City Park website) has a ton of information – some of it designed for beginners – to help every New Orleanian take advantage of our local flora while maybe adding a little chugga chugga to our own landscapes.
Just the Facts …
New Orleans Botanical Garden
Hours: Open 7 days a week, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tickets: Adults: $8
Children 3-12: $4
Children under 3: Free
Free admission for Louisiana residents on Wednesday; please show your ID to the cashier.
New Orleans Train Garden
Hours: Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Tickets: Included in Botanical Garden Admission