Every year around the holidays, 1,000 locomotive engines and rolling cars whip around nearly 2,000 feet of track at the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s A Brandywine Christmas. A former train conductor with the Wilmington & Western Railroad, Paul Hoerner began working on the display in 1987, and for the past four years, he and David Jensen have been the only two in charge. You can check out their handiwork from Nov. 29 to Jan. 5, 2020.
MLT: Where does your love of trains come from?
PH: My dad started putting up a train display on Christmas Eve when I [was young]. In the morning when I’d wake up, there’d be trains there, because Santa Claus had come and set them up. It started out as a lifelong passion for trains at Christmas, and that eventually grew into just enjoying real trains and modeling my own displays.
MLT: How’d you become involved in A Brandywine Christmas?
PH: When I was a freshman in college in 1987, a couple friends and I saw a help-wanted ad to set up a museum display right around Thanksgiving, and they happened to be model trains. I’ve been there ever since.
MLT: How do you balance tradition and innovation in the display?
PH: There are definitely beloved scenes that always stick around, like the dairy farm, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and the Herr’s Factory. We always try and have a nod to the past, but we also understand that we have people who come every year. We’ve been adding more lights to buildings and trying to add more animation and buttons you can push. Our museum was the first family-oriented Christmas train display in the area. If we want to stay on the cutting edge, we have to add more.
MLT: How does assembly work?
PH: Two weeks before, we’re given an empty gallery to set up our 35-by-61-foot train display. The first thing we do is put up the backdrop, based on a painting of the Delaware Valley and the Delaware Water Gap. There are 28 layout sections, most of them five by 10 feet. The next day, we bolt everything together. Then we start putting the track down, the buildings down, the trains down. Every time we add all these new bells and whistles, we need a little extra time to set up.
MLT: What’s your favorite part?
PH: You just see those kids whose eyes light up, and they come running in smiling, laughing and just enjoying themselves. For those 15-30 minutes, they can forget everything else.