Fire destroys Fernwood Railway Garden
Published 7:15 pm Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Staff members cried openly as firefighters sifted through the still smoking remains of what was once one of the Niles area’s most beloved childhood attractions — the Fernwood Railway Garden.
“It is just heartbreaking,” said Carol Line, executive director of Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve. “We are all pretty shaken.”
The 50 foot, by 50 foot structure, which features four trains running at different levels, was destroyed by a fire that broke out around 5 p.m. Wednesday in one of two small houses that contain the display’s electrical components.
Annette Lyons, who was volunteering at the railway garden at the time, said she smelled smoke and then discovered fire in one of the houses.
“There was flames on the track up above, so I shut the door to block the oxygen and looked for a fire extinguisher… I got my phone and called the desk and they called 911,” she said. “I didn’t know what kind of fire extinguisher I had, and didn’t know if I had an electrical fire so I didn’t want to make it worse. So I waited until someone came to help me.”
By the time firefighters arrived at Fernwood, which lies secluded off of Range Line Road in remote Buchanan Township, the seven-year-old structure had already sustained heavy damage.
Line said she plans to rebuild the railway garden, which she credits for having helped Fernwood survive during a time when visitation was low.
“The little train that saved Fernwood basically,” she said, adding that she has already called their insurance agent. “It has just done amazing things for our small garden… it’s not only become a destination for kids, but for families and grandparents and for everyone.”
The railway garden was built by renowned landscape architect Paul Busse and opened to the public in June of 2009. In addition to its meandering tracks and lifelike landscapes, the railway garden features replicas of local historical buildings, including the Niles Amtrak Depot, Pears Mill in Buchanan, Golden Dome of Notre Dame, Niles Chapin Mansion and the St. Joseph Lighthouse.
The Golden Dome and Pears Mill replicas sustained damage, while the others appear to have been spared by the fire.
Line said Fernwood should remain open regular hours and she is not sure how the fire will affect Saturday’s Halloween Happening event.
Line said the railway garden cost about $50,000 to build back in 2009. That amount does not include additions and improvements made over the years.