Jim Strong’s Model Railway & Garden

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Strong, 64, a retired electrical engineer for NASA, has overlooked few details in building his Woodland Railway, the elaborate garden railroad he has assembled over the past 22 years in the shady half-acre around his Upper Marlboro home.

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Except for the train-shaped mailbox out front, there is little about the setting of Strong’s house—on a cul de sac in a quiet development by Andrews Air Force Base—that prepares you for what’s behind it. Walking into his yard is like riding the trolley from Mr. Rogers’ living room into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Fortunately, Strong is a better host than Rogers. He doesn’t talk to his visitors in cloying tones, and he can break down the intricacies of building a miniature Alpine house out of Styrofoam and concrete faster than you can say “Martha Stewart.” When he talks, you can hear in the pleasant ambling of his speech how much he relishes working out the kinks that building an outdoor model railway presents. It’s the process, not just the product, that fascinates him. “I care more how well [the trains] run than what they look like,” he says.

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But the Woodland Railway is more than a small-scale engineering feat. Red-brick walkways surround the layout, giving it the feel of a miniature Frederick Law Olmsted creation. The tracks begin on a sunny, level patch of ground that Strong calls Willow Flats, after a willow tree that once stood there. Willow Flats is now covered by immature trees and moss, which look like shrubbery roughly in proportion to the G-scale trains—which are 20 times smaller than the real thing—that run through them.

A track connects Willow Flats to what Strong has dubbed Gum Grove and Hemlock Hill, which sit on a slope under a canopy of full-grown gum and hemlock trees. The groves are but a few steps away from the flats, but the journey for the itty-bitty passengers of the Woodland Railway is treacherous. For them, the gentle slope is a steep incline made manageable by a vertigo-inducing 2-foot-high redwood trestle.

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