All aboard! Railroad garden tracks eye of artists, skill of engineers

by Jan Spann

Train sets have long been a favorite Christmas gift from Santa, perhaps for the dad as much as the child, and a new twist on that old favorite is the railroad garden. 

Central Arkansas offers three locations open for public view: Garvan Woodland Gardens, which is open throughout the year; and two others with open houses this month only. All have one key connection, and that’s where this story begins.

Tired of freezing in the Wisconsin winters, Dan and Mary Tursky moved to Huntsville (Madison County) with their four children 35 years ago. When Dan’s brother was diagnosed with cancer five years later, Dan visited him in Wisconsin and wanted to enjoy a shared hobby. After attending a home expo, the brothers chose model trains for their project. 

Twenty years later when the kids had left the nest, the couple moved to Hot Springs Village, where they found one or two retirees already involved with this pursuit.

The lot they chose in the Village was deemed “unbuildable” due to a big culvert that captured street water. The Turskys turned that obstacle into a feature of the railroad garden with extensive bridge trestles through the lush shade plantings. 

David Davies, then director of Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, wanted a railroad in the Gardens to showcase Mrs. Garvan’s brick company. Dan and a few others spent many hours completing the structure – the first of Dan’s to be displayed publicly. For that work, Dan was honored as volunteer of year at the Gardens.

After six years in the Village, the couple headed to the hills south of Perryville, leaving all but five pieces of that railroad garden.

To say what they’ve built in four years is amazing is an understatement. To learn that Dan has no degree in art or engineering makes this tiny village of 108 structures an even more amazing sight to behold. Dan prides himself on telling homebuilders that he has built more houses than the average contractor!

The home and garden perch on a gently sloping ridge with scenic views both east and west. The rails and the footpath meander down with several water features, including structures to camouflage water hoses and valves. Mary has helped landscape so that seasonal flowers, shrubs and groundcovers add visual interest. 

Dan meticulously details each of the concrete buildings, getting inspiration from past family connections like the Harley Davidson store or a Wall Street Journal photo his sister-in-law sent of an Italian manor that became his kingdom’s castle. Both of these structures were two that were brought from the Village, along with the lighthouse, restaurant and church. Dan’s uncle owned a Harley shop, and Dan’s dad had a Triumph store in Wisconsin, where Dan worked.   

The hardest part of the process, according to Dan, is deciding what to build next. Dan has turned his attention to Swiss buildings, even though the sharp angles of the roofs have been difficult to master in concrete, as have the dormer windows and decorative millwork. Perhaps the challenge is what he enjoys most.

Dan is proud that he uses local sources for Portland cement and other supplies such as bird baths. He shops flea markets and thrift stores to find just the right trimmings. In the monastery complex – five buildings with a total weight of 425 pounds – the Last Supper frieze was found in the Goodwill Store in Fond du Lac, Wis. Brass bells and figurines also adorn the design.

Mary weeds the garden and mixes cement in a wheelbarrow while Dan moves stones, builds steps and sets up the trains and buildings. The process entails five days for drying each section as well as the details such as brick lines and other embellishment that Dan carefully draws onto the buildings. Their home’s basement houses his workshop, a large storage room with spare cars and parts carefully organized, as well as a three-train exhibit and photos of potential future projects.

“It’s similar to making a gingerbread house, with components constructed separately, then assembled with Liquid Nails,” said Mary. Of the 108 buildings, only one has come apart.

The move to Perryville brought almost full sun to the railroad garden, a complete change from the shady spot in Hot Springs Village. The plastic rails become brittle in the sunlight, so Dan tinkers with that. One year, a pack rat ate through some of the wires, and Dan notes that one thing seems to lead to another when working on the railroad.

“There’s no equipment to do it the right way, so I figure out how to do it with what I have,” he said. “If I don’t pay attention, I’ll make one house, then need to build four more to satisfy the design.”

The garden railroad includes 775 feet of track, with electricity and water features and five trains in motion. For the open house, the couple brings out the finishing touches: a zoo full of animals and a zookeeper, motorcycles in the Harley and Triumph shops, guests at the lodge and restaurant and a sailor on the submarine.

Some railroad gardens follow a theme like Route 66 or western cowboys, but Dan allows his creativity to flow freely, giving the visitor an enchanting panorama. 

The Hot Springs Village Open House, with about five gardens, will be 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday, May 19. Visit the Tursky’s masterpiece from 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, May 20. From Little Rock, drive west on Highway 10 about 20 miles. A few miles past Thornburg, turn right on Madelyn (top of the hill just past the Forest Service Building on the left). Turn left on Will Drive, and it is the third house on the left. From Morrilton or Conway, drive about four miles (from Perryville) sou
th on Highway 9. As you crest a hill and the road narrows from two lanes to one, turn left on Madelyn.

To learn more about trains in the garden, contact the Central Arkansas Garden Railway Society at 501.607.2251.