All Aboard: Enjoy the Outdoor Model Railroad Exhibit at Biltmore Estate

By Mary Koppenheffer

Among the summer events and displays at the Biltmore Estate this year is an outdoor model train exhibit called ‘Vanderbilt Travels Railway.’ Located on the grassy area between the Outdoor Adventure Center and the farmyard in Antler Hill Village, the exhibit is a 250-foot display that highlights the travels of George Vanderbilt through his lifetime.  The exhibit will remain open through Sept. 4 and is included with admission to Biltmore.

During his 51-year life, Vanderbilt crossed the Atlantic 60 times. The exhibit includes models of famous sites located in European cities he visited in London, Paris and Amsterdam, as well as Grand Central Terminal and 660 Fifth Avenue in New York City along with the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York. 

Each display includes information about the Vanderbilt family travels. Biltmore public relations coordinator Mallory Flynn said, “The train display is a fun way for us to help share the exciting stories of George Vanderbilt’s travels with our guests.”

In ‘Vanderbilt Travels Railway,’ five model trains run along five track loops, passing by miniature versions of the USS Vanderbilt Steamship, Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe, London Bridge and others, as well as the Biltmore Rail Depot and Pisgah National Forest entry gate.

The Biltmore Rail Depot in Biltmore Village was designed by Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt to replace the original train depot, which was the first in the Asheville area. It handled the shipment of construction materials and antiques during the creation of the Biltmore House.

The station was also the first stop for many of the Vanderbilts’ guests when they arrived in western North Carolina on their way to the estate.

“Adults and children alike are loving the ‘Vanderbilt Travels Railway’ display – especially admiring the tiny details of each architectural element handcrafted from natural materials such as leaves, twigs and tiny acorns,”  Flynn said.

The Pisgah National Forest entry gate in Transylvania County is included in the exhibit. According to Biltmore, at the time of George Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, he was involved in negotiations to sell a large portion of his estate to the federal government in hopes that it would become a forest preserve. His wife Edith worked to complete this undertaking after his death. She lowered the asking price of nearly 87,000 acres of land to ensure its preservation, establishing the core of what later became Pisgah National Forest. In 1923, the gate was constructed as the entry to the national forest and as a memorial honoring local service members killed in World War I.

The display was designed and built by Applied Imagination, a crew of artists, botanical architects and landscape designers, from Alexandria, Kentucky.  The company is known for using all-natural materials like leaves, bark and twigs in their designs. Applied Imagination has similar exhibits on display around the country in large botanical gardens and arboretums, as well as the Bellagio Conservatory in Las Vegas.

In addition to the Antler Hill Village display, two other landmarks have been recreated by Applied Imagination and are showcased at the reception & ticketing center at Biltmore and at the Gardener’s Place shop. These pieces have been loaned to Biltmore from New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show.

Continuing the theme of miniatures, a toy model of Biltmore House is on display in the Wine Shop in Antler Hill Village. Designed and built by members of the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Lego User Group, the model of America’s largest home is over three feel tall and almost 10 feet long. According to Biltmore, creator Mark Stephens spent more than 600 hours piecing together about 50,000 toy bricks to create the Biltmore House replica.

The exhibit also includes a replica display of Lodge Gate, the arched gateway at the main entrance of Biltmore. About 3,700 of its total 6,525 toy bricks are ‘cheese wedge’ pieces, strategically placed to recreate the iconic arch shape and texture of the historic structure’s roof. Creator Sean Lehmkuhl spent 175 hours on this replica, which is on display in Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate.