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All aboard: Backyard model trains featured in annual garden railway tour

Nick and Bonnie Roark pose with their grandson, Kyle Hobbs, 5, in their garden railway in Augusta on Wednesday. (Sept. 6, 2017)
Nick and Bonnie Roark pose with their grandson, Kyle Hobbs, 5, in their garden railway in Augusta on Wednesday. (Sept. 6, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

The train gives a whistle and starts heading down the track alongside Nick and Bonnie Roark’s home outside of Augusta.

“I’ve always had a model train somewhere since I was 7,” said Nick Roark. His love of trains started even earlier, when as a 4-year-old boy he would accompany his grandfather who worked on the Frisco Railroad on train rides.

Since 2009 – after going on one of the free annual garden railway tours like the one coming up Sept. 16 – the Roarks have been building a garden railway track on their rural property about 2 miles west of Augusta.

“We happened to have a pile of dirt and we thought, ‘We can run a train around it,’” said Nick Roark, who also has a second model train track set up in the home’s basement. “We started out with a little hill.”

That little hill has expanded to hundreds of feet of track that wrap around three sides of the Roarks’ home, from the backyard to the front porch in an elevated garden landscape that includes rocks hauled from the creek bed on their property.

Named the Redbird Railroad, it features a tunnel, four bridges, two intersecting loops, a small waterfall and pond, and three “scratch built” structures – two of them modeled after the former Frisco and BNSF train depots in Augusta.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Bonnie Roark of their railway. As a girl, she would travel with her mother by train from Decatur, Illinois, to visit her grandparents in Iola, Kansas.

The Roarks’ garden railway – along with five other garden railways in Wichita – will be featured during the 20th annual Wichita Area Garden Railway Society’s tour next Saturday.

The tour includes the Gene Spear Garden Railway at Botanica and a 31-foot portable steam loop that society member Bob Wald will set up at O.J. Watson Park.

The tour is free, with the tour guide pamphlet serving as the admission ticket for the holder and their immediate family to see Botanica’s garden railway. Tour-goers who want to ride on Watson Park’s miniature train that travels around the 40-acre lake and through two tunnels will need to purchase $3 tickets.

The Roarks are participating for the second year on the tour. Another popular garden railway – the Lake George Garden Railway run by David and Lana McLain at 2434 N. Amidon – is returning to the tour after a one-year hiatus. The McLains have been featured on the tour every year since 1998, shortly after they started constructing their railway.

“I had gone to Johnson’s and they had a train running around,” said Lana McLain about what inspired their railway. “We’d always had trains in the house and I came home and said, ‘We need to do this,’ and that’s all it took.”

With 400 feet of track and three separate loops of track to run three trains at a time, the McLains’ railway has grown to encompass most of the couple’s backyard.

“I kept coming up with ideas,” said David McLain.

The trains aren't the only attraction. Over the years, he has assembled an entire village, a refinery and several other vignettes of life in small scale. There's even a few alligator sculptures lounging near the large fish pond and a man sleeping on a park bench.

The McLains enjoy the railway year-round. During light winter snowfalls, they run a snow plow-equipped train car to clean the track.

Wichita Area Garden Railway Tour

What: Tour of six area garden railways at four homes and two Wichita attractions

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16

Where: 2434 N. Amidon; Botanica at 701 N. Amidon; O.J. Watson Park at 3022 S. McLean Blvd.; 2015 E. Blake; and 1041 S. Cooper in Wichita, 9610 SW Diamond Road in Augusta

Cost: Free. Guides to the tour are available at garden centers and Botanica. The guide provides free admission to Botanica.

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