Garden Railway exhibit spotlights great lighthouses

In its 22nd season, the Morris Arboretum’s Garden Railway will open on Saturday, May 25, with a theme of ‘Great American Lighthouses.’

Lighthouse made from bar surrounded by greenery and rocks
A model of Youngstown, New York's Fort Niagara Lighthouse at the Morris Arboretum’s Garden Railway. (Photo: Morris Arboretum)

Each year, Memorial Day is embraced as the unofficial start of the summer season. At the Morris Arboretum, that summer kickoff begins with the opening of the Garden Railway.

Now in its 22nd year, the Garden Railway, which opens May 25, is a quarter-mile expanse of 13 tracks and four trolley lines all adorned with built-to-scale pieces of architecture. Most are nods to local buildings—think: Independence Hall or the Eugene Boathouse—constructed using elements of nature like bark, seeds, and even cinnamon.  

But each new season of the Garden Railway also comes with a unique theme. This year, it’s “Great American Lighthouses.”

“The lighthouse is a beacon of hope that’s prominently featured in our Garden Railway this year,” says Vincent Marrocco, associate director and chief horticulturalist at the Arboretum. “Other than just being really pretty and iconic, they really are very dramatic, dispersed throughout the Garden Railway display.”

The exhibit features 11 lighthouses, all located in the United States—as far south as Cape Florida Lighthouse in Florida, as far north as Sand Island Lighthouse along the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, and as near as Thomas Point Shoal on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The tallest lighthouse, Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, is a seven-foot-tall replica with black and white stripes that swirl to its top. The most prominently featured lighthouse, meanwhile, may not conventionally be thought of as a lighthouse at all: The Statue of Liberty, built as a five-foot-tall replica. 

Statue of Liberty made with natural materials surrounded by shrubs
A model of the Statue of Liberty, displayed as part of the Garden Railway at the Morris Arboretum. (Photo: Morris Arboretum)

The lighthouses are on loan from Applied Imagination, a company based in Alexandria, Kentucky, that makes buildings, tracks, and figurines in consultation with the Arboretum. The company also makes historic buildings and rails that are then purchased by the Arboretum to be part of a permanent collection. The models are built, says Applied Imagination Director Leslie Selka, with an eye toward “capturing the essence of the architecture with a botanical material.” Buildings are made using items like acorns and branches, while railings are partly made with—to cite one example—the stems of magnolia pods.

A team of artists at Applied Imaginations researches the lighthouses, Selka says, through historic documents and photos.

This year, the company also rebuilt a replica of the Arboretum’s Dorrance H. Hamilton Fernery—a greenhouse of ferns—and the Head House Square Main Building. A replica of the Compton Mansion, where the Morris family once resided, was also recently replaced.  New to the collection is a replica of Mount Pleasant in Fairmount Park and the New Hope Train Station, along with a new rail loop.

All of these replicas, of course, are accompanied by a thoughtfully designed garden and set of plantings.

“The thing we do at the Garden Railway is that we have these little buildings and we situate them in a landscape to scale, so it’s not a miniature building plopped down in the middle of the big garden. The proportions of the plantings make the buildings look like they’re organically part of the Railway,” Marrocco says.

The landscape features dwarf conifers and miniature perennials, for example, that are sized for the landscape. The Compton Mansion, meanwhile, has a small lawn around it—inspired by the Morris family’s actual lawn—that features clipped trees and shrubs. 

The project is, Marrocco says, a collaborative effort between the Arboretum and Applied Imaginations and, in its final product, a testament to 22 years of partnership that has resulted in enormous visitor growth for the Arboretum since 1998, soaring attendance from 35,000 to 145,000 last year. 

“Everybody should come out for this,” says Marrocco. “I like to say everybody is a kid when they’re at the Garden Railway.”