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Empire builder
Fox Point resident engineers railroad 
garden in the midst of wife's noted yard

By DAVE BACKMANN

September 2006

When Sally Edgett’s home was a stop on the American Association of University Women’s garden club tour, her diverse, well-kept perennial beds typically attracted, well, women.

But during the last tour, when some 350 people stopped by within a six-hour span, the crowd had changed. Her visitors were about 50-50, men and women.

The reason, explains Sally’s husband, Tom, is the railroad garden he engineered within his wife’s garden.

Tom, who is mostly retired, married his interest in gardening with the fun he derives from model railroading. The realistic, meticulously assembled result is an 18-by-25-foot raised garden bed, sprouting around 50 species of dwarf spruce, birch, juniper, barberry, moss and other plants, engulfing a G-scale railroad track.

"A garden railroad runs through an existing garden," Tom insists. "I built a railroad garden from scratch."

Each rail car on the Tom Edgett Line is comparable in size to a loaf of bread. His collection includes six train sets.

One train of cars is a radio-controlled diesel locomotive-caboose combo with a half-dozen beer-bearing cars in between.

Another has a smoke-puffing steam engine pulling five passenger coaches. Still another is diesel engine with eight coal cars in tow.

Tom began working on the railroad four years ago, after viewing a garden railroad at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes. "That got the juices flowing," he says.

With Sally’s assistance, he planned out his rail empire. He began by sketching a layout over winter in preparation for planting, stringing electrical wires and laying track come spring.

As was the case with constructing most railroads, progress on the project came with a price. He had to fell a crab apple tree in the yard of their home where the Edgetts have lived since 1969.

"It really drew upon my knowledge of engineering," says Tom, who has a background in industrial video production and sales management. "This involves a little bit of civil engineering, mechanical and electrical engineering. It is a very challenging hobby, but it is also a lot of fun.

"Usually, the first time that somebody sees this, their mouth opens," he says.

Tom selected Lannon stone, filled with topsoil, to form the raised bed. Within the bed is a miniature version of the hills, valleys and a river traversed by the Erie Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad. Tom chose the 1940s and 1950s as the time period for his layout because he wanted to display both steam and diesel locomotion.

His trains chug through a mountain tunnel, then enter a downtown district, a rural area and a forested region, along the way passing Tom’s favorite species of tree, a 6-inch dwarf river birch.

The route traveled is hardly level — track elevation ranges from 25 inches to about 8 inches.

An auto-reversing feature has trains rolling in one direction, reaching the end of the line, then retracing the route backward without the intervention of an engineer.

Tom’s interest in trains follows a route back to his boyhood when he played with a Lionel model train.

Garden railroading is a hobby, he says, that he and his wife can enjoy together.

In its formative years, the Edgetts’ railroad garden has been a seasonal endeavor that they shut down in late fall.

Now Tom wants to follow a railroad less taken. With the introduction of a locomotive brandishing a snowplow, or perhaps a motorized snowblower, he envisions wearing an engineer’s cap year-round.

"When the first snow falls, the buildings get covered and the street lights shine on the snow and it’s just beautiful," he says. "If the snow isn’t too deep, I may take the rolling stock out in winter."