Some Christmas traditions make more sense than others. Santa Claus gets cookies, kids sing Christmas carols, and we chop down fir trees and put them inside our homes (ok, that one’s a bit weird). But model trains — where did they come from? Once the holidays arrive they show up everywhere, from public spaces to store windows, and in people’s homes circling the Christmas tree.
While no one knows for sure why model trains have become such an iconic Christmas symbol, Mary Lehr, Curator of the Best Friend of Charleston Railway Museum, shared one theory with us that has roots in a little-known Charleston icon. The Best Friend of Charleston was the name of the first train ever built completely in the United States and was also the first steam locomotive in the U.S. to establish regularly scheduled passenger service. The inaugural voyage of the Best Friend occurred in 1830, on Christmas Day, which is how model trains came to be associated with Christmas in America. “You have to understand that the Best Friend of Charleston was like the rocket ship of its day. When witnesses saw the Best Friend for the first time on that Christmas morning, it was like nothing they had ever seen,” explains Lehr. The amazement which that first locomotive voyage inspired may be why trains have come to symbolize the wonder and magic of the holidays, not just for Charlestonians, but for American everywhere.
Though Charleston isn’t exactly overflowing with holiday model train setups, there are a couple of places around town where you can find them.
One of the most famous model train displays in town is located in the lobby of the Charleston Place Hotel which first began operating their O Gauge model trains in 2001. Last year, Lou Nappi, the mastermind behind the Charleston Place’s train set up, added a mini-camera to the train, so that viewers could take a virtual trip on the train. To see what new surprises have been added this year, head to the lobby of the Charleston Place between 9 a.m and 10 p.m from now until New Year’s.
Want more trains? Check out the The Best Friends of Charleston Rail Museum. Though the life-size replica of the original Best Friend train is out on loan to another museum, you can still see displays of artifacts, videos, and other model trains. The museum is free and located in the Citadel Mall on Sam Rittenberg Road. It’s open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m and Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Starting this Friday, Dec. 7, you can see paintings of trains by the official artist of the Lionel Train Corporation, Angela Trotta Thomas, at COCO VIVO Fine Art. There will also be a model train chugging its way through a snowy village.
And if just seeing trains isn’t enough for you, head to the James Island County Park Holiday Festival of Lights to take a ride on the Festival Express. This 54-passenger trains travels throughout the festival, taking visitors through displays of more than 2 million Christmas lights. Find more information about the Festival Express on the Charleston County Parks and Recreation department website.