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Detours

A railroad engineered as their labor of love

By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspodent / April 11, 2010

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JONESPORT, Maine — Inside the garage-like building adjacent to Harold and Helen Beal’s home is what may be Maine’s largest model railway. The Beals’ Maine Central Model Railroad covers 900 square feet and features 4,000 trees, 407 train cars, 3,000 feet of track, 11 bridges and trestles, and 200 switches.

Tracks wind through towns modeled on real Maine places, winding past mines and mills, lobster boats and lighthouses, cities and villages. Sharp eyes can spy Stephen King’s house and Dysart’s Truck Stop in Bangor, Champion Paper in Bucksport, lobstermen docking at Cape Split, Harbor House in Jonesport, lumbermen rolling logs, a hunter surprised by a bear, even an accident scene complete with ambulance.

“We hit about everything,’’ says “Buz’’ Beal. “There’s even an outhouse. Now that’s getting down to the nitty gritty.

“I’ve got railroading in my blood,’’ says Beal, 73, a Jonesport native and 26-year Coast Guard veteran whose grandfather was a Canadian Pacific engineer. Beal began planning the model’s layout as a boy, but it wasn’t until around 1989, when he had returned to Jonesport after nearly 50 years away, that he began building his dream. It took 12 years and thousands of hours to complete.

“You have to have the place, the opportunity, and the patience,’’ he says. And the right partner. “Helen’s family were railroad people. We’ve been married 25 years and never had an argument. We’re two peas in a pod.’’

Beal had a track plan, and he knew the model would fill the building before they started construction. They did everything by hand using tweezers, glue, and plaster of Paris.

“We didn’t know what the heck we were doing. We did it as we went along, 6 to 8 feet at a time,’’ Beal says. The model rests on a maze of tables with varying heights. “I didn’t want it all the same; it gets humdrum if you do that,’’ he says. The design allows visitors to walk through the layout.

Helen Beal built the little houses and cut 600 windows by hand using an X-Acto knife. She also affixed trees and painted all the small pieces. Buz Beal painted the houses and built the larger structures. Some cars were built from scratch, some made from kits, others bought. The granite cliffs and wooded mountains were created with layers of plaster-soaked paper towels.

The model has three sections, and full operation requires a trained volunteer manning each. There are boxcars and grain cars, gondolas, and cars designed to carry gas, oil, or coal.

“You have to know all the businesses, how many cars can fit on a siding by each business, and know what every car is and what it carries or is used for. There’s a lot to it. People look and don’t realize that,’’ Beal says.

Word of mouth has been the biggest advertising. Most visitors to off-the-beaten-track Jonesport are coming for a puffin-sighting excursion to Machias Seal Island or to hike the trails on bridge-connected Great Wass Island. But once they are here, innkeepers such as Maureen Hart, whose Harbor House is included on the train layout, refer them to the Beals. A large US map is filled with pins, showing that visitors from every state have made their own tracks to the model railway.

Beal operates one train through the full layout for most visitors, and that takes nine minutes. When he flips the power switch, lights come on inside the building and the clang, whistles, and chug of trains fill the air.

“I don’t know what it is about a train that’s so fascinating. It’s just two engines pulling cars behind; it’s not rocket science,’’ he says, as his eyes follow the train through the Maine landscape. “It’s just mesmerizing. I never tire of it.’’

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilary@hilarynangle.com.

If You Go

Maine Central Model Railroad

Route 187, Jonesport, Maine

207-497-2255

Open weekdays and whenever the Beals are home, but call first. Donations appreciated.