Trains captivated the American psyche when they first appeared in early 19th century, ultimately becoming a pervasive element in art, literature, film and music (even after automobile and air travel facilitated their decline). That same allure translated to toy trains when they were introduced in 1896 by Cincinnati’s Carlisle & Finch Company. Initially, a model train set was an expensive luxury reserved for wealthy adult collectors and not intended for children. Although model trains became accessible with the advent of mass production, they remained beyond the means of many parents.
The passion for trains has taken many forms, many of which can be experienced in Cincinnati Museum Center’s annual Holiday Junction display, which features the Duke Energy Holiday Trains.
The display’s origins can be traced to 1946, when the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company was gifted an elaborate train set by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which built it in 1935 to teach rail yard operation to the military. CG&E displayed the assembled set — more than 300 cars and 60 locomotives running on 1000 feet of track — in their office lobby at Fourth and Main streets as a free holiday treat to downtown shoppers. Dubbed Holiday Junction, it was hugely popular and became an annual Christmas tradition, surviving the company’s 1994 transition to Cinergy and 2006 acquisition by Duke Energy.
In 2011, Duke Energy transferred the trains to the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal for conservation and exhibition due to their age and condition. It was a perfect new venue, given Union Terminal’s former life as the city’s primary train station and its current status as a museum tasked with preserving the city’s cultural history.
Cody Hefner — the museum’s director of communications — says that the CMC assembled the display as a permanent exhibit to avoid unnecessary wear and tear, but the gallery is only open for viewing during the holiday season. This year he says they’re not only excited for the trains’ return, but also to welcome people back to Union Terminal after the remodeling project.
“The train layout has been a beloved holiday staple, a truly multi-generational experience that people talk about long after they leave them,” Hefner says. “Union Terminal is much the same way, a place that has meant so much to so many over the decades. This holiday season people can reconnect and fall in love with both all over again.”
In July 2016, the CMC closed for the first overall renovation of Union Terminal since its 1933 completion. The project was completed for the museum’s limited Nov. 2 preview and for a larger scale Nov. 17 reopening, which included the first look since 2015 at the newly redesigned Holiday Junction Featuring the Duke Energy Holiday Trains exhibit. The decision to shelve Holiday Junction during the renovation and not move it to a temporary location was made reluctantly by the CMC due to the fragile nature of the trains, which are only two years younger than Union Terminal.
The new set-up was conceived by Reverb Art + Design CEO and Creative Director Michelle D’Cruz. It features a playful presentation of the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky skylines, linked by the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Local landmarks are shown off, too — including Paul Brown Stadium, Music Hall and Union Terminal itself.
“Since the layout began, the topper has always been a dynamic piece that has changed and been eagerly anticipated,” says Hefner. “As we began to reimagine the gallery, we thought about doing a whimsical take on the region’s skyline to welcome back a uniquely Cincinnati piece.”
Holiday Junction’s revised track layout also features configurations dating back to the early 20 century, so real train aficionados can have fun identifying the new and old formations within the display’s intricate diorama.
Young fan favorite Thomas the Tank Engine and his steel-wheeled peer group have also returned to active service. The display is now visible in its entirety from the mezzanine entry, with the redesigned space offering better viewing angles.
Holiday Junction Featuring the Duke Energy Holiday Trains is on display through Jan. 27, 2019. For more info visit cincymuseum.org.